Sex on the brain

Thinking creates a physical response. It’s possible even to think your way to orgasm, which is why both men and women can orgasm while asleep in response to dream images. It’s our thoughts about sex that produce a feel-good physiological state, producing chemicals that not only ready us for sex but also have a healing effect on the body generally.

In recent decades, the scientific and medical communities have been investigating the effect of our thoughts on our chemistry. It has been shown that positive thoughts affect our biochemistry positively, leading to health benefits, while negative thoughts influence our biochemistry negatively, leading to illness.

Dr Norman Shealy, founder of the American Holistic Medical Association, is a neurosurgeon and a pioneer in the field of energy medicine and psycho-neuro-immunology (the effect of thoughts on health). Shealy advises that we think in images to create biochemical and physiological change.

This idea was tested in a ground-breaking experiment conducted in the 1970s. A number of weightlifters in training were divided into three groups. Over a 12-week period, Group 1 was instructed to engage in physical training only. Group 2 was instructed to do no physical training but instead to imagine themselves training. Group 3 was instructed to continue their physical training as well as imagine themselves training. The results showed that after 12 weeks, Group 2 equalled Group 1 in fitness and ability: that is, the imagined training had the same effect on the body as the physical training. Group 3 showed significantly greater improvement in fitness and ability than either Group 1 or Group 2.

Shealy subsequently conducted numerous other similar experiments, all of which demonstrated that imagining an outcome produces the outcome. One of these was conducted with a basketball team with a view to improving their freethrows. One group was given 10-minute imaging sessions twice a day. After two weeks, this group was consistently 80 per cent better at freethrows than the group that did not use imaging.

Another experiment was conducted with a college football team. This team had been at the bottom of the competition for a number of years. Shealy conducted six imaging sessions with them. In one season, they became co-champions of the competition. The once-sceptical coach was so impressed he went on to get his masters degree in neuropsychology and then went on to apply it in his sporting career with great success.


Chemistry of sexual fantasies

Accordingly, when we engage in a sexual fantasy, which is a vivid and potent thought, chemicals are produced in the body. These chemicals include endorphins, phenylethylamine, dopamine, norepinephrine, and dehydroepiandrosterone.

Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. They also produce a feeling of wellbeing. Morphine’s chemical structure is similar to that of to endorphins. Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a mood-enhancing stimulant and anti-depressant. It also facilitates the production of dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone, producing feelings of pleasure and bliss. It facilitates the production of norephinephrine. Norepinephrine is also known as noradrenaline. As the name suggests, it produces "positive stress", or excitement. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an anti-ageing, energising, anti-stress hormone. Every known illness, physical and psychological, is believed to be associated with insufficient levels of DHEA.

It’s not surprising, then, that sexual fantasies can be used to reduce pain and promote healing. In a study led by Dr Peter Staats, director of the division of pain medicine at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA, it was shown that sexual fantasies have a demonstrative effect on reducing pain. "The biology underlying this theory related to the idea that emotions are likely processed… [in the] region of the brain also closely involved in processing pain responses," says Staats.

Forty participants were asked to submerge their hands in ice-cold water and their biological responses, including level of pain, were measured. The participants were then divided into four groups: Group A was called the Preferred Sexual Fantasy group; Group B was called the Non-preferred Sexual Fantasy group; Group C was called the Neutral Fantasy group; and Group D was called the No Fantasy control group.

Group A was asked to imagine a preferred sexual fantasy with a preferred partner. Group B was asked to imagine a sexual fantasy that would not be their preferred fantasy but would nevertheless not be unpleasant to them. Group C was asked to imagine neutral scenes, such as people walking. Group D was given no instructions. The groups were asked once more to place their hands in ice-cold water and their responses measured.

The results indicated that the sexual fantasy groups experienced a significant reduction in pain (p<\#60>01). The Preferred Sexual Fantasy group experienced a greater reduction in pain than the Non-Preferred Sexual Fantasy group, although both sexual fantasy groups experienced greater pain reduction than the other two groups. The results also showed that sexual fantasies improved mood and reduced worry and tension. "What this study points out is the power of emotion in treating patients," says Staats.

Other research has been conducted by Wendy Maltz, a renowned authority on sexuality in the United States. In her book Private Thoughts (New World Library, 2001), she documents a case of a woman who used sexual fantasies to aid her recovery from a car accident. Georgine was seriously injured in a car accident that left her paralysed from the waist down. During her recovery, she would engage in a variety of explicit sexual fantasies. The effect was so powerful that she could literally feel the heat of the sexual energy coursing through her paralysed body. Although her fantasies could not cure her paralysis, they did help to keep her body as alive and stimulated as possible. Sexual fantasies helped Georgine experience her paralysed body, and her sexuality, in a new and vibrant way.

Other studies have shown that a healthy sexual fantasy life can improve the immune system, ease migraine headaches, reduce the risk of heart disease, relieve depression and reduce stress.

Common fantasies

Many people feel guilty about their sexual fantasies, and wonder, "Am I normal?" The answer is usually yes. A range of sexual fantasies are considered healthy and normal by most therapists. "Many people worry about their fantasies being ‘kinky’, but such fantasies are common. Unusual fantasies can help maintain arousal and are harmless if there is no compulsion to actually experience an act that would be emotionally or physically harmful to oneself or to others," says Dr Robert Birch, sexologist and adult sexuality educator.

Here are some common fantasies for both men and women:

Fantasising about your partner

You may be surprised, and pleased, to know that research indicates the number one fantasy for both men and women is fantasising about their partner — including things they’ve done with their partner and things they’d like to do with their partner.

Fantasising about someone other than your partner

This fantasy is considered fine as long as it doesn’t detract from your desire for your partner and you don’t become obsessed with the person you are fantasising about.

Fantasising about sex with more than one person at a time

This is about complete indulgence and satisfaction. If sex with one person is great, sex with more is surely fantastic, at least in fantasyland.

Having sexual power over another

Within limits, this fantasy is fine. It’s about taking control of your sex life and being able to express your desires, ask for them directly, even demand them — getting what you want and need.

Being sexually irresistible/exhibitionism

This is about being sexually desirable, the epitome of sexuality. An example is putting on a seductive or raunchy strip show for your partner, or an appreciative audience! You’re so gorgeous, everybody wants you!

Being "forced" into sex

Again, within limits, this fantasy is healthy. It’s about giving up control and having permission to relinquish yourself completely to giving or receiving pleasure. Most people fantasise about being forced by someone they love and trust, or at least someone who means them no real harm — there is no danger, and no one is really hurt.


Healthy fantasies and unhealthy fantasies

There is a difference between healthy sexual fantasies and unhealthy sexual fantasies. As a guide, healthy fantasies are those that increase your desire for intimacy with your partner. If you don’t have a partner, the fantasy should boost your confidence and self-esteem, as well as satisfy you sexually. It is healthy to entertain sexual thoughts, even those that you would never want to act out in reality.

On the other hand, unhealthy sexual fantasies often leave you feeling anxious, angry or ashamed. These fantasies are usually formed in your developing years as the result of negative beliefs you have taken on about sex and your own sexuality.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable about your fantasies, you need to make sure your fantasies really are, in fact, unhealthy, and that it’s not a case of an over-developed guilt complex kicking in. Maltz recommends you ask yourself the following questions to determine whether or not your fantasies are good for you:

  • Does the fantasy lead to risky or dangerous behaviour?
  • Does the fantasy feel out of control or compulsive?
  • Is the content of the fantasy disturbing or repulsive?
  • Does the fantasy lower my self-esteem or block self-acceptance?
  • Does the fantasy distance me from my real-life partner?
  • Does the fantasy harm my intimate partner or anyone else?
  • Does the fantasy cause sexual problems?

If your sexual fantasies are disturbing you instead of liberating you, rest assured you can create new healthy ones and at the same time heal the negative beliefs at the source of the unhealthy fantasies. In her book In the Garden of Desire: Understanding the Intimate World of Women’s Fantasies (Bantam, 1998), Maltz explains how to do this. She says there are four broad stages to healing: going deeper to find the meaning, reducing the need for the fantasy, disrupting the function of the unwanted fantasy and transforming the fantasy into a more positive experience. For more information on this process you can read her book, or you can consult a therapist to help you work through the stages. In transforming unhealthy fantasies into healthy ones, you will open up a whole new dimension to health, happiness and healing.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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