The Erogenous Zones of The Brain

By Neuroskeptic | September 7, 2013 4:40 am

A paper just published in the journal Cortex discusses the nature of human erogenous zones: Reports of intimate touch

The results cast doubt on a number of popular theories about this topic – including one from a leading neuroscientist.

Oliver Turnbull and colleagues of Bangor University in the UK had 793 volunteers anonymously complete an online questionnaire. The participants were recruited from the UK and South Africa; they were mostly students. Volunteers rated each of 41 body parts on a scale of 1-10 for “ability to facilitate sexual arousal”.

It turned out that, across genders, sexual orientations, and nationalities, everyone agreed that the genitals were top, followed by mouth/lips, with nipples, nape of neck and thighs also highly placed. The correlation coefficients for average ratings across pairs of groups were extremely high at 0.9 or above: people agreed with each other.

Agreement on the most unerogenous zones was also strong: these included the elbow, shin, knee-caps, nose, and forehead. Makes sense.

The level of agreement counts against the popular belief that men and women have substantially different erogenous zones. Though women did score a few areas – namely the highly ranked non-genital ones – more highly out of 10 than men.

The authors also say that their finding disproves the theory that feet are erogenous zones because the brain area responsible for feet sensation overlaps with the area representing genitals.

The ‘hot feet’, hypothesis, proposed by neurologist and hypothesis-proposing machine V. S. Ramachandran (see previous posts) in “Phantoms in the Brain”, was inspired by the fact that feet lie adjacent to the genitals in the ‘map’ of the body found in the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) which is where touch sensation is first processed in the brain.

You can see this on the famous sensory homunculus:


It was a lovely idea, but feet and the toes are actually among the least erotic areas. Oops. Turnbull et al also argue that electrical stimulation of S1 doesn’t cause erotic sensations – just a neutral tingling sensation. Even if you stimulate the area subserving genitalia.

So activity “spillover” is unlikely to explain erogenous feet, even in any people who do experience the phenomenon.

ResearchBlogging.orgTurnbull OH, Lovett VE, Chaldecott J, & Lucas MD (2013). Reports of intimate touch: Erogenous zones and somatosensory cortical organization. Cortex PMID: 23993282

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bad neuroscience, papers, select, Top Posts
  • John

    While I hadn’t seen the feet overlap hypothesis contested before, and they soundly trounce it, I remember the idea that erogenous zones for men and women studied in a similar manner before. Several years ago there were even images made up almost like a sensory homunculus for where people liked to be touched and men and women were highly similar in some respects that, if memory serves, match the current data. There was a web page with pictures of a man and woman with rollovers where sizes of parts changed relative to how much touch was preferred in that area. I’ve looked for them online but can’t seem to find them.

    But there is a problem with claiming high similarity here across the sexes that the authors dismiss unceremoniously in the opening paragraph of the discussion as women being generally sensitive to touch. The authors then go on to comment on the similarity in distribution. I don’t get that from the data at all. How much divergence were they expecting? Perhaps the authors had this fanciful notion that the media portrays the man as just a penis and the woman as an all over erogenous zone. I certainly wouldn’t have expected data like that.

    While there are very high correlations between men and women there really are some critical differences. If you look at the magnitudes in Table 1 you can see that men rate 2 parts, above 7 while women rate 6 parts above 7. I know there may be scaling issues and that it’s post hoc to pick the 7 cut off. But if what you expected was not substantially different orders in the most effective areas but different values placed on the items in the orders then the original hypothesis is upheld.

    The authors do admit that women have higher erotic intensity for some body parts but claim this has been exaggerated in popular media. Given that women have 4 non-genital body parts rated above a man’s scrotum I find that a hard statement to reconcile in the data.

    I think the scaling issue (which seems to be how they want to dismiss it) is pretty moot since the top part is nearly identical and all of the ones from about item 30 on are as well. If women were just generally more sensitive or tended to rate higher then all, or nearly all, items need to be higher. It’s just this big gap where, once you’re outside the genitals women have several areas rated quite high and men do not. Men rate scrotum 3rd and no item after that is over 6 while women rate nape of neck, breast, and nipples, all over 7. They also rate thigh and back of neck over 6.

    Therefore, I believe that while the correlations show high similarity, the idea that women show greater variety in what they find highly arousing is supported by this data, not defeated.

  • Niklas Långström

    The reported overall prevalence of feet as erotic areas was low in this self-selected NORMATIVE (?) sample of students. However, this study does not explain the clinical observation that the most common NON-NORMATIVE sexual interest or paraphilia is fetishism or sexual arousal from objects or (sexually) uncommon body parts. Within the many different variants of fetishism, foot fetishism is quite often reported.
    I am not convinced that Ramachandrans hypothesis has been entirely refuted.

  • A Gallaher

    It is not surprising that another of Ramachandran’s speculations has collapsed. He has provided more fantastic speculations than one can keep track of. For example, he has speculated that one of the underlying causes of autism is olfactory bulb dysgenesis. Translated into ordinary language this means that the olfactory bulb region of the brain, which processes smells, is either missing, or atrophied. (This theory was put forward in Medical Hypotheses. ) More recently Ramachandran has speculated that there are men in Lamaze classes who suffer the symptoms of false pregnancy (pseudocyesis) because their mirror neuron systems are over producing empathy hormones. (Really!). Ramachandran hearkens back to metaphysical scientists such as Galvani who believed that living creatures were the source of bio-electricity. He could make the legs of dead frogs dance and that seemed like science to many people in the 18th Century.

  • Bernard Carroll

    Then there is this… FWIW.

    Am J Psychiatry. 2013 Jun 1;170(6):616-23. doi:

    Decreased cortical representation of genital somatosensory field after
    childhood sexual abuse.

    Heim CM, Mayberg HS, Mletzko T, Nemeroff CB, Pruessner JC.

    Exposure to childhood sexual
    abuse was specifically associated with pronounced cortical thinning in the
    genital representation field of the primary somatosensory cortex. In contrast,
    emotional abuse was associated with cortical thinning in regions relevant to
    self-awareness and self-evaluation.

    PMID: 23732967

  • Neurocritic

    Rama’s S1 hypothesis was debunked long ago in fMRI studies (by Kell et al. 2005 for males and Michels et al. 2009 for females), and even earlier in cortical stimulation studies by Allison et al. 1996. Genitals are not represented adjacent to the feet on the medial wall.

    John – not sure if this is what you were looking for, but here’s the “proportional’ male homunculus image:

    • Neuroskeptic

      Good point(s).

    • John

      Thanks for looking but not the images I remember seeing. They were actually just normal looking images until you rolled over an area then it changed in size. Also, I believe it was relative across sex.

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  • beejeez

    Mouth/lips, nipples, nape of neck and thighs all placed ahead of buttocks? That can’t be right.

  • Brownboy

    While I’m no expert, I respectfully disagree with one aspect of this study. In my experience feet, specifically women’s feet, can be quite erogenous. I’m not a foot fetishist, but I was taught by a lovely woman in my younger years that to neglect a woman’s feet is to neglect a vital part of her sexuality. And, through the years, I learned that she was right far more than she was wrong.
    I think studies like these that are based solely on an on-line questionnaire can be flawed. For instance, almost all the women I’ve known whose feet turned out to be erogenous had never had a lover pay attention to their feet before. Also, many were initially put off by the whole idea or felt quite self conscious about smell, etc. But, when introduced slowly and by giving assurances, nearly all ended up finding great pleasure having their feet attended to.
    This is not unlike my experience that most women find guys’ oral love making skills to be quite lacking. Of course, in this questionnaire, women say that genitals are a vital erogenous zone, but most women I’ve known have had quite unsatisfying experiences when being on the receiving end of oral sex. I’m no expert, but, like with a woman’s feet, paying attention, giving assurances regarding smell, taste, etc., and taking time to gently explore a woman’s genitals can provide great results. Even going to a book for some tips doesn’t hurt. It’s not rocket science.
    Drawing conclusions simply based on a questionnaire can be flawed because it assumes that everyone has fully explored their sexuality when quite the opposite is true.

  • Oliver Samuels

    Ramachandran attempted to explain why the feet of others are a point of sexual interest for a tiny subset of the population. That the vast majority of the population does not share that interest is hardly news. Even were this not the case, I’m not sure if what people consider to be the erogenous zones of their own bodies has anything whatsoever to do with the paraphilia.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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