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Dr. Warren Throckmorton Christian Blog and Commentary

Brain plasticity and sexual orientation: Just train it?

This article about brain plasticity by Neil and Briar Whitehead posted on Anglican Mainstream caught my attention for several reasons. Some relate to classes I teach but for this post, I am interested in discussion surrounding the main reason the Whiteheads wrote about neuroscience: sexual reorientation.

I have a few questions.

Sex and gender researchers working in the belief that the brain and its functions were more less set, believed they might find evidence that homosexuality was hard-wired in the brain. They looked for signs that parts of the brain used in sexual activity were different in homosexuals and heterosexuals, that, for example parts of a homosexual male brain might be more like a woman's.

Almost without exception these numerous studies produced contradictory conclusions, and were not replicable. Although gay activism sought to use some of these findings to argue homosexuality was biologically ingrained, the most that can be said scientifically about them is that IF any differences exist they are probably the result of homosexual behavior rather than the cause of it. But it is clear now that no-one is stuck with the type of brain they were born with. Our assumption now should be, change is possible in many behaviors - sexual orientation not excluded - and extraordinary effort will produce extraordinary change.

I don't agree with this assessment of the state of research. We are on the beginning edge of research regarding sexual orientation differences in the brain and some of those differences seem striking. The work of Ivanka Savic's team in Sweden in particular has found some differences in gay and straight males in areas of the brain which may or may not be modified by experience. This study was just last year; there has not been time to publish replications. What research do the Whiteheads refer to here? This is an ongoing process which the Whiteheads describe as though the research program was in some mature state with many contradictory studies. I believe this is a extremely premature statement:

the most that can be said scientifically about them is that IF any differences exist they are probably the result of homosexual behavior rather than the cause of it.

What evidence has been demonstrated that sexual behavior can make these differences? I would like to know what studies have contradicted the Savic research and other studies which demonstrate brain differences, not just in symmetry but responses to sweat, serotonin and visual cues.

The Whiteheads then discuss brain training, noting that musicians and cab drivers have enlarged areas of the brain which are used for the specific tasks used frequently. They then leap to sex.

Monkey experiments have shown that artificial exercise of three digits on the hand increases the area of the brain asso­ciated with those fingers and decreases the other regions proportionately.(1) Violinists have a grossly enlarged area of the brain devoted to the fingers of their left hands. Those who learn a juggling routine for three months produce observable small changes in the small-scale structure of the brain, and these changes reverse when they stop.(3)

London taxi drivers have an enlarged area of the brain dealing with navigation. Is this innate? No. London bus drivers on set routes did not have this enlarged area, and on retirement of the taxi drivers, the brain area involved diminished.(6) Taxi-drivers were not born that way, but developed the brain area through huge amounts of navigation and learning, and only maintained it through constant use. We change our brains at the micro-level through the way we exercise, and anything we do repetitively espe­cially if associated with pleasure (e.g.) sexual activity. So, if brain scientists did find real differences between the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals, this was probably the result of different sexual behaviors, not the cause of them.

Do we have any research that demonstrates brain areas which enlarge based on frequent sex? Or straight sex or gay sex? I know of none and the Whiteheads offer none but this appears to be what they are suggesting. They also suggest that gay and straight sex might bulk up different brain areas thus reflecting activity rather than causing it. I know of no research which indicates different brain areas for sexual arousal. This study by Safron et al seems to provide evidence against such an idea.

Now here is where stand up comics should get some material.

Doidge sums up the extraordinary plasticity of the brain with the words, Use it or lose it. (Or, for those trying to drop an unwanted behavior, Don't use it, and you'll lose it.)

Even if part of the brain is strongly associated with a particular sexuality it should be possible to change it. Stopping a sexual activity and avoiding stimulation of that brain region, and plunging into some other intense brain activity for months would lead to a diminishing of the intensity of that sexual response. Months is about the timescale of first significant change. That can be true for learning a musical instrument too!

Doidge's conclusion about sexuality is that "Human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters." and "It's a use-it-or-lose-it brain, even where sexual desire and love are concerned." This would apply both to same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction.

If we train hard enough, an activity can become automatic and we pay it less conscious attention. That is particularly true of playing a musical instrument. Many of the basic techniques like chords, scales and arpeggios, are so deeply learnt that we don't think about the details and indeed can't if the music is fast. Details of driving, throwing a ball, reading, even tying shoelaces don't and often can't demand full attention. Anything we do often, we often end up doing automatically. In the same way it can seem that sexual orientation is so deeply embedded that it is innate. But, really, it is no more innate than any complex skill we have worked at to the point where we can do it without thinking e.g. seemingly automatic placement of left-hand fingers on guitar strings to produce a C chord.

Hey, what did you do this summer? Well, I learned to play the…

Changing sexual orientation is like learning to play a musical instrument? Should we have straight lessons? Community colleges could offer them in their continuing education departments. New slogan: "We Put the 'Adult' in Adult Development!"

Whitehead doesn't offer any of the research Doidge relies on for his starting new discovery about music instruments and sex. I wonder if there are any such studies. Whatever techniques Doidge is aware of, perhaps he ought to share them with ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, since the changes reported by their research do not seem to reflect this new found brain plasticity.

I suspect this passage (e.g., extraordinary effort will produce extraordinary change) in the Whitehead article is deeply insulting to many ex-gays and ex-ex-gays alike (New reparative therapy slogans: "Just train it!" "You've got to train it to gain it"). How many such persons have essentially followed this approach: don't use and you'll lose it. However, they didn't lose it.

The Whiteheads then suggest that male and female differences are largely due to experience after birth:

Male and female behavior - let alone ho­mosexuality and heterosexuality - is apparently not hardwired into the brain at birth. In fact, only one quar­ter of the brain is formed in a new-born child; the rest is developed through learning and experience (environ­mental input). We can be confident that whatever male/female differences exist in adult brains (and, no doubt, more will be found at some stage), they will be largely shaped by learning and behavior.

I think researchers in hormones might quarrel with this. I am aware of a recent study which found associations between fetal testosterone levels and sex-typed behavior at age 8.5. Testosterone has an organizing function in the brain prenatally but it is unclear whether it does at or before puberty. There is way too much unknown I believe, for dogmatism here. As with the rest of the claims, I would like to see direct research much more than studies about driving and music.

The Whiteheads conclude:

Anatomy is not destiny; change is always possible. The brain is plastic and is in a constant state of change. Indeed the question is rather: what change is not possible?

Well, at the end, an idea is all we have. Essentially, the Whiteheads suggest that because brain plasticity has been associated with driving, musical training and regaining use of motor function, it should be true of sexual orientation change as well. As noted, there are some problems with his facts and no direct evidence for the hyperbolic title of this article.


Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology at Grove City College (PA).