Think about… well, anything and everything you can. Imagine something, feel it, communicate it - project, love, envy, pity, desire. It all comes from the sexiest organ in our body, the wonderful, beautiful brain.
Dr Christian Elger, the Director of the Department of Epileptology at the University of Bonn, began a trip to the deepest corners of the mind by discussing the hidden powers of priming. Priming are subliminal manipulations that have real influences on decision-making, emotional output and even how satisfied we become when we for instance buy things online. In (very) short; little things with big, big impact.
Elger examplified the concept as “an input of upstream words that can have meaning.” Like when people move relatively slower after they are asked to deliver a message containing words like “old”, “grey” and “ill”.
Priming, he said, is a method to explore the very boundaries of how we cognitively react to subliminal inputs, “a hugely underestimated phenomenon with very real and wide-ranging consequences.”
Another great way to use your brain is to think about sex. Or even better, to think about how we think about sex.
To do this, the hugely entertaining and well-spoken Annelise Schwenkhagen of the Center for Gynaecologic Endocrinology and Reproductive Medicine (phew!), offered a little insight into how knowledge about women sexuality has grown and opened brand new doors.
While “sexual medicine was once entirely male”, today we focus a lot more on “how things work”, she said. A key question in this investigation is to figure out how “desire” works in the human mind. Does spontaneous sexual desire exist in women? And should we use prescription drugs to help women who have lost their drive without being able to explain why?
The answer once again lies in the workings of the brain, which Schwenkwagen showed works remarkably like… a car. “If you want to drive a car, you need to release the break and accelerate - or it won’t work!”
There were surely valuable lessons to be learned from both men and women in the audience. Women are not in control, Schwenkhagen said, “hormones and biology are. If you are a woman, you are ultimately at the mercy of your hormones.”
The most relieving message, however, was perhaps that drugs are not necessarily the answer. As we learn more about the connection between mind and sex, it shows that in the end, “it’s not about drugs, it’s about communication!”
To wrap things up, Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences showed how advances in social neuroscience have proven that there might be hope for human kind after all.
Social neuroscience is occupied with understanding how we can possibly train our minds to develop social features like empathy and compassion.
It turns out, for example, that men are more likely to lack empathy when faced with the misery or pain of people they don’t agree with or like - like rivaling football fans(!). In other words, when speaking in strictly neurological terms, schadenfreude is very real.
But there is hope. “We are confident that adults can train their brains to develop these features,” Singer said. The outcome could have wide-ranging results and help further ideas about understanding, stress and much, much more.
The mind works in various and mysterious ways, and we already know a lot. But it also turns out that we - literally - still have a lot to think about.