Neuroscientists take aim at Naomi Wolf's theory of the "conscious vagina"

Well, if Naomi Wolf wanted to draw attention to herself through the publication of her new book, Vagina: A New Biography, she has certainly succeeded — though it may not be the kind of attention she was hoping for. A number of commentators have taken exception to her unfortunate foray into neuroscience, particularly her claim that "a woman's brain and vagina are best understood as one system." And indeed, the howls of outrage, scorn, and ridicule have begun.

First off is The Neurocritic, a popular brain blogger who describes Wolf's new book as "an uneasy balance of sex confessional, self-help, pop neuroscience, and new age goddess yoni worship." He writes:

Neuroscientists take aim at Naomi Wolf's theory of the "conscious vagina"

This unlikely combination of pseudoscientific and mystical elements provides a little something for everyone to hate. Among neuroscientists, howlers such as "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain", oxytocin "is women's emotional superpower" and the vagina is "not only coextensive with the female brain but also is part of the female soul" have been making the rounds of social media.

I almost feel sorry for Ms. Wolf because it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Dopamine is not a feminist neurotransmitter, unless snails and insects have been secretly reading Betty Friedan and listening to Bikini Kill.

And to Wolf's claim that, "Those of us who are not scientists often forget that brain chemicals are vehicles for very profound human truths," the Neurocritic had this to say:

I thought brain chemicals were vehicles that bind to receptors and trigger signal transduction molecules. Even the most reductionistic neuroscientists among us realize we are worlds away from understanding how oxytocin might explain morality (Paul Zak notwithstanding).

Then there's The Neuroskeptic (sensing a trend, here), a British neuroscientist who says that Wolf's "Vagina" is full of bad science about the brain. In her book, Wolf writes that, "Sexually threatening stress releases cortisol into the bloodstream, which has been connected to abdominal fat in women, with its attendant risks of diabetes and cardiac problems; it also raises the likelihood of heart disease and stroke." She continues:

This [stress-induced cortisol release] in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused – and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you.

Writing in New Statesman, the Neuroskeptic replies:

Stress and cortisol have repeatedly been shown to increase dopamine release. In some studies. Other studies show they decrease it. It's complicated, in other words.

Dopamine is complicated, and really rather fascinating if you're into that kind of thing. It acts on at least five different types of receptor, and what it does depends on the receptor type; there are four major dopamine "pathways" in the brain, one of which (the mesocortical pathway) is thought to inhibit another (the mesolimbic pathway) – and plenty of subdivisions beyond that.

Cortisol is, as we've seen, complicated too. Don't get me started on surface vs nuclear receptors, mineralocorticoids vs. glucocorticoids, and the hypothalamopituitary axis. Unless you're a neuroscientist, you don't want to know. It's not relevant. Neither is Wolf's simplified version of it.

Lastly we have The Guardian's Suzanne Moore who complains that Wolf's book is basically a memoir in which she struggles to rehash a "heroic truth" that many others have already told us about. After calling her an "infinitely privileged and sheltered" feminist, Moore writes:

Hence feminism becomes simply a highly mediated form of narcissism devoid of any actual brain/politics connection. What we have here is Californication, with a little trot through some basic women's studies linking female creativity with sexual awakening. Think Georgia O'Keeffe with bit of Anaïs Nin thrown in. Which is nice.

It gets dodgy when she drags in some neuroscience as evidence and appears more clueless than someone who has failed her chemistry GCSE but has two TED talks on her iPhone. She boldly goes into the clitoral v vaginal orgasm argument saying we can have it all. Call me repressed, but in between work and kids and watching this recession hit the poorest women hardest, for some time now this argument has not been uppermost in my mind. Or should I say vagina?

Still, she bangs on about dopamine and oxytocin, "the cuddle chemical", choosing studies which back up her theory that women need a lot of stroking and eye-gazing for great sex. It's all very wholesome. She follows the porn-as-desensitisation/addiction model, which is also questionable. She even goes a bit anti-dildo at one point, but who am I to say? Each to their own is my view …

Yet again we see neuroscience in the hands of the layperson being fused to very determinist ends. Thus neural pathways are formed, chemicals just do one thing, hormones rule. Actual scientists don't think so simplistically, however many rats they have tickled to orgasm.

Be sure to do yourself the favor of reading all these articles in full, as they are all very much worth it — especially Moore's piece and her rather unforgettable outro.

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