Sex Ed

Scientists Find More Evidence That Sex Might Be Good For Your Brain

January 4, 2017 by Justin Lehmiller

A growing body of research suggests that frequent sexual activity has brain benefits. For instance, a 2010 study on male rats discovered a link between sexual activity and neuron growth [1]. Specifically, rats that were allowed to have sex daily over a two-week period demonstrated more neuron growth than rats that were only allowed to have sex once during that time. Likewise, a 2013 study—which also focused on male rats—found that daily sexual activity was linked not only to generation of more new neurons, but also to enhanced cognitive functioning [2].

Clearly, sex seems to be good for the brains of rats—but what about humans? A recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that sex may very well be good our brains, too [3].

In this study, researchers surveyed 78 heterosexual women aged 18-29 about the frequency with which they have penile-vaginal intercourse. These women then completed a common memory task. Specifically, they were shown a series of faces and abstract words (like “chastity”) and were asked to memorize them. Afterwards, participants were given a list of faces and words, some of which were from the memorization task and others that were brand new. Participants then had to report whether each face/word they saw was old or new.

Researchers then looked to see whether frequency of intercourse was associated with memory while controlling for several other variables, including grade point average, menstrual cycle phase, oral contraceptive use, and relationship length. What they found was that women who had more frequent sexual intercourse evidenced better recall of abstract words; however, there was no link between intercourse frequency and recall of faces.

So why was intercourse frequency linked to memory for words but not faces? The authors believe it’s because memory for words is a function of a brain structure known as the hippocampus, which is the specific brain region where neuron growth was identified in the previously mentioned studies of male rats. Memory for faces, they argue, depends more on structures outside the hippocampus, which could explain these discrepant findings.

Interestingly, no link was found between memory for abstract words and frequency of masturbation. However, I would interpret this with caution because this was a relatively small study to start with and less than half of the participants provided information on their masturbatory frequency. In other words, these data aren’t quite sufficient to test for a masturbation link.

Lack of information on masturbation is certainly one limitation of this study; however, an even bigger one is that we cannot infer cause-and-effect because this study was correlational in nature. To have more confidence that sex does indeed improve human memory, we really need a randomized, controlled experiment (similar to the aforementioned rat studies) in which participants are instructed to have more or less sex. Alternatively, a longitudinal study in which people give daily reports of their sexual activities and complete a memory task at the end would also be useful.

As usual, we must await further research. In the meantime, however, the current evidence would seem to suggest that having sex just might be the smart thing to do.

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[1] Leuner, B., Glasper, E. R., & Gould, E. (2010). Sexual experience promotes adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus despite an initial elevation in stress hormones. PLoS One, 5(7), e11597.

[2] Glasper, E. R., & Gould, E. (2013). Sexual experience restores age‐related decline in adult neurogenesis and hippocampal function. Hippocampus, 23(4), 303-312.

[3] Maunder, L., Schoemaker, D., & Pruessner, J. C. (2016). Frequency of Penile–Vaginal Intercourse is Associated with Verbal Recognition Performance in Adult Women. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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