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Love is All the Same :: Neurologically, Gay and Straight Don’t Matter

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jan 11, 2011
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There is some evidence that gays and straights are neurologically different from one another, with brain structure accounting for why a small, but consistent, fraction of human beings find themselves primarily or exclusively attracted to members of their own gender. But in matters of the heart, new research suggests, the brain activity is the same whether a person is in love with a woman or a man--suggesting that the emotions are exactly the same as well.

The paper, titled The Brain Reaction to Viewing Faces of Opposite- and Same-Sex Romantic Partners, was published Dec. 31, 2010, at PLos One. Two University College London researchers, Dr. Semir Zeki and Dr. John Romaya, designed and carried out medical scanning of a dozen individuals of each gender. Half of each group was straight, and half were gay. Ethnically, the participants were a mix; in age, they ranged from 19 to 47.

"Differences between homosexual and heterosexual brains have been described," both in terms of brain structure and neurological response patterns when subjects become sexually aroused, the paper noted. "But such differential activations as have been described have been in response to sexually arousing stimuli," the paper added, "not in response to the sentiment of love.

"Given the profound similarity in the sentiment of love expressed in the opposite- or same-sex contexts, we hypothesized that we would see no differences when females or males, or heterosexual or homosexual subjects, viewed the face of their loved partners," the researchers wrote.

The experiment’s results confirmed their hypothesis, noted an article on the experiment that appeared Jan. 11 at MediLexicon. When the test subjects scrutinized photos of their sexual partners, the medical imaging showed virtually indistinguishable response patterns in their brains. This included activation of pleasure centers, and de-activation of areas of the neo-cortex. All of the research participants said that they were passionately in love with their significant others; the relationships varied in length from several months to more than two decades.

The sexual orientation of the research participants had no bearing on the results. "The pattern of activation and de-activation was very similar in the brains of males and females, and heterosexuals and homosexuals," wrote the paper’s authors. "We could therefore detect no difference in activation patterns between these groups."

When the same research participants looked at photos of friends they were not in love with, no such changes occurred in brain activity. The people in the photos were of the same gender as each participant’s significant other.

The fact that viewing photos led the participants’ pleasure centers to become active, while the portions of the brain responsible for higher-level mental processes such as judgment became less active, invited commentary on the nature of love. "Passionate romantic love, commonly triggered by a visual input, is an all-consuming and disorienting state that pervades almost every aspect of a lover’s life," the paper stated. "Yet human brain imaging studies show that the neural correlates of viewing the face of a loved person are limited to only a few, though richly connected, brain regions."

Even as science has showed differences in brain structure between gays and straights--thus supporting gays’ claims that they do not "choose" their sexual orientation and that being gay is natural to them--research has also suggested that homophobia may be partly a matter of how people are hardwired--or how prejudices can become integrated into the brain’s circuitry.

According to a Feb. 6, 2010, Psychology Today article, a study reveals that when heterosexuals--male or female--read accounts of anal sex between men, they respond with disgust. Moreover, their disapproval is more marked toward the man on the bottom--the receptive partner--than toward the man on the top, or the active partner.

But when given accounts of anal sex between mixed-gender partners, the response is different--for men, at least; whereas the same percentage of women remain disgusted regardless of the genders of the participants, disgust among men falls drastically.

"Together, these studies suggest that disgust is increased by gay male anal sex, and especially for the male in the penetrated role," wrote researcher Nathan Heflick. "A wide range of research shows that disgust triggers an avoidance response."

Heflick went on to posit that the (assumed) "primary sex act" between gay men might trigger a wish among heterosexuals to reject gays due to "feelings of ickiness," or disgust.

But it’s an open question as to how much of that disgust may be inborn to human beings, and now much may be ingrained by societal lessons. In a sense, homophobia may turn out to be largely a kind of "bad habit" that is instilled into some people’s neural circuitry in the same way other habits are: through simple, repeated instances of reward and punishment.

Pleasure, Pain, and Habitual Response

A Jan. 4 Associated Press article on the difficulty of sticking to New Years’ resolutions reported that the key to creating new patterns of behavior is to move gradually away from old patterns. One major component in the formation of habits, good or bad, is the activation of the brain’s pleasure center, which rewards a person with a dose of naturally produced endorphins.

"Just how that bit of happiness turns into a habit involves a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine," the AP article said. "It conditions the brain to want that reward again and again--reinforcing the connection each time--especially when it gets the right cue from your environment."

One intriguing result of young people being taught to reject homosexuality is that gays subjected to such early life conditioning do not "convert" to heterosexuality; their innate sexuality still asserts itself, leading to a struggle to make sense of the conflicts between belief and deep-seated, spontaneous feelings.

One young man who has written about his experience in a program designed to "cure" gays claims that life in programs such as the one he experienced is tightly regimented, and participants are advised that they have surrendered their rights to the clerics in charge.

In writing about his experience growing up gay and then being remanded to the care of a program called Teen Challenge, James Voss recounted--in a Jan. 11 article posted at Alternet--how he sought to counter his innate homosexuality. Voss came from a religious background that condemned gays; he attended a private religious school, North Central University. But his time in the Pentecostal school did not eradicate his feelings of same-sex romantic attraction; eventually, wrote Voss, "I decided that I needed to love myself enough, and admit that I was gay and leave NCU."

Without the acceptance of his family or faith, Voss soon drifted into trouble. After being arrested for drunk driving, he was sent into an "ex-gay" program as part of his probation. But, Voss wrote, he soon discovered that the program used techniques not unlike those employed by cults to "program" their members.

"Think of the program as a sanctification quick stop to redeem one in the eyes of the Assembly of God Church," wrote Voss. "I was told that once I spoke in tongues that god would work in my life and remove the gay feelings." That never happened.

The risks posed to GLBT people of all ages by religious, legal, and social stigma are extreme in terms of mental health: a report published on Jan. 5 shows that GLBTs who live in states where their rights are denied or subject to popular vote suffer elevated instances of anxiety and depression, along with substance abuse problems that stem from those conditions. But for GLBT youth, the risks go even further: gay teens and young adults are far more likely than their straight counterparts to engage in suicidal behavior.

The report, Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations notes that according to multiple surveys, about 3% of students in America’s school system are GLBT. The report cites earlier research that demonstrates that GLBT youth are at increased risk of suicide compared with heterosexual youth, and also notes the discovery that lower suicide rates prevail even among youths who engage in same-gender sexual contact, but nonetheless describe themselves as straight.

While acknowledging the higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among LGBTs, "the panel found that these problems, by themselves, do not account for the higher rates of suicide attempts that have been reported by LGBT people," the press release noted. "Thus, the consensus report identified stigma and discrimination as playing a key role especially acts such as rejection or abuse by family members or peers, bullying and harassment, denunciation from religious communities and individual discrimination.

"The report also highlighted evidence that discriminatory laws and public policies have a profound negative impact on the mental health of gay adults." The report called for efforts at suicide prevention to take those factors into account. The report also noted that there is a profoundly harmful effect on GLBT youth whose families reject them.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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