The Social Brain

Our identities do not come in a vacuum; we identify ourselves largely by our background, culture, and upbringing.

These are all aspects of our social nature as humans: humans are social animals, and this means that other people are an essential part of our healthy functioning and happiness. This is no different for our brains.

Sex has been shown to improve cognitive functioning as well as overall life satisfaction and happiness (no surprise on this one). But it’s a blurry assertion that the pure mechanical act of sex itself improves brain health—it is likely instead tied to the emotional, social bonding, and supportive aspects that often go hand-in-hand with sex. In any case, deny yourself of this natural and primal human urge to your detriment.

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The health of your brain and mind is, as we’ve seen, intimately bound up with the health of your body. But that’s not all. Your brain is a marvelous organ with the sole purpose of making sense of the world around you—and that world includes other people. No (wo)man is an island, as they say, and a corollary is that no (wo)man’s mental health is completely isolated from the quality of his or her interactions with others.

Relationships are at the foundation of good mental health, with many psychologists now understanding that loneliness, depression and heartbreak can be just as debilitating as more “serious” diseases like diabetes or hypertension. Humans are social animals, and so much of our identity, our sense of fulfillment, our joy and our purpose in life comes directly from our connection with others. Whether that’s family, friends or the community at large, mental and cognitive health is about not just solid neural connections in the brain, but social, familial and romantic connections with others. You might even argue that it’s an evolutionary quirk that sex, socialization, and being around others helped us be healthier and increase our chances of survival.

Getting It On

In fact, for a specific example, there are now several different pieces of research that show a robust connection between regular sex and better cognitive health. A 2010 study showed that sexual activity was linked with neurogenesis (that is, brain growth) in male rats, and a 2013 study found that daily sexual activity also improved overall cognitive function in rats.

You might suppose that rats are just primal beasts that function on only a limited set of drives, but in reality, humans are not so different.

So what about studies involving humans? A more recent 2016 study of more than 7000 older adults showed they performed much better on cognitive tests when they had engaged in any kind of sex within the previous year than their counterparts who had not. Similar studies have also shown that sexual activity has a definite relationship with memory, improving long- term memory recall.

How this finding relates to younger people or those without memory impairment is up for debate. And, crucially, memory performance still declined in older people, whether they had sex or not, suggesting that sex doesn’t prevent memory loss with age. However, the research tells us that our baseline memory capacity may be improved by having a more active sex life, which means cognitive decline in later years may seem less pronounced.

While research like this is certainly interesting, it probably paints a very two- dimensional picture of a much more complicated phenomenon. These studies controlled for some factors, and found that more emotionally fulfilling sexual experiences tended to yield a greater cognitive benefit. This suggests it’s not the physical event of sex alone that is good for brain health, but the broader meaning such encounters have for the people involved.

It’s obvious that those who are in healthy, loving, mutually fulfilling relationships will derive more from sex, and in turn enjoy more of the cognitive benefits. We’ll get to that soon.

Again, it pays to remember that correlation is not causation, and we still don’t understand if there is perhaps a third variable that independently causes both better cognitive health and more regular sex. We also don’t know the frequency of sex that would be ideal for peak brain health, as it’s likely to be different for different people. What we do know, however, is that feeling loved by a supportive partner can act as a powerful protectant against both physical and mental disorders of all kinds.

It’s one thing to practice better sleep hygiene or make sure you’re getting enough exercise, but this aspect of personal development is perhaps a little more nuanced. It’s probably a tad more complicated than “have more sex,” but it’s also not an exaggeration to say that your sex life is a vital part of your general well- being, and deserves your consideration and care—if it’s not already up to scratch, that is. If you have a partner, focus on increasing not merely the frequency of sex but the quality. Whatever the physical or cognitive benefits of sex are, a deeply meaningful, loving, satisfying encounter is likely better for you than getting the job done simply in the vague hope that it’s good for you! Again we find that it’s impossible to avoid the holistic nature of human health. If you’re having difficulties in your relationship, therapy, better communication or taking the time to enjoy one another again can have immense benefits. This can directly improve your sex life, strengthening the relationship and boosting your overall sense of belonging and connection in the world. Over and above the endorphin rush and moderate cardio an occasional romp may give you, you’re also giving yourself the chance to connect in the most profound of ways with another human being, and perhaps get a little confidence boost too.

There are no studies to corroborate this yet, but the romantic in all of us would like to believe that those ecstatic moments shared between lovers are not just recreational, but deeply enriching to us on many levels.

In the same way you can lose yourself in dance or become engrossed in nature or a meditative practice, you can melt into the ego-less moment of bliss that is orgasm and forget about your troubles, your limitations, your fears and doubts. In the process, you strengthen your connection with a loved one and remember that life is, at a fundamental level, meant to be relished and enjoyed, to be shared and experienced with another. What could be more energizing and healthful than that? Again, though, as far as brain-boosting advice goes, this one is a little tricky. If you’re in a relationship already, the research is clear: do your best to nurture a happy, regular sex life. If not, however, that doesn’t mean that you can’t reap the cognitive benefits some other way. While sex is marvelous, perhaps it’s the emotional bond that is most valuable—a bond that can be found with friends, family or colleagues.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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