The LUST System: The Evolution of Love from Lust?

Sex on the Mind: Is Lust an Emotion?

Is horny an emotion?

I was taught, somewhere in my now ancient adventures through the university system, that lust is a basic physiological drive like hunger and thirst. Lust is needed for the species to survive, the thinking went, it’s physical need!

But lust is a most peculiar need. Unlike our other basic needs, our lustful drives aren’t linked to our survival as individuals. And unlike hunger and thirst, the lust drive diminishes or disappears when we feel threatened or experiencing other negative emotions. Many people have persistently weak or absent sexual drives, whereas no one lacks hunger.

For these reasons, Dr Jaak Panksepp begs to disagree with the conventional wisdom about lust. He labels lust a primary process emotion. He conceptualises the LUST system as a basic brain system which is shared between humans and other mammals (LUST is capitalised to differentiate the brain system from the common usage of lust). Similar areas in the brains of rats, sheep and humans are active during moments of sexual arousal.

Where are the LUST centres and what do they do?

Male Rats are from Mars, Female Rats are from Venus

More than the other systems in this series, the LUST system(s) is quite different between males and females. Panksepp notes that male and female brains have “some amusingly painful distinguishing characteristics”.

In rats and in humans, the male mating system is highly linked with the hormone testosterone. Testosterone activates neurons in the medial regions of the anterior hypothalamus. Damage to these lust-inducing regions has a similar impact to castration or artificially reducing testosterone: male sex drive becomes significantly weaker.

The human female LUST system is also influenced by testosterone, but to a much smaller degree. Sexual urges and receptivity of females of most species is strongly influenced by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which are released at different times over the oestrus cycle.

Panksepp notes that although the brains of each sex carry the networks of the opposite sex’s brain “these circuits are not of equal strength”. As influential psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, might say – there’s a bit of man in every woman and woman in every man.

Where is the Love?

How does sexuality relate to love?

In most human societies, sexual activity most commonly occurs within mutually attached pair bonds: spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, lovers.

Oxytocin is a key chemical in female arousal and is also linked, in various ways, to sexual activity in men. Although Pankseep rejects the idea of oxytocin as being a “love hormone”, he does view it as the key to social confidence. Social confidence is strongly related to the feelings of secure attachment.

Oxytocin’s role in both strengthening sexual feelings and facilitating attachment bonds between pairs, make the hormone a likely link between sexual and loving feelings.

If it is indeed that oxytocin link love and lust, perhaps its “love hormone” reputation is well deserved after all.

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