How lust affects the brain

ALONG with a team of psychologists and philosophers (with the psychologist Kurt Gray as the lead author), I published a study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that looked at the effect of viewing naked bodies. We went hard-core, drawing our images from a book by the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders called “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits.” This collection was perfect for our purposes, as it had two side-by-side photographs of each attractive individual, with the same lighting, posture and expression — but in one photograph the person was fully dressed, in the other naked.

We showed the pictures to our subjects and asked questions about these individuals — about the extent to which they were seen as purposeful agents, with the capacity for self-control, moral action and planning, and about the extent to which they were seen as experiencing beings, capable of feeling pain, pleasure, fear, rage, joy and desire. Consistent with the objectification view, naked people were thought of as having less agency. But contrary to this view, they were also thought of as being enhanced experiencers, capable of stronger feelings and greater emotional responses.

Relatedly, in another study of ours, in which participants gave people electric shocks, we found that the participants gave milder shocks to people who were partially undressed versus fully dressed, presumably because the flash of skin makes us more sensitive to others as experiencing beings.