“How do you feel?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. Interested, but a bit tense maybe,” said Brad, a thin man with short dark hair, sitting upright in a chair in Janet’s office. Her test subject.
Jotting down the last bit of demographic data, she put down her pen and studied him. The screening was complete and the testing begun. He sat quietly, waiting. Once his nervousness faded to near-boredom, she spoke.
“Just close your eyes, and relax. Let go.”
“Visualize the activation of a number of areas of your brain but don’t try to influence them. Observe, don’t control. Understand?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure I can do it. We just met. I’m not entirely comfortable.”
“I understand, but this test requires a neutral object instead of a voice you have associations with, which could skew results. It’s important that you not know me, not be comfortable from familiarity. We discussed this, right?”
“Yeah, I know. Okay.”
“Don’t think of me as a woman, but rather a disembodied voice, phonetics without a face. My physicality is neurrelevant. As I explained, nothing is going to happen. There will be no contact or nudity.”
Her face remained impassive and when he saw she wouldn’t laugh, the idea was set aside. He slumped back in a steamer chair, part of a reproduction Arts and Crafts set arranged in the spacious room. Teak paneling coordinated with the furniture. He scanned the decor and felt more secure. It was safe.
This was a conservative facility, for neuroanatomical research. Here the focus was molecular biology, diffusion tensor imaging and fMRI. Unorthodox, her boss told Janet, her proposal was too radical to gain permission to use the lab’s scanners and technicians and its neuroinformatics architecture afterwards. No, no, no. It was now a pet project she hadn’t given up on but was reluctant to further champion after the reaction she’d already received.
Instead she went out on an experimental ledge, alone, relying on her own knowledge and persuasion skills. She was using nothing but verbal suggestion and visualization techniques. If it worked, that was all she ultimately needed.
“Listen to my voice,” she said again. “A signal to process. Imagine your eardrums vibrating, triggering perception in your brain. You understand auditory processing, I believe?”
“Yeah, sure do,” he said. “Did my Masters thesis on a genetic model of the mechanoreceptive auditory organ in Drosophila. I stressed over that for so long.”
“Not a positive association, then. We won’t explore that. Instead picture an fMRI display. A familiar type of image, colours emerging from shades of gray matter. Watch the colours change as cerebral blood flow fluctuates.”
“The colours, yes. Nice. I’m picturing a PET scan though. I remember one in particular related to male sexual arousal, Redoute, et al, 2000.”
“Sure, that works. Blobs of pretty colours highlighting grainy lobes. Lots of activity.”
“Like what? Tell me.”
“You want to get hardcore?”
“Oxygenation increasing with blood flow, astrocytes releasing glutamate, calcium traveling through ion channels, synapses snapping along. The cuneus, bilateral anterior cingulate, lateral basal ganglia, quite a few areas throughout the brain active in varying degrees.”
“Yes,” he said, eyes closed, facial muscles slack but for a slight quiver in his lower lip. “Oh yes. I’m seeing it.”
“Watch your limbic system grow excited, so sensitive, neurons firing, dendrites and axons abuzz with pleasant emotions.” Softly but firmly she pressed on. He grinned as his attention was rewarded, and spoke.
“I know I can’t literally feel it, but I’m imagining a tactile sensation from my hypothalamus. It’s kind of tingly, and warm. Now I’m seeing an fMRI again. It’s glowing red in the scan.”
“Very good. Your temperature rises, you’re getting hotter. Do you feel hot, Brad?”
He chuckled. “Could be, Janet.”
“Excellent. Notice things that result from this chorus of activity. Shallow breathing. Rapid pulse. Hairs standing up on your forearm. There’s CNS active throughout your body, but especially in erogenous zones. In theory, what do you anticipate would happen if I touched one?”
He spoke quickly. “More than hairs on my arm would stand.”
Tension broke when they both laughed and he opened his eyes to see hers. They were green, pupils wide. His widened in response and he grew more excited at the cue. As sexual arousal began to dominate his body as well as his cognition, his face flushed. She took note silently, quashing a coy look, and continued.
“I’m not really going to touch you though. Don’t be afraid.”
“That’s not what I’m afraid of.”
Brad met her gaze again. After a searching staring contest that lasted 11 seconds, Janet smiled warmly. He observed that it was genuine by the way the orbicularis oculi muscles made the corner of her eyes crinkle. A Duchenne smile. He returned it with much less reservation, encouraged. She looked away uncomfortably, checked her notes, and her voice turned softer, lulling.
“Please close your eyes, Brad.”
He did, albeit with a touch of cynicism returning. Drew a deep breath as he loosened up. Felt more positive overall. His cortisol level dropped as he slumped in the chair. He noticed how it felt, comfy, and how he felt, pleasure growing. Sweet. But this was it, apparently.
“The challenge, the difference in what we’re attempting here is the lack of visual stimuli, commonly important to men. This is sexual arousal by verbal neurorotica, words alone.”
“Right. Tell me more words.”
“They’re words to activate the hypothalamus, a number of Brodmann’s areas including BA18, the bilateral lingual gyrus, and the cuneous at BA31, and other cingulate, temporal, and subcortical structures indicating neural correlates of male sexual arousal. Appealing to the brain by talking about the brain.”
He nodded happily. “It works. Science is sexy.”
“Of course. You’re an ideal participant, too.”
“Think so?” Fishing for neurocompliments.
“Absolutely. With your background in cogsci you understand this concept more than most people. You’re inclined.”
“I’ve got action potential.”
“You know what a hypothalamus is and know how to use it.”
“Heh. When I was a teenager I used to say I thought with my penis. Now I know better.”
“How are you feeling now?”
“Confusion in the ventral prefrontal and occipital cortices, for starters. But testosterone has already triggered other responses.”
“Good. Just enjoy the sensations.”
A shiver ran down Brad’s spinal cord, down, down and spreading to distant neurons. He squirmed into a better position and she approvingly appraised the bulge under his pants. It wasn’t a precise way to measure penile turgidity but it was effective.
“Please describe what you feel now,” she said.
“Uh, hmm. Stimulated, definitely aroused.”
“Okay, great. What do you anticipate would happen if I really did touch you now?”
The question startled him, thrown out so casually, but was quickly integrated. He’d wondered about that very possibility on his way to their appointment, and the thought appealed to both his vanity and physiology. But confronted with it, he remained silent. Shy. Say something, he urged himself as seconds ticked on and he rejected dashing, romantic comebacks. One after another, they all seemed too suave or corny or dumb. All that eventually came out was, “Um, well, oxytocin would be released.”
“Serotonin and – you – you’re not going to, are you? Nah.”
Brad kept his eyes closed tight, bracing, just in case fantasy turned real. Waiting made it worse. Anticipation affected his temporal perceptions.
Janet observed his ragged, apprehensive breathing and closed eyes, then slid open the top right desk drawer. She picked up something black, palmed it. Her footsteps became the loudest sound in the room, the clicking of heels as she walked around the desk and approached him in a corner. His eyelids remained shut, but he was piqued.
Perfume, barely perceptible, a delicate citrus blend, warned of her close proximity through his olfactory bulb. He approved of the scent. Pheromones were having an effect as well. Brad was even more excited; this was as good as neurorotica.
Just in front of his knees she stopped and raised her right hand with the balled-up object.
“Now look,” she said.
Eyes opened wide, he yelped as she dropped a rubber tarantula on his lap. His expression was panicked as the amygdala sprang into play, and he jolted in recoil. But soon enough he noticed: it wasn’t a real spider. It jiggled and settled on one thigh, unmoving but still imposing and icky in its size and shape.
“What are you – what?”
The phobia response was slow to subside, even after determining there was no threat. But a few areas of his brain, and body, had maintained activation corresponding to arousal throughout the incident. Some base instincts were unflagged. There was something enervating, exciting about the fear. To his surprise, his erection throbbed instead of dropped. It puzzled him, felt strange but pleasant, and more urgent. He looked up at Janet, waiting for the next move. What was she doing, and why?
A wicked grin spread over her face and she leaned forward to pick up the spider, cramming it into a pocket of her black jacket. With her left hand, one button of her blouse was deftly opened, then another. Cleavage transfixed him and desire surged, hopeful once more.
“Do you want to run away from me, Brad? Fight or flight?”
“Not flight, but I wouldn’t put up a fight either.”
She spun and strode back to her desk. Logged the time.
Relief and disappointment led his shoulders to drop, while eyebrows remained earnestly raised.
“The test is concluded. Thank you for participating.”
“But – but what about -”
Janet shook her head.
“No interaction. But you don’t have to leave immediately. Calm down. Think unsexy thoughts.”
Postmortem photos of advanced encephalitis flashed from memory, and sexual arousal quickly disappeared. It was over. He sighed and slackened, everything waning.
“Weird, too weird. Did you get what you want?” he asked, a bit bitter.
Janet’s attempt to appear demure and professional didn’t entirely succeed. She turned away, biting her lip, and walked toward the exit hiding her expression.
“Well, you validated the hypothesis. Neurorotica appears to be effective, along with a few other things,” she said.
There was no elaboration but she paused for effect with a hand on the brass door handle, ready to leave.
“But, did I get what I want?”
Her question was suspended as she turned the handle and stepped into the corridor. Janet looked back over her shoulder and gave a coy wink that set Brad’s hypothalamus afire again. Neurotransmitters cascaded and blood pressure rose in the silence.
“No,” she said, and slipped away as a subset of Brodmann’s areas reactivated in both their brains.