Two new studies shed light on our preoccupation with sexual images, and how our minds are influenced by the presence of bare skin. In the first, Jonah Lehrer reports in The Psychology of Nakedness that "we are constantly translating our visual perceptions into a theory of mind, as we attempt to imagine the internal states of .... total strangers.
"In general, people assess minds along two distinct dimensions. First, we grade these minds in terms of agency [self-control, acting morally, planning]. But we also think of minds in terms of the ability to have experience [to feel and perceive pleasure, hunger, or desire]." The researchers "suggest that these dimensions are actually a
duality, and that there's a direct tradeoff between the ability to have agency or experience .... It's quite easy to shift our perceptions of other people from having a mind full of agency to having a mind interested in experience ~ all they have to do is take off their clothes."
In their study, the researchers "showed 159 undergraduates a variety of photos. Some of these photos were of an attractive female named Erin, appearing in either a headshot or a bikini. Other students looked at a handsome man named Aaron, glancing at either his face or sculpted bare chest. The photos used are shown below. After looking at these pictures and reading a brief description of Erin/Aaron, subjects were asked to evaluate the mental capacities of the person.
" .... When the pictures showed only a face, they had lots of agency. But when we saw their torso, we suddenly imagined them as obsessed with experience. Instead of being good at self-control, they were extremely sensitive to hunger and desire. Same person, same facial expression, same brief description ~ but a hint of body changed everything.
" .... The idea that body focus can lead to both decreased and increased mind states stands in contrast to the term 'objectification', because it suggests that people seen as bodies are not seen as mindless objects, but as experiencers ~ someone more capable of pain, pleasure, desire, sensation, and emotion but lacking in agency. In other words, focusing on the body does not lead to de-mentalization but to a redistribution of mind."
NOTE ~ it is important to understand that this research addresses only our perception of others. It does not suggest, for instance, that my perception of Erin is Erin's reality. Seeing a woman in a bikini does not mean the woman possesses a reduced intellect, any more than seeing a woman modestly clothed means that she is brilliant. The same is true for women looking at men. It merely influences the observer's instinctive response. The line of inquiry is interesting, and raises questions for further study.
The second report is from Christopher Ryan, the author of the excellent book Sex at Dawn ~ The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. In his blog of the same name, Ryan asks Why Do Breasts Mesmerize? He draws upon anthropology, psychology, evolution, and of course physiology to explain "what gives the [exaggerated] female breast such transcendent influence over heterosexual male consciousness." I'll leave it to you to check out Ryan's brief analysis, draw your own conclusions, and ask yourself what features of male anatomy may have a similar effect upon women?