Over at wired.com, Jonah Lehrer discusses some surprising aspects of sex: 1) even as a pleasurable experience, it often causes a large stress response in the body, including the release of chemicals that help the body deal with stress, and 2) as discovered in recent research in rats, it can promote neurogenesis, or the growth of new neurons, in the adult rat brain. One research team in particular, which included Princeton professor Elizabeth Gould, also found that when male rats were allowed to mate with female rats multiple times over the course of the experiment (“chronic” sexual experience) as opposed to just once (“acute” sexual experience), the level of stress-response chemicals went down, but neurogenesis continued. In other words, repeated sexual experience in rats led to beneficial neurogenesis without the harmful chemical stress response.
You can read Lehrer’s full article here.
I should provide the ever-needed caveat in animal research: we can’t jump to the conclusion that the same holds true in humans, because of the striking differences in anatomy, brain organization, development, etc. And even if it could be proved that the same were true for humans (which might take a while – you can’t kill humans at the end of an experiment and dissect their brains the same way that you can with rats and mice), it would certainly not mean that we students should start having sex all the time in order to boost our GPAs. This is only one isolated aspect of sex, detached from all other ethical, behavioral, and interpersonal considerations. But this type of focused, specialized research is still important: by uncovering these smaller bits of knowledge about sex, piece by piece, we can begin to better understand this complex and fascinating facet of human life.