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What Is Thirst? A Neuroscientist Explains What’s Really Getting Turned On in Your Brain

Thirst is way more than just horniness. Scientists believe it’s closer to an actual emotion — and it turns out we might even inherit it from our parents

“Thirst” has been used to describe more than dehydration for centuries and originally conveyed a deep sense of religious desire. But a combination of smartphones, social media, dating apps, hip-hop, attention-seeking millennials and butt selfies all helped thirst reach its godless potential as the most dramatic and transparent expression of horniness to date. Brands are thirsty. Memes are thirsty. And politicians? They’re thirsty as hell. Thirst is everywhere and has become a more effective way to bring up sex than water.

But what is it exactly?

Scientifically, thirst actually marks the earliest stages of arousal: The brain begins to rally resources to focus on sex and the anticipation of having it. It’s also one of the most well-documented areas of sexual research, explains psychophysiologist and neuroscientist Nicole Prause. “We know very little about reward receipt in sex,” she says. “Almost everything that’s been studied focused on reward anticipation.” In other words, most of what we know about the science of sex comes from the science of thirst.

Following a decade of research at the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, Prause started the sexual biotechnology company Liberos in 2015, where she continues to discover more about our thirsty brains. Here’s what she offers us to drink on the topic… 

Thirsty People Need More Oxygen

The earliest stages of sexual arousal don’t occur in any one distinct area of the brain, but many such areas — including the amygdala, anterior cingulate, ventral striatum and hypothalamus, each of which requires more oxygen during this time. And, like any good athlete, the thirstier a person gets, the more oxygen they need. “As someone becomes more sexually aroused, they increase their use of oxygen,” Prause says. 

So instead of thinking about baseball the next time you don’t want to get too turned on, try climbing a mountain instead. 

Thirst Might Be an Emotion

Allow Prause to (once again) explain: “The brain areas that become active during sexual arousal are very similar to the brain areas that become active during any pleasant emotional experience, which has led some scientists to call sexual arousal another emotion.” 

Basically: You’re not horny, you’re just emotional. 

Thirst Can Lead to Bad Decisions

This might be obvious, but it’s also biology. That is, while in a state of horniness, increased blood and oxygen flow to parts of the brain linked with touch, emotion and pleasure. This directs blood and oxygen away from the frontal lobe, which is needed for important cognitive skills like memory, problem-solving, judgment and self-control.

Prause suspects that the reason sexual arousal appears to impair decision-making is — anecdotally — because the brain is working so hard to focus on anticipated sexual stimuli that there’s little bandwidth left for anything else. Thus, she adds, “Changes in how we make decisions while sexually aroused are likely mostly attributable to not having our usual resources of attention and memory available to us.”

Thirst Depends on Where Your Next ‘Drink’ Is Coming From

Horny people typically fall into two camps, neurologically speaking: 1) Those who know their thirst will be satisfied in the near future; and 2) everyone else who has to get back to work. 

In a recent study, Prause found that when men and women anticipate sex and then receive genital stimulation with a vibrator (which studies show also effectively stimulate men), their alpha waves become suppressed. Since alpha waves are at their highest when people are awake but not focused, like when watching TV, alpha-wave suppression is used as an indicator of increased attention and engagement. Simply, when people become thirsty, their alpha waves went down, but only if they received stimulation. When participants anticipated sex without receiving vibrator stimulation, their alpha waves didn’t decrease, meaning they were less preoccupied by sex. 

Or the TL;DR version: When people know their thirst won’t be quenched, their brains don’t rev up to the same extent, and most are cognitively capable of pivoting their attention.

Thirstiness Is Probably Genetic

A person’s sex drive depends on how a person’s ventral striatum, or reward system in the brain, responds to dopamine. People with high sex drives tend to have ventral striata that are more reactive to dopamine, whereas people who have low sex drives have reward systems that respond less to pleasure across the board. For instance, someone who gets excited about roller coasters would be more prone to promiscuity than someone who hates Six Flags. This is why antidepressants, clinical depression and even Parkinson’s medications can mess with horniness: They affect dopamine production and responses. 

Barring medication side effects, reward sensitivity and dopamine depend less on lifestyle factors like masturbation or porn consumption and more on a person’s parents. “Both of those brain responses have been shown to be somewhat heritable,” Prause says. 

If you’re thirsty, then, imagine how your mom must feel. 

Thirsty Doesn’t Always Mean DTF 

Everyone’s sex drive comes with a gas pedal and a break, or what scientists call “reward motivation” and “inhibitory tone.” Reward motivation is determined by genetics, but inhibitory tone, or how much the brain inhibits dopamine, is based on more external factors — namely, if the situation is safe enough to satiate your thirst. Although a person’s ability to respond to threats becomes diminished during the later stages of sexual arousal approaching orgasm, the parts of the brain that detect and signal potential threats, the amygdala and hypothalamus, are still active during the earlier stages. Which means that horniness can come to a screeching halt if something doesn’t seem right.  

“Someone not wanting to have sex doesn’t mean they necessarily have a low sex drive, they may just need more safety signals or change in social situation to reduce the inhibition on their preferred sexual desires,” Prause explains, adding that some people may appear to get more turned on when frightened, but that’s normally limited to superficial fear (e.g., horror movies or BDSM), when a person knows they’re not in actual danger. “Many emotion scientists wouldn’t call this fear, but more likely excitement,” Prause continues.

As frustrating as this can be in the moment, the good news is that our brains are wired to protect us even when we’re horny. So you might do a few dumb things, but you aren’t going to die of thirst.