It's a scenario you can likely relate to. After hearing that delightful “ding” alerting you to a new text, Snapchat, or DM, you swiftly whip out your phone, and your eyes widen as they're met with the image of a straight-up naked bod. Maybe, smirking, you send a flirtatious reply. Or maybe you scoff at the unsolicited advance and ignore it. Your reaction to these kinds of images obviously depends largely on the person who sent it, and their relationship with them. But what happens in your brain when you receive a nude? As it turns out, science has shown that looking at a naked pic has quite a psychological impact.
A 2013 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that a whopping 80% of undergraduates have been sent sext messages, and another 46% have received picture sexts, specifically. Clearly, it’s a pretty common practice. But while many of us have been on the sending or receiving end of these thirsty photos, most of us are unaware of their effects. Sure, it’s safe to assume that viewing these images may trigger a state of arousal, provided they’re sent by someone you’re attracted to. But what else is going on in your brain?
First, let’s talk about visual processing. After light passes through the eye, the image that’s produced on the retina is sent to the brain’s primary visual cortex in the form of electrical signals. There, that information is transformed in such a way that allows you to recognize what you are seeing, whether it’s an object or a face. The speed with which your brain processes information depends on a variety of factors, like what state of mind you’re in, and what you’re seeing, to name a few. But what researchers have discovered is that nudity actually has an impact on the speed of this process.
In a 2011 study published in PLOS One, researchers were interested in finding out how nudity potentially boosts the brain. So, they showed 32 participants of all genders photos of both men and women in a range of states: fully clothed, scantily clad, and nude. Using MRI imaging, the researchers mapped the brain’s response to these different kinds of images. And what they discovered is that the brain processed nude bodies more quickly than partially clothed bodies. In fact, the brain processes pictures of nude bodies in less than 0.2 seconds. The more clothing the person in the photo was wearing, the slower their brain reacted to process the information.
Interestingly, the study also found that men’s brains responded more strongly to nude female images, but women’s brains responded with equal intensity to nude males and females. Researchers believe that there’s a very good evolutionary reason for this effect: It encourages procreation. After all, it’s pretty much impossible to get pregnant through a pair of skinny jeans, and if your brain reacted with the same amount of gusto to a clothed person, then you may not be inspired to reproduce. In a news release from the Academy of Finland, researchers wrote that this phenomenon could be beneficial “in identifying potential mating partners and competitors, and for triggering sexual behavior."
Now that you know just how stimulating a nude photo can be, let’s dive into specifically which parts of the brain these images stimulate. A 2016 study published in NeuroImage revealed that when you look at erotic images, the ventral striatum — the part of your brain that’s responsible for reward-processing — lights up. Not only that, but your brain releases a flood of dopamine, aka the pleasure-boosting chemical. Dopamine not only makes you feel good — it makes you want to hunt down more of whatever gave you that good feeling. When your brain starts to associate nude images with intense feelings of pleasure, then obviously, you’re going to feel motivated to get more of them. Hence, if the nude image is sent by your partner, crush, or someone else you’re into, you’re likely to respond in such a way that may inspire them to keep sending pics.
Joseph J. Plaud, a clinical forensic psychologist in Boston, Massachusetts who has studied pornography, told LiveScience that when this dopamine response happens over and over again in your brain, you start to need something more extreme in order to trigger the same level of pleasure. In other words, the more nudes you get, the more gradually explicit they will need to be for you to feel all hot and bothered.
By the way, let's be clear on one thing: A nude photo is equally impactful on men’s and women’s brains. Men are not more responsive to visual stimuli than women, and therefore, do not get turned on more by looking at sexy images than women do. According to research conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, gender is totally irrelevant, and women’s brains react to naked photos just as strongly as men’s. The researchers came to this conclusion after reviewing 61 brain scan studies of nearly 2,000 people viewing erotic imagery.
But while women and men may get equally aroused when they receive a nude, the patterns of their brain activity differs, as does what is important to them in terms of sexual stimuli. A 2007 study funded by the Atlanta-based Center for Behavioral Neuroscience used eye-tracking technology to evaluate the viewing patterns of both men and women looking at naked photos. What they found is that men are more likely than women to check out the subject’s face before any other parts of the body. For women, meanwhile, it depended on their hormonal state. Women who weren’t using hormonal birth control paid more attention to contextual elements of the photographs (in other words, where the nude subject was, what they were doing, etc.), while women who were on hormonal contraceptives were more likely to look at, and linger on, the subject’s genitals.
How fascinating is that? Basically, if you’re on the pill, the patch, or another hormonal birth control method, your eyes are more likely to go straight for the crotch when you receive that nude than to any other part of the person’s body. Not only that, but these viewing patterns may have larger implications for how looking at nudes affects each gender. A 2004 study published in Nature Neuroscience revealed that men show more activation in the amygdala — a section of the brain that’s heavily involved in emotional processing — than women when viewing sexual stimuli. Researchers believe that this may be connected to the fact that men demonstrate a higher level of attention to faces when viewing sexual photos.
Naturally, it’s impossible to talk about nudes without tackling the subject of the ever-controversial dick pic. What happens when you get a nude photo from someone you didn’t necessarily want? Maybe you LOL about it with your bestie, or maybe you shudder and block the number. Either way, it’s safe to say that you didn’t get that same sought-after dopamine rush. A 2019 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking examined 444 young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 found that 35% of participants had received unwanted sexually explicit images. No shocker here: Almost twice as many women as men reported they had received these kinds of unsolicited photos. And here’s the worrisome kicker: Both genders reported experiencing psychological distress when they received unwanted sexts.
Science still has a ways to go in studying what happens in our brains when we receive nudes because clearly, the response depends on a number of factors, such as your gender, how often you receive those kinds of photos, whether or not you’re on hormonal birth control, and of course, whether you actually wanted the photo to begin with.
What we do know, however, is this: Seeing a nude is going to have a significant impact on your brain. If, for example, you get a sexy pic from your boo, a longtime crush, or that cutie you hooked up with last weekend, you can expect a hefty hit of feel-good chemicals that make you hungry for more. And if the pic is more awkward than arousing, it may actually have a negative impact on your mood. You may want to keep that in mind next time you send (or receive) a thirst trap, while it may be easy enough to fire off a thirst trap without a second thought, that simple move can trigger a powerful reaction in the brain. And if that's not an effective PSA to sext wisely, I don't know what is.