Why Abstinence Only Education Doesn’t Work: A Neurobiological Perspective

In the past few years, the rise of social media has given everyone their personal soapbox to voice their opinion. It is as easy as checking Instagram or Twitter to find out your friends’ opinions on incredibly controversial topics. From politics to religion, people share their beliefs publicly through social media by commenting on current events that can be especially sensitive or controversial. Sexuality is a particularly sensitive, but nevertheless often discussed, topic in social media. Whatever a person’s point of view might be on what sexuality looks like, when controversies arise they force people to think more on their stance about these issues than they would otherwise. As a neuroscientist, I wondered whether or not I would have the same opinions on the subject had I chosen a different career path. I came to the conclusion that what I have learned on the biology and functioning of the brain has been a tremendous influence on my pre-existing mindset. Understanding the brain’s basic patterns, and how they map out our behavior, as well as the genetic influence in who we are, not just how we look, has opened my mind to a broader understanding of what makes a person human.

High school biology teaches little about the brain, which is understandable, because we do not understand the brain so well yet to simplify it and include it in a high school textbook. The brain is highly complex, and the smallest complications in what makes up around 2% of our body mass can change everything from how we move to how we interact with society. Even though it is a small percentage, humans have one of the largest brains (in comparison to our bodies) of the animal kingdom. This can be attributed to the fact that the larger the brain, the larger the community the animal lives in; our brains were literally built to be able to live with each other. This fact alone is enough to steer the direction of a belief in a certain direction. It can also make you come to terms with the fact that the fear you felt in middle school of being seen as an outcast was a legitimate fear, since your brain saw it as detrimental to your survival. The brain has many mechanisms for understanding social cues and behaving accordingly. In the prefrontal cortex of the brain, behind your forehead and eyes, the behaviors are “filtered” so to speak. It prevents you from calling a stranger names or from taking your clothes off in public. Every brain is different, and it is likely that the one friend who always never gets the social cues for when they’re being inappropriate is not filtering as much of his behavior through his prefrontal cortex as you are.

The fact that every brain is different and that the parts that are involved in certain behaviors can change from one person to another is not normally included in speeches on tolerance, but should be. The brain has been shown to have separate areas that influence sexual identity and sexual attraction. Transgender people have been shown to have certain areas of the brain more like the sex they transition towards; homosexuals have been shown to have different areas that resemble those of the opposite sex more than those of the same sex. There is a lack of understanding of how the brain works, therefore a lack of understanding of how we work. There are studies that show how homosexuality is embedded in the genetic makeup of a person, and that is where the argument of “being gay is a choice” falls apart. These of course are still controversial topics, and will remain as such for some time, but the first step in understanding how other people think is understanding the mind itself. There are neuroscientific arguments to most behaviors in humans and to this day, these arguments have made the neuroscientists that I have met some of the most tolerant people I know.

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