Interview with Sai Gaddam

Today is the last day to design your future & get access to INK conference. Get inspired by what you are going to read below. Presenting to you the fourth interview of the conversation series with INK Fellows 2012. Sai Gaddam, a neuroscientist (who is also an IIT alumnus) shares with us and Shilpa, our Premium Blogger, the insights and the hidden interests of humans in regard to Sex; he also talks about what encouraged him to write a book on the same. It is a brilliant interview which will enlighten you with different aspects and approach of human nature.

Q. What encouraged you and your neuroscientist colleague to write ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts‘ ?

A: My colleague, Ogi Ogas, and I are computational neuroscientists interested in understanding how the circuits in our brains generate behaviour. We are also tinkerers who love tackling interesting and unique challenges. We combined these interests in understanding the workings of a very under-appreciated facet of human behavior: Sex.

If you think about it, our searches, likes, pokes, clicks, and comments are truly the fossils of humankind’s thoughts and desires and behaviors. We wanted to analyze this wealth of evidence to tease out the fundamental patterns in human behavior.

Q. Tell us more about the book?

A: A Billion Wicked Thoughts (BWT) is a book about desires and fantasies, and how these desires are generated in our sexual brains. For our book, we put together the largest dataset ever assembled for sexual desire. We analyzed a billion web searches, the million most popular websites, millions of erotic videos, stories, online personals, tens of thousands of romance novels, and much more to describe the nuances of male, female, straight, and gay desires .

The differences in our desires are profound and at times puzzling. BWT also shows how we can finally appreciate and understand these differences by looking inside our fascinating brains. If you are a youngster just awakening to the mysterious world of lust, and love, A Billion Wicked Thoughts is your holy grail!

Q. What were some common criticism that you had to face before and after publishing your book and how did you overcome them?

A: People think we use evolution to explain everything. People also assumed our book was based on surveys. Wrong on both counts.

The reason our book is valued in the global scientific and therapeutic communities is that it is the first book ever to look at non-intrusive measures of behavior. When people search for erotic material online, they do so from the anonymity of their homes and express themselves freely in a way they never would in a laboratory under the scrutiny of white-coat wearing researchers. We used this to our advantage to sculpt a fine-grained high-resolution landscape of human sexual desire. And we then tried to understand, based on all that we know from the study of the brain, how it gave rise to each of these desires.

Q. As a kid, what was your aim in life? How did you precede towards achieving the same?

A: I wanted to join the army, but also be a star cricketer when not defeating the bad guys. Then, I hit puberty, and my priorities changed overnight. Needless to say, I haven’t come close to achieving those childhood goals. I might still play cricket in a seniors league some day (I am a decently fast bowler).

Q.You keep switching your base between Boston and Bangalore. Do you get enough time to spend with your family and friends?

A: Being a globetrotting super-scientist is tough, but someone has to do it 🙂 My trips to Boston are far more infrequent now. But, I couldn’t do what I do without my wife’s amazing understanding and support.

Q. Are you planning on writing few more books?

A: I am currently working on a book about the history and neuroscience of anger, and I definitely do want to keep writing more books. No matter what topic it is, it allows me to keep exploring human behavior and achieve a deep understanding of who we are. In that way it is also a spiritual endeavor for me.

Q. What has been your most challenging assignments while conducting your doctoral research at Boston University?

A: All research topics are very appealing on the face of it – understand human vision, create a better search engine, engineer walking robots – but the details take many man years, even decades to work out. It is gruelling process and your contribution with your five or six years of doctoral research often only amounts to a tiny bump on the outer edge of our understanding. It took a while for me to appreciate this reality, that this bump is still a meaningful extension into the vast unknown.

Q. Can you share some of the startling truths you have come across during the investigations of ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts’!

A: Humans are not alone in our interest in naked pictures. In a really neat laboratory experiment, scientists showed that even male monkeys “pay” (using money-like tokens) to watch the bright-pink derrieres of female monkeys.

One of the most popular genre of erotica for women, which is just exploding now on the web, is fanfiction, where two male characters are paired in romantic and erotic stories. There are hundreds of thousands of erotic stories featuring Harry Potter and his rival Draco Malfoy, and Edward and Jacob from the Twilight books as couples. Take any popular TV series or novels, and you will find fanfiction stories involving their characters.

These stories are written and read by straight women and teenagers. These stories depict two dominant, popular men being vulnerable and revealing their soft side to each other, which turns out to be very alluring to women. Incidentally, the current mega-bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey started its life as Twilight fanfiction.

I did expect to find that men and women have different interests, but not that they are so profoundly different. These differences actually result from different wiring in male and female brains – a fact that has been convincingly demonstrated by neuroscience research in the last decade.

Q. Everyone has strong feelings about sexual behaviour and which are mostly hidden. How did the data from internet and technology give you insights about the sexual desires/interests of males and females?

A: The great thing about the internet is it reveals the private, hidden behaviour of men and women. What are they searching for and seeking out? What fantasies do they indulge in. The internet reveals it all, and does so in a very democratic way. It isn’t limited to a few undergraduates in western countries, as almost all psychology research is. It gives you a glimpse into the private lives of two billion people from all over the planet.

Q. Does the data from the internet reflect the sexual behaviour of a common normal man? (The premise is that sexual content on internet mostly reflects the interest of sex addicts!)

A: Three out of four men and one in three women in the West watch porn or consume other erotica. Watching porn is more common than voting, exercising, getting an undergraduate degree, praying at the church, or subscribing to newspapers . So, we can be pretty sure our behavior on the internet is common.

Now is it normal? Before we answer that, we must ask what normal is. How have we arrived at a definition of normality? Our moral definitions have come from ignorance and thin air. How do average men and women behave sexually? You might be astonished to know that we just didn’t know. We have been having sex since the dawn of our existence, but we don’t know much beyond its reproductive function. How do our brains generate sexual behavior? How do our brains give life to desire? We didn’t know. The internet reveals the true diversity of sexual desire and shows that desires we think are abnormal and uncommon are actually shared by millions of others.

Q: Do your findings corroborate with the scientific studies and experiments done over the years in the field of human sexual behaviour?

A: There has been very little research into sexual behavior; we know more about sexuality in rats than sexuality in humans! Proposals to study human sexuality have found it tough to get research grants and funding unless there is a specific sexual health component to them. However, our findings do confirm the precious little research there has been in the field. Therapists are telling us that our findings and theories help them treat their patients. Clinicians, therapists, and researchers are now turning to the data we have uncovered to inform their own studies on human sexuality.

Q. Share with us few tips on how to face hurdles in life without getting discouraged.

A: The satisfaction derived from successes is ultimately fleeting. It is a human condition to keep seeking. So, derive pleasure from the process and not the outcome. Outcomes are important, but processes are what you will spend a vast amount of your time on. Revel in the grit and the dirt and the sweat and the tears.

Q. What is your motto in life?

A: Stay dissatisfied. It keeps you looking for more to do. Our time on the planet is very limited, we have forty years of productive time. Take away the time spent sleeping, waking up, commuting, doing chores, we have about seventy thousand hours to make a meaningful contribution. That number should keep us moving.

Q. Your favourite pass time.

A: Traveling. Nothing like new experiences and fresh settings to revitalize you.


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