The Science Of Sexual Fantasies, Decoded

If your mind has ever wandered off in the middle of an important meeting to think about yourself in a bodice-ripper with somebody aggressively handsome gripping your corset, you should be relieved to know: you're not alone. Not even slightly. Sexual fantasies are huge part of human sexuality, from the mundane to the extraordinary, and there are many different kinds. But they all have one shared characteristic: they cast a lot of light on the science of desire and emotion.

Well, that and they're designed to make you horny.

It used to be believed that only the deeply unhappy or sexual deviants fantasized. These days, however, the more common view is that it's unusual not to fantasise, and that getting yourself hot and bothered purely using your imagination is an essential part of sexual function. The really interesting bit, though, is the science behind sexual fantasies: what happens in the brain and the body when you indulge in a daydream about yourself and Christina Hendricks and/or Chris Hemsworth. Because fantasies aren't just about getting your rocks off — they're also responsive and very illuminating parts of your neurochemistry.

So here are some of the most interesting things that your fantasies tell us about your emotional and sexual life, your brain, and your hormones. Don't let them spoil the mood next time you slip into your mental "happy place," though.

1. There's A Specific Part Of The Brain That May Make Fantasies "Happen"

There's one part of the brain that seems absolutely essential for any sexual fantasies, or indeed desire of any kind: the medial orbitofrontal cortex. A 2003 scan of the brains of men, some of whom had hypoactive sexual desire disorder (in that they felt absolutely no desire for anybody, which might not be a"disorder" so much as scientists failing to recognize asexuality as an identity), found that this is the key bit that kicks in for the aroused brain to start to "picture" sex, or respond to external fantasy objects.

There seems to be a relationship between the orbitofrontal cortex and fantasies in general, but it's also really involved in how the brain processes emotions, which is why so many of us might enjoy romantic or emotionally-charged sexual fantasies. It's the part of the brain that seems necessary for both picturing things and emoting, which is what a sexual fantasy is all about.

2. They Aren’t As Gender-Divided As You Think

A 2014 study in the Journal of Gender Medicine did some scrupulous cataloguing of sexual fantasies in over 1,500 Canadian adults of both genders and all sexualities, and found something surprising: despite the common perception that male and female sexuality are seriously different, when it comes to fantasies there’s an awful lot of crossover.

The biggest surprise that 92 percent of women and 88.3 percent of men agreed with the idea that romantic feelings were a strong part of their fantasy scenarios. Romantic sexy-times aren’t just for ladies: men demand an emotional component too. Men enjoyed more adulterous fantasies (83 percent as opposed to women’s 66.3 percent) and more fantasies about sex with strangers (72 percent versus 48.9 percent), but overall the line-up was surprisingly similar. The notion that men’s fantasies are just random pumping without context or emotion seems to have no basis at all.

3. They Occur With Greater Frequency Around Ovulation

It seems that sexual fantasies are intimately tied to your body's reproductive cycle — and that your ovulation influences everything from how often you have them to their content. A 2012 study from Canada found that, when women were monitored daily, their average number of sexual fantasies per day jumped from 0.77 to 1.3 on the days they were ovulating.

This ties in with a bunch of other information about our sexual moods when we're ovulating: straight women are more interested in men and men are more interested in them, likely because of deeply encoded senses of the "best" time to mate (read: the time when we're most likely to get pregnant). But the researchers also found that fantasies tend to get more emotive and romantic during ovulation, as opposed to explicit and more "action-packed" fantasies.

4. They Might Be Related To Our Feeling Of Safety As Infants

It's generally believed nowadays that we experience sexual fantasies as an integral part of our sexual development, and that they occur in three ways: as mood-boosting daydreams, "setting change" fantasies (where we "improve" on our current sexual experiences to get ourselves excited), or "enabling fantasies," which allow us to have more fulfilling orgasmic sex in real life. But why do we develop our own unique fantasy tastes in the first place?

One piece of research, interestingly enough, has made a link between the affection we received as infants and our adult sexual fantasies. Bear with me: a 2013 Israeli study found that there's a link between the "attachment style" of peoples' parents and the content of their most common fantasies. Attachment style determines how much attention we were given and how safe we felt. If we didn't get enough of that care as infants, it seems, we're much more likely to be emotionally "needy" as adults, and that carries over into our fantasy lives.

The study found that people in relationships were more likely to have "anxious" fantasies, about romance, support, intimacy and approval, if they didn't feel safe or cared for as children. It studied 48 cohabiting couples, how they related to one another, their sexual fantasies, and what attachment style their parents had, and found a pretty strong link between weak attachment and anxious fantasies. It's important to think of sexual fantasies as part of our bigger emotional landscape: we use them for far more than just getting off.

5. They Make Us More Analytical Thinkers

It turns out that a sexual fantasy session before a math test might be a form of studying in itself. In a 2009 study, researchers asked half of a study group to daydream about a romantic walk with their partner, and the other half to have a dirty, full-on sexual fantasy session. Then they gave them a series of tests, and the results spell doom for romantic engineers.

The sexually-fantasizing subjects did amazingly well on analytical questions, while the romantically primed ones bombed those and did well on creative ones instead. It seems that sexual fantasies kick-started the part of the brain focused on "local" processing, which does small-scale problem-solving and is detail-oriented. (Hence why we ignore the outside world so much when we're having sex.) Romantic fantasies turned on the more generalized part of the brain that processes wider amounts of information and imagines solutions.

The interesting thing about this, of course, is that a lot of sexual fantasies actually involve a lot of emotion, for both sexes. So it turns out that a little sexually-charged emotional daydreaming will help you do your taxes. Who knew?

Want more of Bustle's Sex and Relationships coverage? Check out our new podcast, I Want It That Way, which delves into the difficult and downright dirty parts of a relationship, and find more on our Soundcloud page.

Images: Focus Features, Giphy