The Brains Behind The Orgasm

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

During an orgasm, our bodies and brains are flooded with a complex combination of pleasurable feelings and sensual sensations. On the surface, we feel flushed. Our brain is pumping blood to our genitals, hormone levels surge, our breathing and heart rates quicken, and we feel as if we have been washed in a warm bath of tingling delight. But have you ever wondered why the orgasm feels so good; or, better yet, how this magical experience is even achieved?

Science is now taking a closer look at our most intimate experience to discover the inner workings of the human orgasm. Armed with fMRIs and PET scanners, neuroscientists are now able to see what the brain looks like during the peak of sexual fulfillment. While there is no single direct neurological route to achieve an orgasm, nor is there a specific area in the brain that is responsible for producing one, researchers have found that at the point of climax the brain is active in over 30 areas. This combination of components includes thousands of signals being transmitted up and down the central nervous system to the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain associated with the reward area, which plays a very important role in our feelings of pleasure, enjoyment and even addiction.

“This is an area [of the brain] that responds to dopamine,” says Dr. Barry Komisaruk of Rutgers University. “Dopamine neurons are activated in the mid-brain and project up to the nucleus accumbens, which is in the forebrain.” Dopamine, the chemical associated with feeling good, mixes with oxytocin, the chemical responsible for bonding, and floods the brain with an explosive combination. Interestingly, neural scans have shown that the burst of dopamine during an orgasm is very similar to the one seen during a rush of heroin. Komisaruk has also found that during climax an organism acts as an analgesic, which allows for a woman’s pain threshold to double. Intimacy aside, findings such as these could be very helpful for people who suffer from chronic pain conditions, as they assist researchers in understanding how we process pain and control pain.

Often, when we think of sex, we imagine a cycle of intimate pleasure: arousal, stimulation and release; and this, more or less, is accurate. We find someone or something sexually exciting. We then engage in sexual stimulation — masturbation or intercourse — and if we are lucky, we are rewarded with an orgasm. But what if it were possible to skip all of the early stages of physical stimulation and move straight to the finale? Making it an option to think our ways into an orgasm.

A recent study conducted by Komisaruk measured the physiological responses — heart rates, blood pressure and pupil diameter — of 10 women who claimed to achieve climax only through thought, and found that the magnitude of their responses were approximately the same as when they achieved orgasm through clitoral and genital stimulation. The brain images of these women showed similar results. “Most of the same brain regions became active,” says Komisaruk. “There was no difference between the magnitudes of responses formed when they had orgasms through physical stimulation as opposed to when they had orgasms from thinking.” Interestingly, Komisaruk reported that a few of the women who were able to achieve orgasm through thought weren’t even visualizing sexual thoughts. “Some used strategies of erotic imagery, but others used strategies of walking along the seashore on a warm day.”

When we become consumed by our sexual arousal, we tend to get lost in the moment. This may seem like an obvious statement to some; however, many people have trouble with getting swept away, and, in fact, this one ability might be a key to achieving orgasm. Dr. Janniko Georgiadis and his colleagues at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have been studying the neuroimaging of male and female sexual brains by having real-life couples engage in sexual stimulation in PET scanners. Logistically, the use of couples, one providing the stimulation while the other receives pleasure, allows for less body movement, and thus ensures a clearer image of the brain. What the researchers discovered is that during climax both males and females had deactivation, or a shutdown, in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, a portion of the brain which controls executive decisions and is also responsible for reason, fear, anxiety, and self-evaluation. Essentially, a deactivation in this area allows for us to have the feelings of letting go. “People have a changed perception of what is going on … an altered state,” says Georgiadis. “Sexual arousal really affects your thinking,” or the lack thereof. Findings such as this imply that the switching off of this area temporarily allows for us to move past our inhibitions while exploring our desires. This might also help to explain why some women suffer from anorgasmia, a sexual dysfunction that is categorized as the inability to climax, as many women feel a certain sense of anticipatory anxiety when it comes to producing an orgasm.

It should be pointed out that anorgasmia and sexual dysfunctions can also be understood when we look at how our culture constructs our sexual identity, as certain urges and desires might be seen as taboo and therefore become repressed. “There is a school of thinking that believes that somehow there is something wrong with women who cannot achieve an orgasm during penile-vaginal intercourse,” says Georgiadis. “But I disagree with this line of thinking, as it’s not based on any sort of scientific evidence. But it’s being problematized.”

While there are many different motivations and routes for achieving climax, scientific researchers are still unearthing some big mysteries behind it. For instance, what are the evolutionary reasons for the female orgasm? Or, why do people suffer from persistent sexual arousal syndrome — the unpredictable, uncontrollable and persistent physical sensation of round-the-clock genital arousal? And, what would happen to intercourse, and coupling, if more of us could think our way into climaxing?

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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