Sexy Neuroscience

Q. Would you like to hear about a study that involves the keywords “fMRI” and “orgasms?”

A. Yes. Yes you would.

fMRI images of a woman's brain throughout an orgasm.

A team of neuroscientists at Rutgers are working to unravel the neurophysiological correlates of female sexual arousal and climax. What they’re finding, intriguingly enough, is (gasp!) that creativity and empathy are just as crucial to a woman’s sexual pleasure as physical stimulation is – and maybe even moreso. Explicit sexual fantasizing activates most of the same brain regions as an equivalent series of physical touches. “More than 30 areas of the brain are active during the event,” one article says, “including those involved in touch, memory, reward – and even pain.”

Those activation patterns become more intense when an actual physical stimulus is introduced. The one oddball, though, is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region of the frontal lobe that’s crucial to tasks like attention switching and imagining oneself in another person’s place. And what exactly the PFC does during orgasm is the subject of a Science Mystery right now. The Rutgers team think they’ve discovered that the PFC becomes more active during orgasm, whether it’s achieved through physical touch or thought alone (yep, there are people who can think themselves to orgasm). Meanwhile, a team at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands think they’ve discovered something else: in their experiments, the PFC evidently “shuts off” during orgasm – especially a region of the PFC called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in the process of self-control.

This has led the Netherlands team to describe an orgasm as an “altered state of consciousness.” As the lead researcher on the project says:

I don’t think orgasm turns off consciousness but it changes it. When you ask people how they perceive their orgasm, they describe a feeling of a loss of control. I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect.

Well, here’s an important distinction. 1) The orgasmic altered state itself may not be necessary from a purely reproductive standpoint (I’ll come back to this), but 2) the mental side of sex is deeply intertwined with the physical one, and both need to work together properly if anyone’s going to have much fun. This ties in with a topic I’ve written about before: that fascinating intersection between abstract representation and physiological response.

But wait! As it turns out, these two teams of researchers may have unwittingly stumbled on two different roads to orgasm:

It is possible there is a difference between someone trying to mentalise sexual stimulation as opposed to receiving it from a partner. … Perhaps having a partner makes it easier to let go of that control and achieve orgasm. Alternatively, having a partner may make top-down control of sensation and pleasure less necessary to climax.

These alternate perception modes have intrigued me for a long time, though this is the first time I’ve seen them brought up in this context. But the point the article makes is a great one: with a little practice, it becomes surprisingly easy to shift back and forth between task-positivity and introspection. And in fact, the article goes on to talk about orgasm research as a learnable mode of conscious pain modulation:

Orgasm is a special case of consciousness. If we can look at different ways of inducing orgasm, we may better understand how we can use top-down processing to control what we physically feel.

Cool stuff. But what about this orgasmic altered state – this hidden place of Zen-like concentration and/or ego-dissolving nirvana? Why does it seem to be available in several different “flavors?” What about its strange behavior: it’s at least partly dependent on conscious control, and can be be consciously suppressed, but it’s impossible to initiate instantly at will (I don’t mean “instantly” like “in a minute or so,” but “instantly” in the sense of “as instantly as you can picture your favorite color, or feel upset“)?

Some delicious physical touch.

It’d be easy to lazily explain this by saying that orgasms are designed by natural selection to be as addictive as possible, while requiring some threshold to prevent false alarms and premature embarrassments. But it’s not always helpful to reason backwards from fortuitous end results – it’d be just as easy (and pointless) to say that the sun is 93 million miles from the Earth because that’s the perfect distance for producing Earth-like environments. Doesn’t really explain much about the original causes, or about how things might have worked if they’d been different.

So, coming soon in the exciting world of sexual neuroscience, we’ll hopefully start to see some new data about these various types of orgasms, and why evolution wired us to experience such unusual altered states. Addictive “reward” chemicals may be straightforward enough, but an orgasm is much more than just a dopamine rush. Just what it is, exactly, will be fun to find out.

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