It’s often said the brain is the biggest sexual organ—and every time it happens, I know it’s hard to suppress a groan. It just sounds so trite. So damn cliché! Yet, here’s a prime example of a line being cliché for good reason. The brain is critical to the act of climax, as anyone too distracted by what happened at work earlier that day (or unwanted mental images of your naked mother) can attest. The brain plays a huge role in orgasm—surely as much as any quivering nether regions. And new research in the field of neuroscience suggests that our upstairs may be even more critical to the big O than the downstairs.
Here’s why: we can climax even when genital stimulation is absent. That’s right, we can orgasm without a single physical touch. All thanks to our brains.
Chances are, you’ve experienced this phenomenon in one form or another. Those wet dreams from your adolescent days. Crazy, hot sex dreams that feel oh-so-real in the middle of the night. Those dream orgasms are not reflex—rather, those orgasms are the product of our brain at work without physical stimulation. Orgasm can also be the byproduct of a seizure, brain damage or direct brain stimulation. And individuals who have severe spinal cord injuries are also capable of orgasm despite the fact that they can’t feel anything below the waist.
As you can see, the penis, clitoris and vagina are nice accessories to have when trying to reach la petite mort. They certainly help make things feel good. They just aren’t strictly necessary.
There are even some lucky individuals who are able to “think off” – simply sit back, relax and think themselves into an orgasm. I have one such lucky friend. A straitlaced corporate attorney, she tells me that she often “thinks off” to get through long, boring conference calls. She simply uses her noggin, setting off a series of top-down processes in the brain, that result in the big O with no one being the wiser. (She admits that she makes sure the phone is on mute when she participates in these acts of orgasmic rebellion—just in case she gets carried away). And neuroimaging studies that track and record brain activity during these “think off” sessions demonstrate that they light up the same brain areas as orgasms reached through more traditional avenues.
It’s entirely possible that all of us have this ability to “think off.” We simply never learned how to harness those top-down processes. Which is one of the reasons that researchers like Barry Komisaruk, Beverly Whipple and Nan Wise are studying just what happens in the brain during an orgasm using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). And why I volunteered my own brain (and orgasm) to help them do it.
Last year, as part of my research for DIRTY MINDS: HOW OUR BRAINS INFLUENCE LOVE, SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS, I donned
two hospital johnnies and self-stimulated to orgasm (twice, if we’re being exact) while scientists tracked what was happening in my brain. When the data from my brain was summed with the data from about a dozen other women, scientists discovered that orgasm has a distinct brain signature—and time course.
So where does the orgasm begin, continue and end? As I explored Ladytown, so to speak, my genital sensory cortex, motor areas, hypothalamus (an area involved in arousal), thalamus and substantia nigra (a pleasure center in the brain) were activated. So my brain took notice of my fingers doing the walking, integrated my physical activity and my internal fantasies, allowing the pleasure of it all to build up.
Once I reached the point of orgasm, my frontal cortex came online—as well as brain areas involved in memory, emotion and the integration of sensory information. As I rode the wave of that orgasm on through to the end, my hypothalamus turned back on, as well as brain areas that flooded me with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is known as the “pleasure chemical,” for that final physical rush.
When I saw the image of my brain at orgasm, I was astonished. Despite often feeling like my brain completely dematerializes when I “arrive,” the neuroimaging results demonstrate that it really is a whole-brain kind of experience—with over 30 discrete areas activated.
Anyone who has ever had an orgasm can tell you that it is an intense, intense experience. And getting to the big O involves a variety of cognitive, emotional and sensory components—even when you’re getting there on your own. And a better understanding of these components, and how the brain manages to integrate them, may offer us better understanding of not only sexual pleasure but also of human consciousness as well.
Blog post contributed by Kayt Sukel
Kayt will be speaking at the Museum on February 16 about her recent book, DIRTY MINDS: HOW OUR BRAINS INFLUENCE LOVE, SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS, an exploration of the neurobiology of love (Free Press, January 2012). She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the Author’s Guild and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). You can often find her oversharing on Twitter as @kaytsukel.