Turn Me On (Up There): What Neuroscience Says About the Brain's Role in Arousal & Orgasm
When you’re having sex with someone you love and are entwined in a deeply sexual relationship with, it sometimes feels like your brain has nothing to do with it. You’re all a whirling blur of arms, legs, lips, skin, eyes, and those electrically charged parts in your deep south.
Modern science and medical technology, however, teach us something completely the opposite. Essentially, there is no delicious, glorious sex without the brain, confirming, as we’ve been told, that it is the largest sex organ.
By the time you actually experience an orgasm, “more than 30 major brain systems are activated," says Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers neuroscientist who studies the topic. "It's not a local, discrete event. There's no 'orgasm center.' It's everywhere."
Leveraging the capabilities of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to peer inside the inner workings of the brain during various physical activities, neuroscientist researchers like Komisaruk have conducted experiments that have shown in both men and women approaching orgasm that a predictable series of events occurs in the brain. The parts of the brain that light up during sexual stimulation indicate that it leads to activation of brain regions directly involved in processing our sense of touch.
In his Vox article “This is what your brain looks like during orgasm” written in 2015 about Komisaruk and other researchers’ who were first employing fMRI to study sexual activities, Joseph Stromberg stated: “From there, however, a number of seemingly unrelated brain areas – such as the limbic system (involved in memory and emotions), the hypothalamus involved in unconscious body control), and the prefrontal cortex (involved in judgment and problem solving) — join in, with one after another showing heightened levels of activation.”
Much deeper probing through electronic observation of the brain’s role in turning you and your mate – women and men – on during sex has been completed since then. The intimate details of researchers' magnetic resonance revelations have become significantly more specific.
Here’s one for you to admire and ponder: “The primary somatosensory cortex is the place where women feel erotic pleasure in their brains when sexual touch occurs,” as explained by Joe Duncan in his recent article for Medium, “Neuroscience Reveals the Parts of the Brain Responsible for Sexual Arousal & Orgasm.”
His article focuses on a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in December 2021, titled Sensory-Tactile Functional Mapping and Use-Associated Structural Variation of the Human Female Genital Representation Field, in which researchers demonstrate that they’ve identified the specific part of the brain that activates when the clitoris is touched. Now that is definitely about as specific as it gets, right?
“There’s a specific part of the brain dedicated to processing the erotic touch of the genitals,” Duncan writes. “Furthermore, this area was diverse in the subjects tested. No two genital representation fields were the same. Like a fingerprint, we all have different sex lives, up to and including the regions of the brain that light up like a Christmas tree when we’re sexually active…. Different brains, different needs.”
Some of the other findings from the fMRI research are worth noting, too, to keep you all fully informed on how your fleshy gray tablet furnishes your body with all of the tools you need to enjoy everything from masturbation to copulation. For example, despite the clear physiological differences between female and male orgasms (female orgasms last about 20 seconds, rather than 10, for instance), experiments at Komisaruk’s lab at Rutgers and elsewhere have shown that in the brain, an orgasm is an orgasm, regardless of the individual’s sex.
Orgasms also have powerful effects on the brain and body, such as acting as a painkiller. In some of the experiments Komisaruk did in collaboration with the legendary retired sex researcher Beverly Whipple, the studies suggested that orgasm and sexual stimulation may increase people’s pain tolerance. The Vox article mentions that Whipple’s subsequent research even suggested that “vaginal stimulation during childbirth increases pain tolerance and that the agony of childbirth would be even worse without this mechanism.”
In keeping with the fact that men's and women’s brains experience orgasm in similar ways – despite varying emotions and behaviors displayed by both genders – the high felt washing through the brain resembles a drug-induced state of euphoria in both sexes.
“During an orgasm, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex — the brain region behind the left eye — shuts down during an orgasm,” writes Lizette Borreli in the April 2, 2014 issue of Medical Daily. “This region is considered to be the voice of reason and controls behavior. The brain of both a man and woman is said to look much like the brain of a person taking heroin during an orgasm, according to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.”
Researchers also learned that women should be conscious of the fact that they can’t fake an orgasm while having sex in an fMRI machine. (Insert favorite winking emoticon here.) “When the women were asked to fake an orgasm,” Borreli explains, “their brain activity increased in the cerebellum and other areas related to movement control, but this brain activity was not seen during an actual orgasm.” Faking an orgasm is acting, and we all know that acting isn't as good as the real thing, especially as far as the brain (and your pleasure) is concerned.
The good thing is you’ll quickly forget about all of this research while having sex anywhere else, exactly because your brain will take you to new heights that will block out all rational thought and let you orgasm to your head’s (and heart's) content.