Orgasm and brain

Scientific American Mind tackles the neuroscience of orgasm in a feature article which has just been released online.

One of the merits of the article is that it avoids the ‘men are simple, women are complex’ stereotype and presents results from scientific studies that suggest there are both subtle similarities and differences in sexual response.

One problem with the area of sexual neuroscience is that it largely relies on brain scanning studies in humans.

You’ll see from the article that there’s lots of speculation as to what the changes in orgasm-related brain activity mean. It’s largely blue sky thinking though, because it’s always difficult to decide what is happening in the mind from the activity of particular brain areas. Take these paragraphs for example:

But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment—a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.

Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a depression of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. “Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain,” Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: “At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.”

It’s like trying to guess what’s happening in a city just by looking at changes in traffic flow. The upsurge in traffic on the high street could mean it’s a busy shopping day, but it could also mean there’s a carnival, or a riot, or funeral, or any other strange or unusual occurrence you might never have predicted.

Brain scanning just finds associations, but to find out whether an area is causally involved in a particular function, or whether it is necessary for the function, research with brain injured patients is one of the most powerful methods.

For example, if you think a brain area is necessary for orgasm, or a certain component of orgasm, a person with damage to that area should not experience what you’ve predicted.

We know that sexual problems are common after brain injury, but virtually no research has been done to see how damage to specific brain areas affects orgasm.

This would be important, both to help us understand the neuroscience of orgasm beyond general speculation, but also to begin to understand how we can help brain injured people regain satisfying sex lives.

Link to SciAmMind article ‘The Orgasmic Mind’.

3 thoughts on “Orgasm and brain”

  1. I disagree with what you wrote “research with brain injured patients is one of the most powerful methods.”
    Brain plasticity in the young and brain damaged, shows brain areas can change their function depending on the patient.
    Small Brain Defies Doctors’ Expectations

  2. Mark, I think what Vaughan is referring to is the concept of Double Dissociation which is an invaluable tool in assessing brain function in brain injured clients.
    Imaging is very useful, but would show multiple brain areas involved in say, language processing. For example, the right hemisphere of the brain is involved in non verbal communication such as pitch and volume in speech, as well as sense of humour. The left hemisphere in comparison is generally involved in language and speech production. It is this double dissociation of function that allows us to say with good confidence what cognitive function different brain areas are critically involved in. Imaging studies on the other hand merely show associations, not cause.
    The boy with a missing right hemisphere almost certainly has many cognitive disabilities, despite surviving his injury.
    To return to Vaughan’s orgasm example, imaging might show many different areas of the brain being active during arousal and orgasm, but would not indicate which areas are critical. For example, language areas might be involved if the person being scanned was talking to their partner! (can we fit lovemaking couples into fMRI scanners?!)
    Brain Injury on the other hand might allow us to make a dissociation between, for example, arousal and orgasm. Unfortunately, this is an area of disability which brain injured people and their partners are generally reluctant to speak about.

  3. Would this article indicate that anxiety would compound the ability for the female to have an orgasm?
    Would the ability of the brain to allay these emotions during an orgasm cause intrest in this observation as a truth?

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