The brain’s reward circuits and rational thought processes are overwhelmed with electrical activity when a woman reaches sexual climax.
In the first film of what goes on inside a woman’s brain as she approaches and then experiences orgasm, researchers recorded how sexual arousal generates a cascade of events that, at its peak, involves 30 parts of the brain.
A woman not only experiences longer and deeper orgasms than a man, but they so overwhelm her nervous system that they leave her temporarily impervious to pain, the film shows.
“In women, orgasm produces a very extensive response across the brain and body,” said Barry Komisaruk, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who oversaw the research.
Professor Komisaruk and his colleagues plan to showed their film some 6 years ago, at a conference organised by the US Society for Neuroscience.
In their research they asked 16 women to “self stimulate” until they achieved orgasm, while lying under a blanket in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. Despite the clinical surroundings, all the women were able to achieve their goal, mostly in less than five minutes, although some took up to 20.
The scientists used the machine to observe which parts of the brain became active at each phase. The film, based on images taken of the women’s brains every two seconds, shows the surges in electrical activity as an orgasm overwhelms different combinations of brain areas in turn. They flood not only the brain’s “reward circuits” but also the parts associated with rational thought.
The pattern of activation seemed to be similar in all the women observed. This could help researchers establish a picture of what a normal orgasm looks like, and possibly help those suffering from sexual dysfunction. About one woman in seven never experiences an orgasm.
Other researchers have studied what happens in men’s brains during orgasm. One study at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands showed “extraordinary activation of the ventral tegmental area”, another part of the brain’s reward circuitry.
The early evidence suggests this effect, while similar in nature, is shorter-lived and not as strong as the sensation experienced by most women.
“In one experiment we asked women to self-stimulate and then raise their hands each time they had an orgasm. Some women raised their hands several times each session, often just a few seconds apart,” Professor Komisaruk said. “So the evidence is that woman tend to have longer orgasms and can experience several of them.”
by Susan Floyd