For decades, scientists have been sure that the brain plays an important role in achieving orgasm, but little was known about which parts of the brain were involved. They wondered, for instance, whether there was a unique “orgasm center” in the brain responsible for that wondrous point of climax (spoiler: there’s not).
One of the scientists leading the way is Janniko Georgiadis (PhD) from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Since the early 2000s, Georgiadis and his team have been using positron emission tomography (PET) scanners, a neuroimaging device similar to an MRI machine, to track brain activity prior to, during, and after orgasm.
They discovered that many parts of the brain work together to create the distinct mental states and physiological responses that occur during arousal and climax. They also discovered that understanding which parts of the brain shut down is just as important as which are active.
It’s important to note that there are limitations to these studies. Technology is not yet advanced enough to let us peek into the brain during a natural sexual encounter. Far from the more comfortable environment of the bedroom, volunteers lie on scanner beds and use the helping hand of a partner to reach orgasm.
The studies miss out on what happens to the brain leading up to sex, such as during foreplay. Instead, brain mapping starts with stimulation of the genital areas and goes until just past the point of orgasm which, for the purpose of the studies, is defined as the moment of ejaculation in men and involuntary pelvic muscle spasms in women.
Limitations aside, what the studies reveal about brain activity during an orgasm is fascinating and goes a long way to helping us understand just what’s happening when we reach that lush pinnacle of pleasure.
YOUR BRAIN PRE-ORGASM
Genital stimulation activates the part of the parietal lobe known as the secondary somatosensory cortex (SII), which interprets touch. One study theorizes that the SII is responsible for labeling the quality of sensation, such as whether it’s a sexual touch or not. (Georgiadis, 2006)
As arousal intensifies, blood flow decreased to the prefrontal and temporal areas, such as the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), both of which help us process emotions, fear, and risk — all important parts of cognitive thinking and decision-making (Georgiadis, 2011).
In other words, it slows down the part of our brain that does most of cognitive thinking and analysis.
During a state of extreme arousal, blood flow increases to the cerebellum, which interprets the physical sensations of the genital area. The cerebellum plays an important role in emotional processing. (Georgiadis, 2006, 2007, 2011)
YOUR BRAIN DURING ORGASM
The cerebellum stays active during orgasm and may trigger involuntary muscle contractions. Similarly, the medulla oblongata is active when men ejaculate. The medulla oblongata is a part of the brain stem which is responsible for involuntary movements (Georgiadis, 2007).
Previously, scientists believed that the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a crucial piece of the brain’s reward system and the dopamine pathway, played an important role in an orgasm. But across multiple studies, Georgiadis found the VTA was just as active when someone imitates the physical sensations of an orgasm (clenching the pelvic floor muscles) or is stimulated without climaxing.
Basically, our bodies release dopamine throughout a sexual experience, which makes it feel good whether we actually climax or not. (Georgiadis, 2006 and 2007).
Key among the studies’ findings is the dramatic loss of blood flow to the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) during orgasm. The OFC works to track the cause and effect of various activities when you’re striving for pleasure. For instance, the OFC is activated when you eat beyond fullness and feel uncomfortable.
Georgiadis theorizes that the OFC has to shut down in order to achieve that poignant feeling of being “out-of-control” during orgasm.
Interestingly, the OFC is triggered when someone attempts to reach orgasm and fails, as well as when someone actively tries to not come (Georgiadis, 2011 and 2006b). This seems to indicate that we get lost in the whole experience.
Although suppression of brain activity in the OFC was key for Georgiadis and his team, other studies contradictorily found increased activity in the prefrontal cortex where the OFC is housed (Whipple, 2008).
After an orgasm, the frontal and temporal parts of the cerebral cortex involved in decision making and moral thinking turn back on. We turn back into our thinking, logical selves–no longer under the spell of sexual arousal.
The other most active area of the brain is the hypothalamus, which produces oxytocin and dopamine and encourages bonding between partners (Georgiadis, 2011).
As Georgiadis notes in one of his papers, “the study of how the brain comes to produce orgasm is still in its infancy” (Georgiadis, 2011), and there’s much more left to uncover. Research of this kind has practical uses, such as discovering the causes of anorgasmia (an inability to reach orgasm) or other sexual dysfunctions.