Orgasms are fun (duh), but what’s going on in our brains to make our bodies feel so good as we reach climax? Well, quite a lot it turns out. We asked a neuroscience researcher to explain what happens to your brain when you orgasm, and you’ll be pleased to know the big O is as good for you as it feels. Read on for the full scoop.
This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Orgasm, According to a Neuroscience Researcher
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Meet the Expert
- Dr. Nan Wise is a certified sex therapist, relationship specialist, neuroscience researcher, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. She has garnered international recognition for her research that addresses gaps in the literature regarding the neural basis of human sexuality.
What Is an Orgasm, Scientifically Speaking?
Before we take a deep dive into neuroscience, let’s get our facts straight. Dr. Wise’s favorite answer to this question was coined by Charles Kinsey, a pioneer in the study of human sexuality, who defined orgasms as “the expulsive discharge of neuromuscular tensions at the peak of the sexual response.” Or, in layperson terms, an intensely pleasurable response to sexual stimulation that involves both the brain (neurons) and the body (muscles). That said, Dr. Wise tells us that “orgasms exist on a spectrum. Some are pleasant, but not earth-shattering, and others are screaming-laughing-crying episodes of pure ecstasy. Both are important and valid.” Noted. As for what happens to the brain when you reach climax, well, keep reading.
1. Blood Flow to the Brain Increases
Why are we interested in what happens to the brain during orgasm, you ask? Well, according to Wise, the brain is actually the most powerful sex organ there is—namely because genital stimulation produces so much muscle and nerve information that a tremendous boost in blood flow and oxygen to the brain results. “Sexual stimulation and orgasm are associated with increased blood flow to many brain regions involved in sensation, movement, reward and pleasure, as well as the regions involved in ‘higher’ brain functions like problem-solving, memory, language, and impulse control,” the expert tells us. Translation: A toe-curling orgasm is one of the best brain exercises around…and decidedly more fun than, say, doing a jigsaw puzzle.
2. The Genital Sensory Cortex Is Activated
The genital sensory cortex, or what Wise refers to as the “brain crotch,” is a recognized area of the primary sensory cortex that registers sexual stimulation. Interestingly enough, physical touch isn’t even required to kick the genital sensory cortex into gear. Indeed, one of the most, er, exciting discoveries Wise made in her research is that simply imagining genital stimulation is enough to activate the genital sensory cortex, which “gives insight into why some people might be able to ‘think off’ or have an imagination induced orgasm,” she explains. (Psst: If you’re interested in exploring the power of imagination and what it can do for your orgasms, you can find a helpful exercise here.)
That said, the most important thing is that once the brain crotch gets activated, be it by dirty thoughts or good old fashioned diddling, other regions follow suit. (Remember what we said about increased blood flow?)
3. The Reward System Lights Up
As previously mentioned, activity in multiple regions of the brain gradually increases during sexual stimulation and peaks at orgasm. One such region is the nucleus accumbens—a key part of the brain’s reward system that’s fueled by dopamine, a chemical that Wise fondly refers to as “the slutty neurotransmitter” because it’s released from the ventral tegmental area of the brain as a result of, well, sex, drugs and rock and roll. But more importantly, Wise tells us that dopamine is “not only widely implicated in the natural circuitry of reward [but also] plays a big role in motivation, motivational salience, associative learning and positive mood.” The takeaway? “Essentially, having regular sex, regular genital stimulation and orgasm doesn’t only make us feel better with mood lifting hormones, it might make us better learners, too,” says Wise. (Pretty neat, right?)
4. Serotonin Is Released
Another part of this sexy equation is serotonin—a neurotransmitter and hormone, commonly referred to as the “happy chemical,” that plays a role in regulating mood. As luck would have it, “a structure in the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus is strongly activated in orgasm, and that region is very much associated with production and distribution of serotonin within the brain,” says Wise. This is a big deal, the expert tells us, because when released serotonin can act as an antidepressant. As such, if you’ve been feeling down in the dumps and it’s affecting your libido, it might not be a bad idea to try to break that feedback loop with some QT spent seeking pleasure between the sheets, either with yourself or a partner.
5. Oxytocin Is Released
Oxytocin is another chemical in the feel good cocktail that orgasm produces and one that affects women more so than men—namely because “when female brains develop in utero there are more circuits that are sensitive to oxytocin, whereas men have more circuits that are sensitive to vasopressin and the sex hormones.” (Hence the somewhat accurate trope of men always having sex on the mind.)
As for the orgasm connection, oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus (i.e., the control center of the brain), which is yet another region activated—both in the posterior and anterior—during sexual stimulation and orgasm. What’s more, the hypothalamus is home to other “hedonic hotspots” that connect to the aforementioned dopamine-fueled reward system, says Wise.
In terms of what oxytocin actually does, the expert explains that it’s all about context and the way in which the key neurotransmitters interact. That said, if one were to isolate the action of oxytocin in the context of getting hot and steamy, Wise tells us that it certainly plays a role in making the big O happen—specifically because oxytocin is the hormone responsible for the oh-so pleasant uterine contractions that occur during climax.
6. Pain Sensitivity Is Reduced
The combination of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin is already pretty dreamy, but the brain takes that natural high to the next level when you reach the big O by releasing endogenous (i.e., made by the brain) opioids in the many regions of the brain that are already lit up from sexual stimulation. The end result is that the brain’s pain inhibiting system is activated, thus reducing pain. But, more importantly, “the peptides themselves, when they’re released, give us a sense of well-being in the absence of pain,” says Wise.
7. Testosterone Is Released
Most people just think of men when they hear testosterone, but the primary male sex hormone is produced in women too (in the ovaries, in fact) and it turns out that more of it is released following orgasm. Given that “having sex increases testosterone, and testerone is the source of sex drive for both males and females, it’s a good reason why when women in particular have more sex, they want more sex,” explains Wise. Bottom line: If you’re struggling with low desire, start masturbating—the more orgasms you have, the stronger your libido will be.
8. Neural Connections Are Strengthened
Finally, every time you activate your brain with sexual stimulation and orgasm, the neural connections involved get a little bit stronger. It’s “basically the basis of learning,” says Wise, adding that “in neuroscience it’s called Hebb’s rule: the neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, practice makes perfect, sex begets more sex and orgasms beget more orgasms. (So, you know what to do.)