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Only Epilepsy Brings More Activity to Women’s Brains than Does ‘Self-Stimulation’ to Orgasm

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The pop psychology section of Barnes & Noble is filled with self-help books that dutifully explain how the brain is the body’s primary erogenous zone. Now researchers have spliced together a series of fMRI images to make a movie that shows the extent to which that clichéd adage rings true. A video, shown on an iPad this afternoon in a poster session at SfN 2011, indicates that more activity exists in the brains of women during “self-stimulation” to orgasm (this is a family blog so we’ll stick with geek speak) than anything short of an epileptic seizure. Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers University psychology professor, marvels: “It seems to activate all of the major brain systems, which we didn’t know before. I don’t know of any other behavioral process that is so powerful.” [Below is a still from the "Brain Symphony" movie, courtesy of Barry Komisaruk.]

A still from the "Brain Symphony" movie, courtesy of Dr.Barry Komisaruk.The movie, labeled by the researchers in Komisaruk’s laboratory as a “brain symphony” and presented to the press in a book called “hot topics,” shows the buildup to orgasm and the subsequent ebbing of activity during a five-minute period. A series of colored lines—each of which represents a two-second “snapshot”—descend down the screen, evolving from dark red (lowest activity) to (white, highest level) as a woman’s brain progresses toward the Big O. Each line is subdivided into 80 columns that represent the left, midline and right regions. (The poster presentation includes scans of six women, though only one was used for the movie.)

The opening sonata begins with activation of the genital sensory projection zone, the paracentral lobule, followed by a cueing of the limbic system (insula, anterior cingulate, amygdala, hippocampus). During the crescendo, other areas join in for the hallelujah: the cerebellum (perhaps because of a change in muscle tension), the nucleus accumbens (a reward and pleasure center), the hypothalamus (spritzer of oxytocin, often misleadingly called the ‘love hormone’) and even the frontal cortex. Other researchers have found that the frontal area, the executive control center, shuts down during orgasm, perhaps because stimulation was provided by a partner, which might enable someone to simply let go.

At 70, Komisaruk has researched the physiology of the female orgasm for decades and has collected fMRI data on 30 women during the past eight years. By no means does the scanner evoke the ambiance of mojitos and Caribbean sunsets. To keep a woman’s head from moving during climax, she must wear what is called a “thermoplastic, semi-rigid head restrainer,” which, if it weren’t a clinical lab implement, might bring to mind something secreted in Torquemada’s toolkit. Nonetheless, Komisaruk has yet to encounter any, uh, problems.

Understanding the normal physiology of orgasm might help address the problem of anorgasmia, the inability to achieve climax and the issues related to female sexual desire, as drug makers have yet to come up with a Viagra equivalent for women. Komisaruk is now doing similar research with men. Stay tuned. Maybe Brain Symphony II will premiere at SfN 2012!

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. brendawolf 9:43 pm 11/16/2011

    I think it is great that female orgasm is being talked about and have us consider what we think. It is an important subject that is of great relevance to relationships.

    I myself look to “hands-on” female orgasm researchers for the best information.
    I found the Bodansky who wrote “Instant Orgasm and especially the Welcomed Consensus who are “hands-on female orgasm researchers and sex educators, and have the latest cutting edge information on female orgasm.

    The Welcomed Consensus research female orgasm, “hands-on”, 365 days a year, and have for over 25 years. My partner and I have used their Deliberate Orgasm practice that gave birth to Slow Sex. We love the DVD “Orgasm at the First Touch”, that has a live demonstration and the step by step on how to give and how to receive orgasm at the first touch.

    Thank you to Professor Barry Komisaruk and his team for the study talked about in this article.
    I do wonder though what would be discovered if they did an MRI of a totally different kind of orgasm than the traditional model of orgasm observed in this article: an MRI of a woman experiencing orgasm at the first touch. This deliberate orgasm practice could give some serious new insights into female sexuality; it did for us and took our sex life to a new level of fun and enjoyment.

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  2. 2. brendawolf 9:46 pm 11/16/2011

    There is a lot of free information on along with the latest on female sexuality.

    Link to this
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