Rutgers researchers have peeked inside the brain during one of the body’s most private sensations – orgasm.
Psychology professor Barry Komisaruk and colleagues captured the crescendo of brain activity in a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging snapshots taken over seven minutes. They then transformed the images into a colorful animation – the brighter the color, the more activated the brain is.
“We’re looking at the sequence of brain regions that get recruited at increasing intensity leading up to orgasm,” said Komisaruk. “It’s such a compelling behavioral and sensory phenomenon with so many implications and so little understanding.”
The brain belongs to Nan Wise – a 54-year-old sex therapist turned Rutgers PhD student.
“When I first started grad school in ’80s, we didn’t have these methods,” said Wise, who went back to school four years ago. “Now we can study how the brain is recruiting these regions to create the big bang of orgasm.”
When Wise reaches orgasm, almost every area of her brain is activated.
“Secondary to an epileptic seizure, there’s no bigger brain networking event,” said Wise. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to examine the connectivity of the brain.”
By understanding the events in the brain that lead to orgasm, Wise and Komisaruk hope to find clues about what might be going wrong in the 25 percent of women who rarely or never have one.
“Where does the blockage occur?” said Komisaruk. “To understand how to get around that could be tremendously useful.”
But Wise, who is both a scientist and a sexual woman, appreciates the intricacies of intimacy.
“I think the caveat is understanding that sexuality is very complex,” said Wise, describing the physical, psychological and emotional components of orgasm. “Theoretically, it’s going be helpful to know how things work. And perhaps at some point we might be able to see where something’s breaking down.”
Understanding orgasm could also have implications for treating pain.
“A lot of the same regions involved in pleasure are involved in pain, and we haven’t been able to suss out how those systems work yet,” said Wise.
The study of sexuality continues to be controversial, according to Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.
“But we need to keep researching love and sex,” said Garcia. “They’re the most consistent human experiences on this planet.”
Garcia says studying sex in the lab (or a noisy MRI machine) doesn’t take away the magic in the bedroom.
“It’s kind of like knowing all the ingredients in a wonderful dessert,” he said.
By normalizing sexuality as a valid thing to study, Wise hopes people become more willing to discuss it.
“We need to get over discomfort of talking about sex,” she said. “It’s good for us!”
Wise said the video of her brain during orgasm draws its share of giggles.
“I think it’s OK to chuckle,” said Garcia. “First it makes you laugh, and then it makes you think really hard.”