Dirty Minds: Writer Reaches Orgasm in Noisy MRI Machine

Writer Kayt Sukel explores how our brains affect love, sex and relationships.

ByABC News
January 10, 2012, 8:57 PM

Jan. 11, 2012— -- Kayt Sukel was an undergraduate research assistant in a neuroscience lab at Harvard University before she decided to jump right into science -- literally.

She crawled inside a functional MRI machine, where she was tethered with a mesh net harness to hold her head still, and sexually stimulated herself to climax in that awkward setting -- not just once, but twice, so researchers could map her brain activity.

It was a scene even she admits felt straight out of a porno film, but Sukel said she knew she was contributing to the scientific understanding of what happens to the brain during orgasm. And it made great fodder for a book.

"I did it," she writes. "I now had a great story if anyone ever asked me to name the strangest place I'd had an orgasm. And I had helped science while doing it. Triumph for all parties concerned!"

Sukel, 37, writes about that and much more in her new book, "Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships," which examines how neurobiology shapes how we love and bond with others.

Other books have been written about "the nether regions and what is going on downstairs," but this well-researched book helps readers find out "what's going on upstairs."

"Sex is between your ears," Sukel said. "Our brain is really an important part of orgasm."

One of her most surprising discoveries was that men's and women's brains in love are not that different.

"There is a lot more variation within any given sex than between them," she said. "There are more differences between 100 women in their brains than between men and women."

"A lot of biologists say women are this way in love and sex, and men are that way," she said. "But a lot of gender biases don't appear in the way you would expect in the literature."

Sukel explores what in the brain makes a person fall in love and why "good girls like bad boys." Is there such a thing as love addiction? And what does science say about attracting the right person?

"Romantic love really is a biological drive," she said. "Something in our biology makes us want to make connections."

When Sukel had her son, she discovered firsthand the infatuating love of a child, which serves an evolutionary purpose.

"My baby was pretty sexy -- much more than I'd been prepared for," she writes. "Not in a sweaty, naked-hot-guy kind of way, but in an irresistible, compelling way that altered my body, my mind, and my life from top to bottom."

During orgasm, as well as during lactation, the brain releases the so-called "love hormone" oxytocin.

"The adoration is part and parcel of it," she said. "If I didn't love this pooping, screaming machine as much as I did, we would not be able to commit."

Sukel's behavior made sense to her.

"I had to take care of a helpless thing, and thank goodness the biology helped give me the mental and emotional toolkit to cope with that," she said.

In studies of maternal behavior in prairie voles, oxytocin makes the female more interested in her offspring. And she gets faster at catching prey. In males, the hormone vasopressin seems to have a similar effect, encouraging monogamy.

"I know the jokes about men being like rats," she said. Nonetheless, it's hard to make rules about men and women. "It's clear men do form strong attachments."