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."
Hormones Affect Development
Hormonal action on the brain starts early, even in utero. At six to 12 weeks gestation, a fetus with XY (male) chromosomes will get a rush of testosterone that helps create the developing penis.
"After that, there is another flood [of hormones] that basically gives the blueprint for all circuits," said Sukel.
"For so long we have talked about gender and love as being either biology or environment," she said. "But environment has a way of shaping biology and vice versa … an intricate dance."
Nowhere are brain circuits more alight than during the human orgasm, and Sukel wanted to learn more about the neurobiology of sex. Last year, she offered to support research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, plunging in to a noisy, cold MRI machine.
At first she felt competitive, wondering if any of the other subjects had failed at climaxing inside the loud machine. She was reassured by lead researcher Barry Komisaruk. "A few. But not too many," he told her.
Understanding the physiology of climaxing is still a mystery, according to Komisaruk, a professor of psychology at Rutgers and author of the 2006 book, "The Science of Orgasm."
Stimulation of the genitals triggers a cluster of nerve activity that moves to the sensory cortex in the brain, and then on to various parts of the limbic system. Most immediately activated are the amygdala, which controls emotion and heart rate; the hippocampus, which controls memory and fantasy; and the cerebellum, which controls deep muscle tension.
Next, the frontal cortex, which controls executive function, is activated, and then the hypothalamus, releasing oxytocin, and some other areas before "everything cools down," he said.
Powerful endorphins are also activated that raise a person's pain threshold. In both men and women, orgasm works roughly the same way, said Komisaruk.
His studies focus on which parts of the brain are activated in which sequence from the start of genital stimulation to orgasm.
"It's important because in many cases, people can't experience orgasm," he said. "The next step would be to find out where the blockage occurs. We want to follow this up with a possible therapeutic procedure to bypass or get around the block."
Therapy might involve neurofeedback in "real time," allowing a person to view the parts of the brain critical to orgasm and to direct the body to respond.
Komisaruk sees real potential with those who cannot experience orgasm because of paralysis or prostate surgery.
One woman, who was paralyzed from the waist down and had no external sensation in her genitals, was able to feel the orgasm in her uterus. Brain imaging has revealed that the nerves from the genitals run along the vagus nerve, outside of the spinal column, up to the brain.
"She didn't feel it in her clitoris, but could feel it in her vagina and cervix and she had muscle cramps," he said.
In another brain imaging study, some women have shown they can have an orgasm just by thinking about it -- without any stimulation.
"We obviously have the ability to think our brains into action, but we don't know yet what the limits are," said Komisaruk.
Sukel is intrigued by the way Komisaruk emphasizes "the bigger picture" in his research.
"What we are finding is the top-down control that can modulate our feelings of pleasure and pain -- it isn't limited to our organs," she said. "Think of the placebo effect … We have a lot of influence over our perception of pleasure and even over our disease state and will learn more going forward."
Orgasm just may provide a "novel way" to understand touch and allow humans to modulate their feelings, according to Sukel.
"It might go beyond biofeedback -- just believing that something is helpful," she said. "Even telling a patient their pain is not harmful reduces the sensation of pain."