The tingling build-up of sensations, the rush of blood to your most sensitive areas, an overflow of hormones pulsing through your system, the greatest headrush known to humans. No, we’re not talking about eating ice cream, we’re talking about orgasms (although they sometimes elicit similar responses).
You (hopefully) have a good understanding of what happens physically during an orgasm. You’ve probably even noticed the many ways orgasms can affect your brain, like feeling less stressed, sleeping better, and having more energy. But exactly what is happening in that noggin of yours when you have an orgasm?
The female brain is even more complex than the so-called mystery of female sexual arousal. So let’s connect the dots to understand the neuroscience behind the female orgasm.
Sexual Pleasure Symphony
Before we can talk about orgasms themselves, we need to talk about what happens before. The buildup of sexual arousal in females. Imagine your brain as a composer in a great symphony. The name of this symphony? The sexual pleasure cycle.
Getting turned on comes from the combination of incoming sensory information, like kissing or seeing someone you’re attracted to, combined with the internal state, aka what’s going on in your mind. Sexual stimulation, outside of genital stimulation, can come from just about anywhere: smells, sounds, sights, and thoughts.
Many researchers break arousal from stimuli into two groups – unconditioned versus learned. The general consensus is that genital arousal is unconditioned. Depending on who you ask, smelling pheromones or other forms of tactile arousal like nipple stimulation or kissing may be a part of that group as well. Learned stimuli would be pretty much anything else that turns you on.
What the brain registers as sexually arousing can change over time (just think about a crush that now gives you the ick). One study asked women to clitorally stimulate themselves while viewing a neutral visual stimulus. After 8-10 trials, this “neutral stimulus” began to elicit sexual arousal without clitoral stimulation.
The brain then orchestrates this sensory information, gently weaving notes from hormones, while bringing in whatever is going in your mind to synthesize the sexual pleasure symphony.
This is a simplified explanation of the reward cycle in the context of sexual arousal, but it goes to show that the brain is a complex creature. Not only that, its symphony of sexual arousal is constantly changing and evolving and seems even more nuanced for females.
Research like this brings up questions like:
Why does female sexual arousal seem more dependent on their mental state than males’?
What role do hormones play in female sexual arousal?
What exactly happens in the brain during a female orgasm?
A Clinical Climax
One study observed brain activity in women during an orgasm using an fMRI analysis. They found that brain activity gradually increased approaching orgasm, peaked during the orgasm, and then decreased afterward. The regions of the brain that were activated were the frontal cortex, reward, motor, sensory, and brainstem areas. They found little difference between orgasms from masturbation and those from a partner.
The same researchers created an animation of what happens during an orgasm, done on one of the main researchers herself, Nan Wise, Ph.D. Talk about dedication to science! They used a “hot metal” color scale to show the activation in different parts of the brain using a color scale from dark red to white, which meant the highest level of activity.
The animation made from fMRI scans shows brain activity beginning in the genital area of the sensory cortex, which then moves to the limbic system which is involved in long-term memory and emotions. As Wise approaches orgasm, the frontal cortex and cerebellum show increased activation, with activity peaking in the hypothalamus as the orgasm peaks.
The hypothalamus is located deep within the brain and is responsible for linking the endocrine system (hormones) with the nervous system. It plays a variety of roles including managing sexual behavior, releasing hormones, and regulating emotional responses. During orgasm, the hypothalamus releases oxytocin.
You might know oxytocin as the “love hormone” but it’s also responsible for stimulating contractions in the uterus – during labor and the female orgasm. Those tell-tale sensations of an orgasm? That’s thanks in large part to oxytocin.
Another part of the brain whose activity peaked during orgasm is called the nucleus accumbens. This structure deep within the brain plays a key role in the reward system and is part of the dopamine pathway – a neurotransmitter that induces feelings of pleasure. Activity in this region then tapers off after orgasm.
Out of The Lab and Into The Bedroom
As most of us are aware, research on female pleasure leaves something to be desired. We didn’t even learn about the full anatomy of the clitoris until 2005! Females are underrepresented in science in general, but specifically in studies on sexual health and arousal.
A lot of this is because of hesitation from researchers about having to deal with variables like attitudes towards visual sexual stimulation, periods, vaginal responses, and an inconsistency between measured and reported sexual arousal. Sounds like scientists and society not understanding or wanting to make space for the nuances of the female body. We also want to note that research that has been done has been on cis-women, and there is very little gender-diverse representation in sexual health research.
That takes us back to one of our other questions “Why does female sexual arousal seem more dependent on their mental state than males’”? Discussion on the orgasm gap aims to explain this. Factors like toxic beliefs about female pleasure, a lack of education on the nature of the female orgasm, and issues with sexual partners impact the brain’s ability to create its orgasmic masterpiece.
There is so much more to learn and understand about all things related to female orgasms, but especially the neuroscience behind them. Understanding what happens during female orgasm is not only fascinating for us science nerds but has practical and clinical applications as well.
The aim of most of this research is to help provide answers and solutions for those experiencing sexual dysfunction like anorgasmia (inability to reach climax). While the neurology behind orgasms is fun to learn about, hopefully, it can also help shed some light for people that aren’t experiencing the kind of sexual pleasure they want and deserve.