Orgasms unlock the mind
Article By: Bryony Whitehead
Thu, 19 May 2011 8:02
Reaching orgasm may unlock a part of the mind and even assist with the treatment of pain, new research has discovered. Yet, in spite of the fact that orgasm is a natural human function, we don't know much about it.
Barry Komisaruk and his team at Rutgers University, New Jersey conducted research in which patients stimulated themselves to orgasm in an MRI scanner whilst the team scanned their brain activity for clues on what areas of the brain are stimulated.
Stats show that one in four women in the US struggle to reach orgasm yet there are few treatment options to assist them - one of the reasons behind the rather odd experiment. It's also known that the orgasm is an effective analgesic against pain, so another reason was to understand how reaching orgasm may help to understand how to control pain.
Komisaruk is quoted in an article by Kayt Sukel in the New Scientist: "If we can look at different ways of inducing orgasm, we may better understand how we can use top-down processing to control what we physically feel."
Use your imagination…
In his study, Komisaruk found heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) - that part of our brain that is understood to be involved in higher cognitive behaviours such as decision making, expressing personality and moderating behaviour. It's the area of the brain that enables us to reason, make decisions between good and bad, same and different, decide what consequences an action may entail and to control our actions in social situations.
Since the orgasm has always been assumed to be a purely physical reaction, Komisaruk wondered whether the PFC played a role in some other way - such as assisting us to reach orgasm through imagination. His reasoning was that since fantasy and self-referential imagery are reported as part of the orgasm process, it may be that the PFC plays a vital role in orgasm in this way. Since there are people who can reach orgasm through thought alone, the team's postulation may not be that extreme.
30 different parts of the brain
Kayt Sukel, a patient whose path to orgasm was tracked via MRI scanning, had 30 different parts of her brain light up through the process - including those parts that are involved in memory, pain, reward and of course, touch. Before the physical masturbation, Sukel was also asked to imagine tensing pelvic floor muscles, as well as imagine clitoral touches which Komisaruk found stimulated the PFC more effectively than the actual act of stimulation.
A similar study conducted by Janniko Georgiadis at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, found the opposite happened. When reaching orgasm test patient's PFCs "switched off" - in particular, the left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) which is understood to control decision-making and reasoning. Georgiadis believes the switching off of the OFC to be the basis for sexual control - the way we are able to experience pleasure. He believes that while orgasm may not entirely switch off our consciousness, it may alter it. Still, this may offer some insight into why some people suffer from anorgasmia - the inability to reach orgasm. It may be an inability to shut off one's reasoning.
While Georgiadis' patients were stimulated to orgasm by their partners, Komisaruk's patients masturbated themselves to climax. This may offer an explanation for the distinction between the two studies. Being stimulated to orgasm by one's partner may mean we do not require the full use of the PFC, while self-stimulation may require us to have full use of this area of our brain.
Read Kayt Sukel's first-hand account under the MRI scanner on New Scientist.