on what brain scans can tell us about sex.

10 10 19 — Science

While a normal MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan) uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues within the body, an fMRI measures the differences between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood to further track its flow to the brain. With this imaging technique, scientists are able to scan people’s brains in real-time to see what regions are active or inactive during particular tasks, acts, or even thought processes. This allows us to further see how the brain works and which parts of it are in direct communication with our minds, thoughts, and actions. fMRI scans are fascinating, as they have the capacity to do incredible things such as allow patients in a vegetative state to communicate freely, or even to show us with magnetic technology if someone’s telling the truth. 

But what exactly can they do for our sex lives? 

The more recent explosion of neuroscience has been game-changing in terms of understanding the inner-workings of the brain, and the fMRI gives researchers the ability to examine the human brain non-invasively while observing internal activities with ease. With these scans, it’s possible to gain a better understanding of our own thoughts, motivations, and behaviors and even use brain activity to consequently predict future behavioral patterns. Taking all of this into consideration when diving into human sexual behavior, this imaging also gives researchers the opportunity to visualize brain structures and functions, while exploring various regions of the brain that show heightened activation during sexual stimulation. In terms of human sexual behavior patterns, brain imaging scans have proved to be remarkably insightful. 

Sexual stimulation leads to activation of the regions that are known as our processing centers, specifically related to our sense of touch. But other areas of seemingly unrelated brain mass—such as the limbic system (memory and emotions), the hypothalamus (body movement control), and the prefrontal cortex (judgment and problem solving)—also join in with heightened levels of activation. When the time comes to actually orgasm, more than 30 of the brain systems are actually activated, so research shows us that there’s no sexual center. Instead, it’s actually scattered everywhere across the brain.

It’s true that there are some clear physiological differences between the male and female orgasm, but recent scan research shows that within the brain, an orgasm is an orgasm. Regardless of someone’s biological sex, the brain lights up and activates in all the same areas during the act. Scientifically, there’s still so much to be learned about orgasms, but brain imaging studies have been able to establish basic and surprising observations on how they work. In both men and women approaching orgasm, a series of events occur—and imaging studies prove that orgasms actually take over our brain function centers. So what exactly happens in our brains while we’re engaging in sexual acts? 

Here’s our list of a few surprising things that occur in the brain during sexual stimulation. (based on fMRI scan research) 

When participating in sexual acts, the logical part of our brain essentially shuts down

When in the act, people tend to feel braver and much less inhibited. That’s because the part of your brain that’s associated with your logical reasoning skills, decision making and judgment—the lateral orbitofrontal cortex— temporarily checks out. This deactivation is also associated with less fear and anxiety.

    Multiple parts of the brain are associated with orgasm.

    With imaging research, it’s easy to see that there are multiple spatially remote spots in the brain that are highly involved when it comes to sexual response. Research shows that the genital sensory cortex, hypothalamus, thalamus, motor areas, and the substantia nigra all light up when having sex and achieving orgasm. The thalamus helps us process information associated with movement, touch, and the recall of any sexual memories that might arise. The hypothalamus works to quickly produce oxytocin that assists with enhanced arousal. 

      The brain releases tons of dopamine during any sexual activity.

      When we reach a sexual climax, the brain starts to work overtime to produce and emit a multitude of hormones and neurochemicals. Dopamine is one of the main hormones that’s released, and it’s responsible for our feelings of desire, motivation, and pleasure. Scientists have learned that this hormone works to take notice of and long for specific rewards (such as sex or food) and can, in turn, help us figure out how to get more of those things. 

        Oxytocin is also released in large amounts during sexual arousal. 

        Additionally, oxytocin is made and released by the brain during sexual activity. This hormone is secreted from the pituitary gland and given off in the hypothalamus. It’s a hormone that promotes affection and helps us to feel closer to other people. It’s been called the “bonding hormone” because it’s also released during breastfeeding and helps to create a sense of attachment. Oxytocin plays various roles throughout the body, but overall assists the brain in creating and strengthening our social connections.

          During orgasm, the brain is stimulated similarly to when you’re listening to your favorite music or eating your favorite food. 

          Research has shown that surprisingly, the brain doesn’t differentiate much between sexual acts and other pleasurable experiences. The parts of your brain that bring delight when you eat your favorite food or make you happy when listening to your favorite band, are the same areas that seem to be in control during sex and orgasm. The reward pathways in our brains are activated in the same way, during and leading up to orgasm.

            During sex, chemicals are given off in the brain that makes us less sensitive to pain. 

            When engaging in sexual activity, the body becomes much less sensitive to pain. This is because the pituitary gland becomes activated, and there’s a surge in the release of endorphins that promote pain reduction, intimacy, and an increased bonding sensation.

            Pain and orgasms share some of the same brain activity centers. 

            There’s a specific reason why some people seem to get sexual pleasure from pain. The fact is, orgasm and pain actually are highly affected by a few of the exact same areas of the brain—specifically the cortex. 

              The brain releases hormones after orgasm that can make us feel sleepy. 

              After orgasm, our brain usually slows down but doesn’t completely shut off. For both men and women, the parasympathetic nervous system stops working quickly to promote rest throughout the body. After an abundance of oxytocin has been released to create a sense of attachment, the prefrontal cortex begins to regulate and slow itself as well. This encourages our bodies to engage in a moment of sleep and relaxation. 

                The brain can create new pathways to sexual stimulation. 

                While it’s often thought that sexual pleasure and orgasm are dependent on genital stimulation, research shows that the brain can sometimes create different pathways to pleasure that aren’t dependent on our sexual organs. This remapping of the senses can occur sometimes and allow us to experience orgasmic sensations in other parts of the body. For example, in people with paralysis, the brain has the potential to rewire itself so that it can allow that person to achieve orgasm through stimulation of other parts of the body. 

                  Sexual activity can help keep the brain healthy. 

                  In evolutionary terms, orgasms encourage us to reproduce. But they also help to keep our brain healthy because this activity increases the consistency of blood flow to many regions which can be easily seen with fMRI scan technology. So go ahead, it’s all in the name of health.