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Your Brain On: An Orgasm

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Despite plenty of research into the topic, the female orgasm is still something of a mystery. Do vaginal orgasms really exist? What about the G-spot? (The most recent rulings: nope and nope, according to a report in Clinical Anatomy.) But science has uncovered some facts about what exactly is happening in your brain as you get closer to, and finally achieve, a big O. Here’s how it all goes down.

During Foreplay
As things begin to heat up, the nerves in and around your clitoris and pelvic area (including the pudental, pelvic, hypogastric, and vagus nerves) send pleasure signals to your brain to “tell” it that you’re being touched—and that it feels good, says sex therapist Sabitha Pillai-Friedman, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the human sexuality program at Widener University.

During this time, activity in the areas of the brain that control things like anxiety and fear (called the amygdala and hippocampus) decreases, which helps block out the worries and distractions that might keep you from orgasm, according to research from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

During Climax
When you reach the point of no return, parts of your brain go into overdrive—and others shut down completely. Activity in a region of the brain known as the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, for example, which governs behavioral control, dramatically decreases, according to the Dutch researchers. That may explain why you can feel overwhelmed or out of control during the moment of climax.

Within a minute of climax, the hypothalamus, which controls basic biological functions, like body temperature, hunger, and sleep, releases oxytocin, says Pillai-Friedman. This “cuddle hormone” helps you bond to others and is responsible for the pleasurable uterine contractions you experience during climax. It also increases blood flow to organs throughout your body, and reduces inflammation—which may help explain the health benefits enjoyed by women who frequently orgasm, like a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, says Pillai-Friedman.

In addition to oxytocin, the brain releases DHEA and other mood-boosting endorphins.

RELATED: How Do Your Sex Numbers Compare?

After Orgasm
The flood of neurohormones and endorphins can persist for up to five minutes, says Pillai-Friedman. But levels of prolactin, the protein responsible for the sleepy, lazy, contented “afterglow” you have post-romp, peak after orgasm, and can remain elevated for an hour or more after sex, according to German research. Fun fact: Oxytocin and prolactin increases are thought to be responsible for the male “refactory period,” or period after orgasm during which it’s impossible for them to climax again. Women generally don’t have a refractory period—which is why you can have multiple orgasms. Rest up if you need to—then start from the top!

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