Researchers are currently baffled by the complexity of orgasms and sexual arousal. This is true for science in general, but particularly true for the brain’s role in both.

In a study aimed at analyzing sexual arousal, psychologist Meredith Chivers of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto set out to determine how both men and women reacted to erotic films. Chivers showed the subjects films depicting same-sex intercourse, individual masturbation or nude exercise using both female and men performers, in addition to showing male-female sex acts and sex acts between bonobos hypersexual apes whose genetic code is similar to that of chimpanzees. Chivers showed these erotic films to about 100 women and men. Their results showed that heterosexual men responded to women engaged in a sex act, homosexual men responded to men engaged in a sex act and homosexual women responded to women engaged in a sex act. These groups of subjects all showed physiological signs of sexual arousal only to erotic films involving their ideal partners, i.e. heterosexual men were not aroused by watching two men engaged in a sex act, but homosexual men were. The results that Chivers et al. found also showed that heterosexual men, gay men and women did not respond sexually to bonobo sex acts.

Heterosexual women proved to be the outliers of the studyresponding with sexual arousal to all erotic films. Their sexual interests and preferences have more flexibility than the others studied. Sexual desire is complex and requires high-level mental processes for both sexes. The same is true for orgasms. Both women and men must go through high-level mental processes in order to reach climax.

Sexual arousal and orgasm are incredibly complex phenomen for both men and women. Men are more attracted to the allure of visual stimuli such as erotic films and magazines, whereas women are more affected by environmental influences. Urologist Jennifer Berman of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, says women must ‘feel comfortable with themselves and their partner, feel safe and perceive a true bond with their partner.” Men, however, do not.

Gert Holstege of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is intimately involved in researching orgasms and sexual arousal in women, has concluded that ‘fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs, if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that but now we can see it happening in the brain.” Even if a woman feels safe, perceives a true bond with her partner and feels comfortable with herself, she may not release her inhibitions and therefore may not orgasm. Orgasms require throwing inhibitions to the wind and feeling completely free. In the brain, fMRI scans reveal that this means that centers for vigilance shut down in men. For women, their center for vigilance shut off too, but other brain areas shut off as well. Those areas are believed to control thoughts and emotions.

‘At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings,” Holstege says.

In fact, immediately after women experience an orgasm, they have no feelings at all, as shown by a significant decrease in activity in the amygdala the center of the brain responsible for the processing of emotions more so than men experience after having an orgasm. Orgasms also silence neurons in parts of the orbitofrontal cortex of a woman’s brain, an area proven to control basic desires such as sex. Once these areas shut down, the brain experiences a complete release of tension and inhibition. The brain plays an important role in these intense experiences and may outweigh genital importance in sex acts and sexual arousal. It is possible that these parts of our bodies are simply reflections of preconceived reactions in the brain.

Overall, it is best not to over-analyze orgasms (especially when you are trying to have one). It might make it less pleasurable, at least according to science.

Goodman is a member of the class of 2010.

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