Orgasms and Nerves

What happens in the brain during an orgasm?

Without nerves sending impulses back to the spinal cord and brain, an orgasm wouldn’t be possible. Just like any other area of the body, the genitalia contain different nerves that send information to the brain to tell it about the sensation that’s being experienced. This helps to explain why the sensations are perceived differently depending on where someone is being touched. A clitoral orgasm, for example, differs from a vaginal orgasm because different sets of nerves are involved.

Pleasure Center of the Brain: Light It Up

You may have heard that the brain has a pleasure center that lets us know when something is enjoyable and reinforces the desire for us to perform the same pleasurable action again. This is also called the reward circuit, which includes all kinds of pleasure, from sex to laughter to certain types of drug use. Some of the brain areas impacted by pleasure include:

  • amygdala – regulates emotions
  • nucleus accumbens – controls the release of dopamine
  • ventral tegmental area (VTA) – actually releases the dopamine
  • cerebellum – controls muscle function
  • pituitary gland – releases beta-endorphins, which decrease pain; oxytocin, which increases feelings of trust; and vasopressin, which increases bonding

Although scientists have long been studying the pleasure center, there hadn’t been much research about how it relates to sexual pleasure, especially in women. In the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, a team of scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands conducted several studies of both men and women to determine brain activity during sexual stimulation. The team used PET scans to illustrate the different areas of the brain that would light up and shut off during sexual activity. In all of the tests, the subjects were scanned while resting, while being sexually stimulated and while having an orgasm.

Interestingly, they discovered that there aren’t too many differences between men’s and women’s brains when it comes to sex. In both, the brain region behind the left eye, called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, shuts down during orgasm. Janniko R. Georgiadis, one of the researchers, said, “It’s the seat of reason and behavioral control. But when you have an orgasm, you lose control” [source: LA Times]. Dr. Gert Holstege stated that the brain during an orgasm looks much like the brain of a person taking heroin. He stated that “95 percent is the same” [source: Science News].

There are some differences, however. When a woman has sex, a part of the brain stem called the periaqueductal gray (PAG) is activated. The PAG controls the “flight or fight” response. Women’s brains also showed decreased activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, which deal with fear and anxiety. The team theorized that these differences existed because women have more of a need to feel safe and relaxed in order to enjoy sex. In addition, the area of the cortex associated with pain was activated in women, which shows that there is a distinct connection between pain and pleasure.

The studies also showed that although women m­ay be able to fool their partners into thinking they’ve had an orgasm, their brains show the truth. When asked to fake an orgasm, the women’s brain activity increased in the cerebellum and other areas related to controlling movement. The scans didn’t show the same brain activity of a woman during an actual orgasm.

But what about people who can’t reach orgasm at all?

Neither Here Nor There: Anorgasmia and Non-genital Orgasms

I­n some cases, we know what causes anorgasmia (the inability to reach orgasm). Drugs like Celexa, Zoloft and Paxil — known as SSRIs, or selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors — are often used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Like most drugs, however, they can have side effects. For some people, this includes sexual ones, including anorgasmia. But why? SSRIs can decrease the brain’s production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that provides pleasurable feelings and reinforces a person’s desire to once again perform the action that brought him or her pleasure. Sometimes the problem goes away on its own, or it can be resolved by switching to a different antidepressant or taking another drug in addition to the SSRI. However, a small number of people experience post-SSRI sexual dysfunction (PSSD) that lasts for days, weeks, months or even years after discontinuing use of an SSRI. The cause of this dysfunction isn’t understood, as stopping the SSRI allows dopamine production to return to normal.

The Dutch studies about orgasms (mentioned earlier), along with others, have also been the basis for continuing research in helping women who are anorgasmic. Dr. Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University is currently studying women who are anorgasmic and women who are constantly aroused sexually but are unable to reach orgasm. The latter group of women were each put in an MRI scanner where they could see their brain activity on a monitor. Their brain scans showed that the brain thought they were in fact constantly being sexually stimulated. The women then used imagery and other neurofeedback exercises to calm their brains. Dr. Komisaruk believes that anorgasmic women could also learn to read and react to their brain activity to try to reach orgasm.

Perhaps more unusual-sounding than orgasmia is the concept of orgasms that have nothing to do with the genitalia at all. Some people can orgasm from being touched in other places on the body, such as the nipples. In this case, researchers believe that the sensations in the nipples are transmitted to the same areas of the brain that receive information from the genitals. However, people have also reported actually feeling orgasms in other parts of their bodies, including their hands and feet. Several people have even described having orgasms in limbs that were no longer there. One reason may be the layout of the cortical homunculus, a map that shows how different places of the brain’s sensory and motor cortices correspond to the organs and limbs of the body. A person who feels an orgasm in a phantom foot, for example, may have experienced a remapping of the senses because the foot is located next to the genitals in the homunculus. The foot is no longer there to provide sensation, so the area for genital sensation took over the space.

Although we now know more about how orgasms impact the brain than ever before, there’s still a lot that we don’t know. For example, scientists are still debating the evolutionary reason behind the female orgasm. But it’s probably safe to say that most people aren’t too concerned about the “why” — they’d prefer to focus on the whos, whats and whens of sex.

Original ARTICLE on How Stuff Works

Picture Credit: 3D4MEDICAL.COM/GETTY IMAGES

Graceful Guidelines for Sexual Healing

manupsidedown“Most people in the “recovery” or “therapy” process yearn for sexual healing. I make this statement as a therapist and as a human being who has facilitated myself and many others on the journey.”Michael Picucci PhD, MAC, SEP

Sexual healing is the shame-free revisiting of complex sexual histories, limitations and perceptions combined with new awareness, understanding, and compassion. In the process of this rejuvenation, we learn how to merge our spiritual and sexual energies. The “sexual-spiritual split” is a culturally induced, deep psychic schism that haunts relationships and precludes emotional fulfillment. Resolving this powerful inner conflict is necessary for true body, mind and spirit connections.

These guidelines can be used to illuminate and focus a core healing journey that is central to having life mastery, which is the awareness of aliveness, sensual pleasure and contentment.

FIVE GRACEFUL GUIDELINES FOR SEXUAL HEALING:

1. Increase body awareness 

2. Share sexual history 

3. Dialogue in relationship

4. Create Fusion Exercises

5. Rediscover adolescent awkwardness

1. Body Awareness. Introduce yourself to the possibility of bringing full body awareness and energy to your sexual regions. Some of us have depleted energy levels and a diminished sense of aliveness in our pelvic area and a fullness of energy in the our heart region. Others feel constricted with their heart energy while having an intense pelvic charge. This is particularly evident in early intimacy and bonding. Because of this culturally fragmented energy disbursement in the body, sexual motivation usually has more to do with feelings like neediness, escape from other feelings, and proving one’s self-worth, than feelings of pure pleasure and the normal desire for interconnectedness.

For many, pleasure can only be realized in highly charged scenarios. Often they are avoided because they are dangerous and/or self-destructive. Some of us are just fearfully frozen. Others become frustrated at a perceived lack of ability to negotiate the complexities. Many repeat unfulfilling patterns again and again. Whatever one’s history may be, the following exercises have proven helpful in energizing and awakening sexual aliveness.

In Latin and most Eastern and metaphysical philosophies, the word “breath” is synonymous with “spirit.” Conscious breathing brings energy (and spirit) into the body. This exercise will help improve anyone’s ability to breathe and improve sexual aliveness. First, do conscious, deep breathing exercises focused in the groin. Imagine that you can take your breath all the way down to the perineum, that lowermost part of the crotch between the vagina and the rectum or the scrotum and rectum. In reality, most feel they can’t breathe into their perineum, yet imagination can produce surprising results. This exercise can be done while brushing your teeth, riding in a car, or for a few minutes before or after sleeping. While the results may not be immediate, with a little practice and patience, deeper breathing of this sort will help lead to spiritual-genital integration.

The “rotation exercise” is an exercise that you can combine with the conscious pelvic breathing. Stand up straight, put your feet shoulder-length apart, relax (unlock) your knees, and rotate your hips in a circular motion, stretching out in all directions as far as is comfortable. Imagine that you are standing in the center of a mostly empty peanut butter jar, and you want to use your hip and pelvis, in a circular motion, to clean the peanut butter off the sides of the jar. Keep rotating, first in one direction, then the other. Lower and raise yourself to completely clean the inside of that jar. Attention to conscious breathing will be helpful. Take a moment or two to giddily and randomly move your pelvis, tuning into the energy and spontaneously moving and following your inner current. Just go with the flow for a few moments. You will begin, subtly at first, feeling a renewed aliveness in this region that is sensual, sexual, and centering – all at the same time.

These exercises are also excellent “warm-ups” for more pleasurable sexual experiences, alone or to be shared with a partner. (For additional information and exercises on all of the guidelines in this article see my books: “The Journey Toward Complete Recovery: Reclaiming Your Emotional and Spiritual & Sexual Wholeness” and “Ritual as Resource: Energy for Vibrant Living.”)

2. Sexual History. Begin a process of uncovering and sharing sexual secrets from your past with “safe” people. It is important to do this practice with those who are sensitive, understanding and compassionate listeners. These “secrets” are rightfully too sensitive to be exposed to individuals who will not afford them suitable respect. Along with these secrets there is a need to bring awareness to religious and other spiritually infused influences on your early sexual development and evolution.

I suggest writing a narrative history, or outline, to put one’s sexual development in a historical perspective. This begins with the first remembered “exposure” to sex, sexual energy, or sexual material. Then, as best you can remember, recreate your development with subsequent incidents. This exercise will help put your current sexual expression in an understandable and historical context. By sharing this history with a safe person, one can further heal the sexual-spiritual split.

After sharing “sexual histories in perspective” (in a shame-free setting), your psyche will gradually produce additional memories, further illuminating your history. Shared sexual histories provide a grounding and framework for your present experience while simultaneously creating a platform for new possibilities.

3. Dialogue in relationship. Encourage yourself to risk cultivating meaningful dialogue around sexual issues in dating situations and with significant partners. The deepest interpersonal healing takes place in relationship. Finding and cultivating a safe partner is, of course, pivotal. One can do a great deal of healing with therapists and within community. However, that healing will be limited by the appropriate professional and cultural boundaries of these relationships. To ultimately heal the sexual-spiritual split, we must explore relating to another human being while attempting to bring both polarized aspects of the split to this relationship without walls of shame arising. It is important to work through shameful aspects and feelings of inadequacy about sex with a partner. It is fine to move slowly. “Intention” and “willingness” are paramount.

4. Fusion Exercises. Consciously combine meditative, spiritual, or contemplative experiences with your own sexuality. Such experimentation is a very different and awkward experience for most people at first, but in time one feels a new and deeper connection with both pleasure and release. Sexual experiences often grow from being simply physical (with genital concentration), to becoming a full-body, kinesthetic event that can be powerful and rewarding.

Suggesting a combination of sexual and spiritual experimenting often brings laughter and confusion. People always ask, “How are we supposed to do that?” They often break out in further embarrassed laughter and disbelief when I suggest, “Try experimenting with masturbating (or self-loving) and praying at the same time!”

This laughter is a defense. Notice how foreign the suggestion feels, emphasizing the reality of an internal dichotomy! Think about this in relation to merging your core sexuality with a spiritual, loving union or relationship with yourself or another.

Create rituals with candlelight, mirrors and incense for sessions of self-loving and self-pleasuring. Slowly begin to make a “special time & place” in your life for, and begin to exalt in, your body (however you may perceive it), your sexuality, alone or with a companion, as an ecstatic all-encompassing manifestation of your humanity.

Use your intuitive creativity and responsible, courageous risk-taking abilities to create your own additional practices to merge sexual and spiritual energies. Like flowers growing toward the sun, as we humans experience this fusion in our psyche, our bodies and our defensive reflexes organically grow toward sexual and spiritual unity.

5. Rediscover adolescent awkwardness. Become willing to enter a period of discovery which I call “adolescent awkwardness.” In dating or in a significant long-term relationship, a time comes when the healing of this internalized sexual-spiritual schism must be addressed for the relationship to grow. We must surrender preconceived concepts regarding sexuality and intimacy and join another person in authentic adolescent discovery. Many of us missed a healthy adolescence, and therefore cannot go further into intimacy without visiting this important building block. It is important to give yourself permission to feel adolescent and awkward with yourself and another. It is rich, fertile ground in which to plant seeds of new awareness. Very workable and pleasing possibilities will grow from these seeds.

Appreciate Resistance

Appreciation of our own resistance signals the most important awareness of healing. All of the above exercises will initially bring resistance to the fore. This is good: we want to bring resistance up out of the unconscious, where it has ominous rule, and expose it to a “process of resolution.” By connecting with the resistance, and moving through it, we have the opportunity to discern and untangle the diverse feelings and incidents that have formed themselves into walls of shame.

Whenever shame or blockage surfaces (often feeling like a wall) in a budding or long-term intimate relationship, the struggle to share it is also the process of healthy adolescent development. It is the joining of less mature and more mature aspects of ourselves together in a sensitive, growing relationship. In this process, there is great value in the shame. Shame flirts with us. It lures us while at the same time it tries to hide. As suggested by the author Max Scheler in “Shame and Pride,” “It is from in and under the shame that our shimmering magic emerges.”

HEALING IS POSSIBLE: BELIEF CREATES THE EXPERIENCE

Combining love with sexual expression is an act of higher consciousness. It is important to believe that when two human beings share love’s energy combined with erotic energies, a transcendent experience occurs, one that is often profoundly healing and enriching. This is a very sacred sharing and a goal of a fulfilling sexual experience. Reaching this goal is the result of a conscious give and take, a negotiation of the openhearted experience of interconnectedness. Accepting that this is awkward, we need to learn to communicate our needs, desires and fantasies. Under each of the three currents are powerful and subtle feelings and energies that want to be expressed.

Releasing these expressions help us grow holistically; they teach us about natural aggression and passivity, about our feminine and masculine energies, and about pleasuring and being pleasured. They help dissolve shame, insecurities, and to accept contradictions and complexities. It exposes the need to experience them fully for healing, growth and self-understanding.

Contrary to what some believe about healthy sexuality, we need to learn that healthy loving expression includes the expression of our more shadowy desires as well as our tenderness. The delicate opening up of our repressed sexual histories, variations, deviations, and fantasies is enriching as well as healing. True and spiritual lovemaking is the interweaving choreography of our higher and our shadow selves. A holistic experience involves bringing together aspects of higher and lower self — how beautiful, and so very intimate to do so with open hearts.

EVALUATING OUR PROGRESS

To evaluate your progress in healing the sexual-spiritual split, I encourage you to simply ask yourself: What motives do I bring to sexuality? What do I want from the sexual aspect of my nature?

You will know that the healing is progressing when the answers to these questions emphasize spiritual fulfillment, integrating aggression and passivity, power and surrender, femininity and masculinity, and the desire for personal and shared experiences of fulfillment, pleasure and higher consciousness.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE on Psychology Tomorrow Magazine