Neuroscience of an Orgasm: The Effect of Pleasure on the Brain

Neuroscience of an Orgasm: The Effect of Pleasure on the Brain

Orgasm Definition: The Science, Spirituality and Culture Behind Pleasure

We invited Dr. Barry Komisaruk onto the show to find out what happens in the brain when we orgasm, and we found out so much more. It turns out that when we orgasm, every part of our brain is activated. So why do we have orgasms anyways? Why does pleasure matter? In this episode we discuss:

  • The mystery of how neurons produce pleasure
  • Orgasm in women with spinal cord or brain injuries
  • How body responds similarly with nipple, vaginal, clitoral or uterine stimulation
  • Sex is good for us: How pleasure reinforces us to repeat actions
  • Spiritual connection to sex and orgasm
  • Healing our cultural taboos around sex

Pleasure is often times overlooked as one of the foundations of health. Listen in to learn about the scientific functions of orgasm and why pleasure matters for brain health.

Guest Bio:

Barry R. Komisaruk received a B.S. in biology at The City University of New York and Ph.D. in psychobiology from Rutgers University. He was a National Institute of Mental Health postdoctoral fellow in neuroendocrinology at the Brain Research Institute, University of California at Los Angeles. Joining the Rutgers-Newark faculty in 1966, Komisaruk was a professor in the Institute of Animal Behavior and Department of Zoology. He is now Distinguished Professor in the Psychology Department, director of the Minority Biomedical Research Support Program, and former associate dean of the Graduate School. With a penchant for finding new research avenues to explore, Komisaruk received a Board of Trustees of Rutgers University Excellence in Research award and the Hugo G. Beigel Research Award of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. His major research interests include: functional neuroimaging of genital sensory response; neurophysiology, neuropharmacology and neuroendocrinology of reproductive behavior; and neural control of autonomic genital function. He is senior author of The Science of Orgasm, a comprehensive look at the biology and neuroscience of orgasm, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, as well as The Orgasm Answer Guide, a general readership book from the same publisher. He has published more than 155 academic journal articles and chapters.

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11 Comments

  • Jennifer M. Harrison
    With all due respect, I had to leave the conversation because of the doctor's very limited and narrow-minded view on pornography. Porn is what is ruining marriages. There is no long term benefits to someone watching pornography--the brain requires such an unrealistic trigger to get excited sexually. This is dangerous to even suggest that there are benefits to pornography.
  • Kim
    Pornography can become an addiction - it is pursued quite commonly with individuals with anxiety and depressive do. Encouraging pornography can set a poor example for your children, destroy your marriage, and can encourage you to act out your fantasies-involving yourself with prostitution puts yourself at risk but also makes you part of the problem with human trafficking.
  • Rob Norcio
    These comments are ridiculous for Christ sakes the discussion is about Orgasm. Right there we know it will require an open mind to stay focused. The conversation of porn consisted of three minutes, was determined to possibly be neither good nor bad by both of them then dropped and never revisited again the entire discussion. Listen to the rest because you missed a very interesting conversation with great questions and extremely intelligent answers to the best of the doctors ability. Curiosity, rather than fear, next time, would be a better reason to want to listen to this.
  • Joseph
    Rob, I agree wholeheartedly. Open-minded people don’t care to be right, they care to understand. There’s never a right or wrong answer. Everything is about understanding. If anything, they have not learned this. Many people open their mouths before their minds when it comes to different ideas. They are afraid their brains are going to fall out. This was a very insightful and perspicacious podcast. As Walt Whitman put it, “Be curious, not judgmental.”
  • Diane
    This is my thoughts coming from a prospective of a wife who has a husband who watches pornography.It has pretty much ruined our marriage, before he started watching pornography he was a thoughtful attentive husband. He used to make extra effort (and I always knew ) to get the honour privellige of seeing me naked and making that bit more effort to have sex.I say it's a privilege because men have a much higher sex drive than most women. Anyway there is virtually no effort on his part now.Why would he bother he can see a naked woman on the internet in seconds. I now have hang ups about my body , I'm not 20 years old any more besides the fact I feel it's disrespectful and if he knew I was just looking at penises four so many hours a week and getting myself off I'm sure he would feel the same
  • Arrin
    Diane: I hear they're going to do a remake of "Something About Mary" in which Theodore Stroehmann gets chance after chance after chance not to get himself caught in his zipper. People don't stay 18 forever. Neither your own body, nor your husband's mind. I think you need to update your naked interpersonal dynamics a little bit. The newlywed Pageant of Desire only serves for so long. If you want to do some reading, Bettina Arndt is pretty good on male sexuality. I know she thinks highly of "Passionate Marriage" (2009) by David Schnarch, because I once asked her about this online. This is an extremely peculiar book, and heavy going in places, but it can definitely salvage your sex life. ***SPOILER ALERT*** You will _both_ have to change in the process, though not necessarily at the same time, which makes the dynamics even more complex. Another way to look at your husband's porn habit is that he hasn't managed to find an even _worse_ outlet for his wayward energies. Other experts in this subject area you can look into are Helen Fischer and Esther Perel. One of Schnarch's insights is that many of us run away from true intimacy in the bedroom, because we don't actually like ourselves, and intimacy functions too much like a spotlight for comfort. How much have you shown your husband over the years about your true self—more than he's now getting from his new habit? Seriously, you can't compete against the barely-legal teen-aged porn stars on looks alone. Your secret weapon is you, and you alone. For many people, however, that's not such an easy possession to show off without your clothes on. I've been rewatching the Sopranos lately and I was reading about an episode online, and I came across the comment that Drea de Matteo is "objectively" hotter than Alicia Witt, who plays Christopher's sexually-empowered fling in one episode ("D Girl"). Drea does have a nice body, but in character she is always so dolled up, it functions like a suit of armor. She doesn't appeal to me in the least, because I wouldn't want to contend with that. On the other hand, Alicia plays her character as a worldly sophisticate (barely out of college) and yet at the same time, she's rashly transparent. Well, I could sure have fun with that. Enough said. Do bone up on Sackology 101. It's _your_ future sex life, after all.
  • Arrin
    I meant to type "make a _Groundhog Day_ remake of Something About Mary" but my fingers crossed me. That should make my first sentence a bit more clear.
  • Arrin
    36:00 Barry's comments on the Kinsey Report concerning human female sexuality "revolutionizing attitudes toward human sexuality" is not the version of the story I've previously heard. In the story I've heard, the _Human Male_ volume (1948) was received with mixed results, where those who welcomed shining a light upon this taboo subject were roughly balanced out against the Indomitable Defenders of Darkness. But the _Human Female_ volume (1953) landed to a far more problematic reception, nearly costing Kinsey his career. As I recall the story, society was not yet ready for a portrayal of female sexuality that was anything less than saint-hearted. Many decades of liberalization later—in _some_ parts of the world (those far, far away from Liberty University)—this happy verdict on the Kinsey Reports might finally now be mostly true.
  • Arrin
    It's actually not clear that we need a conscious perception of pleasure in order for our nervous system to program itself to persist in a motor behaviour. I was disappointed that this discussion never attempted to tease out the difference between the conscious phenomena of the pleasure/reinforcement cycle versus some kind of (perhaps hypothetical) unconscious reinforcement cycle. My big question: why does the experience have such a deep conscious dimension? I don't think in theory that it needs to, and that could still reinforce sexual behaviour without nearly as much conscious dimension. About desire. In some cases when a woman is becoming dissatisfied in a relationship, her sexual response diminishes (bad sign). Yet I've also experience cases where the sex remained as good as ever, but the relationship was doomed, anyway. Hey all you hyper-masculine horndogs out there: regularly delivering the Big One is no guaranteed relationship panacea, either. It's all very complicated, and in my somewhat limited experience, no two women are ever exactly alike. One woman I dated, who was around 40 years of age, had never had an orgasm, and was more than a little bit bent out of shape about this sad state of affairs. The male psychology can easily become achievement oriented, and this dynamic had not helped, either; I got endless lectures about not following in the footsteps of various men who couldn't leave the quest alone. But I actually read books, and I know that 90% of a man's sexual superpowers pertain to his powers of observation—and my powers of observation are pretty darn good. It was pretty clear from the outset that her problems were not physical. She was extremely hedonic in every respect but the culmination. Mostly all I did was slow her down, to get her more involved with mindfulness exercises, especially noticing her own responses in a more detailed way. The more she relaxed, the more her internal steam pressure started to build toward what comes natural. But then she started to realize where this as going, and our difficulties redoubled. The merest foothill of "almost there" would send her into a blind panic of anti-erotic self-sabotage. This was all in her head. Then one night I figured out how to balance her on her knees, so that I could tilt her forward and make her think she was going to land on her face (not actually possible) whenever she began to self-sabotage herself in her mind. She completely flinched every time she thought she was about to topple over, and the flinching made her thrust and tighten up inside, and suddenly with a sharp inhale of pleasurable shock she'd be back inside her body again, instead of her mind. After four of five iterations of this, she was clearly now on final approach. Every woman I've known who experiences orgasms knows exactly what to do at this point in the proceedings. I couldn't say what this is, precisely, but there's an internal cognitive process that helps drive the football over the goal line. At this point something happened which I did not expect. Having not ever had an orgasm before, she had no idea whatsoever about what to do on final approach. It was simply the weirdest thing. She knew precisely where she was, but didn't have the least clue what to do with it. She was staring her first ever orgasm in the whites of the eyes, but couldn't quite manage to get there. She had such a big aaaaaah, but no chooo. A freaky half-sneeze. I was immediately pretty sure that she was immediately pretty sure that given a few more kicks at the cat, she'd get herself organized in a big way concerning the "chooo" part. I thought this was a pretty good first step. But the story turned out different. No longer able to maintain her long-term identity as anorgasmic by cosmic decree, she immediately had a relapse with her old friend, alcohol. So many women have deep psychological scars in their tickle trunk and it was now time for hers to make a sudden reappearance. She got herself roaring drunk and then tried to harass me into having unsafe sex (because she couldn't cope with the possibility of having an orgasm sober, and her judgement while blind drunk left a lot to be desired). The next day, I sent her an unflinching e-mail about how that's not the way I roll in the bedroom. She figured out right away that she wasn't herself ready to cope with the prompt zero-tolerance from my side concerning her alcoholic recidivism (I had only suspected up to that point), so that was the end of that relationship. So close and yet so far. But I knew that she knew that I knew that she knew that the last remaining roadblock in her anorgasmia was her own internal daemons. She was no shrinking violet, either, but a serious and highly capable woman when she got her act together, and so I've always felt that she finally got the upper hand, somewhere down the road.
  • Arrin
    I'm new here today. If I'd known that this forum disregards paragraphs, I'd have posted the above as three separate pieces. Now it looks like a giant wall of text and people aren't going to read that and they are going to miss the good part where things get extremely real.
  • Arrin
    There's a technique, sometimes referred to as the "30-minute orgasm"—as seen on Oprah—in which Kegel contractions are performed during mild external stimulation over about a 15 minute period, during which the woman's arousal level rises along a fairly linear incline, progressing in slow stages from "this isn't too bad" to "woah, I'm starting to really get into this" to "mmmmm lalalala" to "DON'T STOP!" With or without achieving clitoral orgasm, the woman's G-spot usually winds up in an extraordinarily heightened state of sensitivity. But to say "sensitivity" entirely misses the point, because more importantly the G-spot takes on a dictatorial characteristic not normally associated with the clitoris. These are brisk orgasms that do not involve the woman consciously willing herself from "aaaaah" to "chooo", but freight trains that are almost frightening in their ineluctable immensity. It's extremely amusing if a woman has never experienced her G-spot in this elevated condition before. A region about the size of dime on the anterior wall of the vagina swells up a bit, changes texture, and becomes very easy to find. By the second flick of a fingertip across this region, a woman who has never experienced this before goes "holy FREIGHT TRAIN, Batman" and her eyes widen like saucers. It's absolutely clear from the first sensation that this one is not going to ask for permission, it's going to come barrelling down the tracks and obliterate anything in its path. I highly doubt the woman could do anything inside her head to prevent this outcome. But that's also kind of beside the point, because the woman also seems to become completely unable to choose resistance. Resistance is not just futile, but consciously impossible, as an almost total paralysis of normal volition sets in. Even the normal response of exulting down the final stretch of the bell lap seems suppressed. The response is more like "brace for impact". Me: "that just ran over you like a freight train, didn't it?" Her: "Holy smoley, that was a big one! And I'm not even sure I liked it!" This is a kind of intense cold-shoulder orgasm that neither asks nor cares whether the woman likes the experience. But one of the side-effects—usually—is that it returns the clitoris to an aroused, receptive state, and _that_ outcome pretty much only receives rave reviews. A quick minute or two of light, external stimulation (avoiding the sensitive button as much as possible) combined with a couple more Kegels, and the kind of orgasm arrives that leaves a woman's tongue hanging out. In the meantime, the G-spot has magically re-armed itself (I did not choose the word "re-armed" lightly). Another freight train materializes on platform 9¾ (a unitless number, I hasten to add) and now the clitoris is again reset to the receptive state, this time even closer to the brink. It's at precisely this point that the woman suddenly realizes that all the normal laws of physics are now suspended: the valleys between the sharp peaks are _shrinking_ rather than expanding. It's at about this point that the woman has her first extremely earnest internal dialog about the possibility that there really _is_ too much of a good thing on planet Orgasm after all. But here come the next stretch drive again (already) and the internal debate is promptly tossed aside with a summary "oh well—a girl only lives once". The other tiny detail involved in turning this into the so-called "30-minute orgasm" is to continue to stroke the G-spot lightly after the train blows on through, to elicit as many "aftershocks" as possible. These are sudden one-off contractions that occur (at first) with no discernible pattern. After the third G-spot freight train blows through, the aftershock condition might persist for quite a while, with the arrival of the aftershocks becoming almost uniform and unbroken. If you reach this stage, it becomes possible to stimulate both the clitoris and G-spot at the same time. If you think the woman's first earnest, internal debate about the possibility of too much of a good thing was brisk and contested in full, it doesn't hold a candle to round two. Only this time, it's not just "all circuits go" but all circuits melting into cognitive mush, simultaneously. This internal debate ends not with a whimper, but a barely articulate gurgle of badly judged total submission. At this point, it becomes difficult to distinguish the now-repetitive aftershocks from small, independent orgasms; there's hardly any valley remaining between the crests and peaks at all, which only have about half the structure of an isolated orgasm: elevated tension, the sky turns red, a few flashes of light, and then back down into the next small valley, which only lasts for seconds, before yet another peak arrives. In fact, it really doesn't seem like one train at all. It seems more like the last train is heading down into the post-orgasm valley while another train concurrently begins to crest the next hill. The orgasmic state is not so much continuous, as continuously overlapped. This almost total lack of respite is both a feature and a bug. If the woman is capable of releasing all sense of self-preservation whatsoever, she can roll her eyes up into her forehead and become one with the orgasmic universe. But if instead the woman tries to retain any vestige of self-hood, this soon discovers it has nowhere left to shelter from the raging storm. Arriving in this new world for the first time amounts to a pretty big discovery about the ultimate limits of a woman's pleasurable response, a discovery which is rarely tinged with regret the next morning. But at the same time, this is triple Black Forest chocolate cake, soused to the limit with 160 proof cherry brandy, and that's definitely not something one consumes week over week. A woman doesn't tend to seek a reprise of this experience without a serious glint of mischief in her eyes, when the moons are maximally aligned to abandon all restraint and tangle with a lithe fire-breathing dragon. The other problem is that this sexual experience lacks a natural end point. I don't know where the "30-minute" jargon comes from, because I've never seen a woman complete all ten three-minute rounds with a lithe fire-breathing dragon. The battle usually ends with a technical KO in the second or third round: "too much! too much! too much!" and so the white towel descends. All tapped out, nothing left to give. The orgasms would continue on a physical level, but they seem finally to be discharging into a vacuum of nowhere left to put them, and so you desist, this being exactly as glamorous as the word sounds. On the other hand, the woman may experience for the first time in her life the extremely masculine response of falling into a deep, half-comatose sleep before her head slumps all the way down into her soft pillow. There's a lot of value in that, and I think more women would benefit from visiting the other side in this way at least once in their mature sex life. Yes—now you know. A woman may also report that she found herself completely unable to have even the smallest sexual thought for the next five to seven days, as if some important part of herself was simply erased for the duration. This, too, is a fairly standard male response to a long-weekend sex binge. We head back out into the world fit to conquer, but with that part of ourselves not just slaked, but sometimes almost erased into a state of non-existence. Why doesn't he pick up the phone? Because some essential part of himself is in state of near total erasure. And then when you come back out of this state of partial erasure, your underlying sex drive is suddenly unmasked, and you are instantly back to booty-call central. Woman conventionally bitch about men thinking with their bones. ("not that there's anything wrong with that," as they like to repeat on Seinfeld.) But this neglects to consider the extended psychological latency that I've described here as "erasure". I've seen this expressed in women, too, but mainly after the woman really, really, _really_ comes her brains out (verging into outright unpleasantness). This for me was really the most interesting part of discovering extended sexual orgasm (as it is also sometimes also called): that it elicits in woman a few elements of masculine phenomenology that woman don't normally experience directly. And yet, at the same time, this kind of extended orgasmic state is about as unmasculine as you could possibly get, we who are so normally wired for one-and-done. (There are reports of men claiming access to an extended orgasmic state, which I've never entirely found convincing—it's probably a pseudo-orgasmic state, if it exists at all.) There's so much need to have richer discussions about all of this, and I would love to see you have Barry back again to take this on, but I already know what he's going to say: more research required, over and over and _over_ again, until the pummeled audience throws up the white towel. I've written a couple of posts here that are verging on outré even for me, and I'm no shrinking violet concerning human sexuality. All the same, I've been fairly careful here not to dimension my experience, which probably sounds far more extensive than it actually has been. It's not that I have much more experience than most men. The difference for me is that when I do get involved, I tend to go the extra mile, and with my eyes wide open. "You can observe a lot just by watching." — Yogi Berra. This being even _more_ true after you lower or click out the bedroom light, should you be of a mindset to do so. I think many people are of the mindset "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" or "don't spoil the magic by poking around under the hood". Fair enough. But then pornography. My own comment on this landscape of prurience: the sexual cynic soon learns the price of everything and the value of nothing. I score pornography as a form of deeply cynical gratification. Back in the beef and bacon 1970s, the Canadian government used to have a public health campaign branded as "participaction", aimed at levitating people out of their comfortable chairs. We made a few strides. And then the Internet came along, and men's magazines went the way of the 24-hour news cycle, and now we know everything, and yet also nothing at all—a terrible triumph of quantity over quality. My experience with extended sexual orgasm in women is that it's the ultimate glass half-full: either quantity over quality -or- quality over quantity, depending on which side you get out of bed on any given day. Yet again just about every aspect of human sexuality is more complex than what you might at first naively assume. Is this theme park of ultimate excess worth at least one visit? Yes, definitely, for any woman who can find herself a suitable partner who is observationally well-endowed—without the crutch of an enclosing glass rectangle. Barry's discussion here about how so many nerves are involved in tandem did shed a bit of light onto this topic, if only scratching the surface, as the interaction between the nervous channels is far more complex—in my direct experience—than merely the sum of parts.
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