male and female orgasms -- 3/22/18

Today's encore selection -- from "The Orgasmic Mind" by Martin Porter. Unraveling the mysteries of the orgasm:

"The relative weights of sensory and emotional influences on orgasm may differ between the sexes, perhaps because of its diverging evolutionary origins. Orgasm in men is directly tied to reproduction through ejaculation, whereas female orgasm has a less obvious role. Orgasm in a woman might physically aid in the retention of sperm, or it may play a subtler social function, such as facilitating bonding with her mate. If female orgasm evolved primarily for social reasons, it might elicit more complex thoughts and feelings in women than it does in men.

"But does it? Researchers are trying to crack this riddle by probing changes in brain activity during orgasm in both men and women. Neuroscientist Gert Holstege of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and his colleagues attempted to solve the male side of the equation by asking the female partners of 11 men to stimulate their partner's penis until he ejaculated while they scanned his brain using positron-emission tomography (PET). During ejaculation, the researchers saw extraordinary activation of the ventral tegmental area, a major hub of the brain's reward circuitry; the intensity of this response is comparable to that induced by heroin. 'Because ejaculation introduces sperm into the female reproductive tract, it would be critical for reproduction of the species to favor ejaculation as a most rewarding behavior,' the researchers wrote in 2003 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

fMRI scan of a female orgasm, Dark Red (lowest activity), to Yellow/White (highest)

"The scientists also saw heightened activity in brain regions involved in memory-related imagery and in vision itself, perhaps because the volunteers used visual imagery to hasten orgasm. The anterior part of the cerebellum also switched into high gear. The cerebellum has long been labeled the coordinator of motor behaviors but has more recently revealed its role in emotional processing. Thus, the cerebellum could be the seat of the emotional components of orgasm in men, perhaps helping to coordinate those emotions with planned behaviors. The amygdala, the brain's center of vigilance and sometimes fear, showed a decline in activity at ejaculation.

"To find out whether orgasm looks similar in the female brain, Holstege's team asked the male partners of 12 women to stimulate their partner's clitoris -- the site whose excitation most easily leads to orgasm -- until she climaxed, again inside a PET scanner. Not surprisingly, the team reported in 2006, clitoral stimulation by itself led to activation in areas of the brain involved in receiving and perceiving sensory signals from that part of the body and in describing a body sensation -- for instance, labeling it 'sexual.'

"But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment -- a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.

"Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a reduction of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. 'Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm,' Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: 'At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings.' "


Martin Porter


The Orgasmic Mind


Scientific American Mind


2016 Special Edition


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