Need to stop those pesky thoughts? Have an orgasm.

Thanks to Bitchery reader KS Augustin for the following link, which was all over the new Urban Baby alternative, YouBeMom discussion boards this weekend: according to Scientific American, which is examining the intricacies of that heavenly moment, that little death, women are emotionless during orgasm. No, seriously. Beginning with a discussion of what women find arousing as compared to men, the article reveals research findings regarding what goes on in women’s brains during orgasm. We’ve talked about the language romance novels use to describe that Big O – and I’m still, for the record, not over the whole “burst like a ripe melon” bit because omg, ew and yuck. There’s no shortage of purple prose describing orgasms: the waves, the stars, the peaks, the flying away, the exploding, the shattering, the inflation like a hot air balloon, that sound you hear when you pull a fruit roll-up from its plastic cellophane.

But according to the neuroscientists quoted in the article, orgasm from a brain scan perspective looks like complete cessation of brain function:

 

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…. [Neuroscientist Gert Holstege of the University of Gro­ningen] 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.”

Dude. No wai. Not that you wanted to know this much about me, but there are times with the big O has made me laugh out loud, which poor Hubby is never sure how to interpret.

While the article also mentions the pharmaceutical efforts being made to restore libido in women, I’m fascinated by the idea that my brain goes quiet and I have no emotions when I soar past the highest peak to bust open a melon in the sky. Augustin, in her email, asked a very salient question: “Is intense pleasure an emotion? Is the French term for orgasm “le petit mort” actually correct, in that there is no emotion in death, as in orgasm?”

Excellent question. I’m curious what you think – and also, I am fully expecting the next round of erotic romances to focus on the orgasm zombies.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    GrowlyCub says:

    Wonder why my May copy hasn’t arrived yet.

    Very interesting article.  Especially the part about women and visual sexual stimuli.  Not exactly what is commonly assumed to be true and intriguing in light of the discussion we had in the Zane F/F comment thread.

    I could see how this little tidbit could be appropriated by the right-wing misogynist element, so let’s hope they are too busy condemning women in general to read scientific research.

    I was a bit mystified by the segment about the women with spinal cord injuries.  I wish they had explained that part in more detail.

    The research sure seems to prove that the most important sex organ is the brain.

  2. 2
    Jo Leigh says:

    For a wonderful exploration into the subject check out BONK: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach.  Much detail, fascinating facts, hilarious writer.

  3. 3
    Gail Dayton says:

    I’m not sure it’s so much “emotionless”—I think it’s totally that the brain just shuts down. Most women will describe a moment where the world just Stops. Right at the moment of orgasm or just before. I read it somewhere, that it’s pretty universal. I’m not sure that exactly equates to “emotionless.” It’s a moment of Nothingness, really. Of just being, and feeling and experiencing—without Thinking. Total body. Seems to me that ought to be a good thing—that good sex is good enough to turn the brain off. You really can’t have good sex if you’re overthinking it…but the emotions tend to be what get you to that point.

    I’m now wondering what “To find out whether orgasm looks similar in the female brain, ” this is referring to. Similar to What? What the male brain looks like? What does it look like?

    And I’m wondering this too. What difference does it make? And how do they measure emotions anyway? And how long does that “moment” last, where there are supposedly no emotions?

  4. 4
    Sarabeth says:

    I had the same thought as Gail, similar to what? I bet if I took the time I could find what the male brain looks like during orgasm, but the three children wouldn’t agree with that time sink. Maybe later.

    I’ve laughed and experienced bliss close to a screen of white nothingness in my mind. This makes me agree that there is little to no emotion in an orgasm, probably for either sex.

    But, I will have to do some investigation.

  5. 5
    Sarabeth says:

    Here’s what the researchers compared the female brain activity to:

    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 (VTA), 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.

    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, a probable sign of decreasing vigilance during sexual performance.

    So, we women really know how to let it all go, which I shall now believe means we are the superior sex in that we can achieve Nirvana quicker.

  6. 6
    Esri Rose says:

    …that sound you hear when you pull a fruit roll-up from it’s plastic cellophane.

    Oh, Jesus. I almost swallowed my gum.

  7. 7

    I think women have known for centuries that men are brain dead during sex.  I guess it just figures that women would be, too.

  8. 8
    GrowlyCub says:

    Jennifer, in fact men have mental stuff going on that women don’t according the research described in the article.  There goes that theory, just like the one that said women don’t like visual stimuli.  :)  I found all 4 pages of the article that Sarah linked utterly fascinating!

  9. 9

    Ok, this just scares me:

    pharmaceutical efforts being made […] brain goes quiet and I have no emotions.

    I don’t think I want the med companies to find out what makes me horny…not if it reveals to them a way to turn me into Miss Stepfordville.  (^_^)

    -word: house21

  10. 10
    oakling says:

    The article has a little information on the male experience:

    “During ejaculation, the researchers saw extraordinary activation of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a major hub of the brain’s reward circuitry; the intensity of this response is comparable to that induced by heroin…. 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.”

    It says that both parties had decreased action in the part of the brain that handles fear/anxiety/vigilance, and then about women they say:

    “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.”

    But THEN they say that another study of the same thing in women with spinal cord injuries revealed that “contrary to Holstege’s results, Komisaruk’s team found that orgasm was accompanied by a general activation of the limbic system, the brain’s seat of emotion.” And then it talks about that including “the putative love and bonding hormone whose levels jump fourfold at orgasm,” “a critical part of the brain’s reward circuitry that may mediate orgasmic pleasure in women,” and “two brain areas that Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher has found come to life during the later stages of love relationships.”

    Were these other researchers just not looking in that part of the brain??

  11. 11

    Growly, I always kind of wondered about that assertion that women did not respond to visual stimuli. It certainly isn’t true of me, although straight-up, plot- and characterization-free smexing certainly doesn’t grab me on any other level than physical arousal, and leaves me feeling a tad *ahem* unsatisfied.

    Maybe men are deeper than we all thought, in that sexual arousal to them is an emotion, whereas women have always kind of viewed it as more of a physical manifestation of emotion. Maybe that’s why men don’t necessarily need any other emotion involved to find sex satisfying. And maybe the lack of “emotion” and the pure physicality of female orgasm is why we seem to need the emotional as well as the physical (in fiction and IRL) to have a satisfying experience?

  12. 12
    Stephanie says:

    Yeah, how is it that a lack of brain activity gets turned into a lack of emotion, when it could just as easily be said that ‘women aren’t thinking of anything during orgasm’?

    De-spamifier: over77. Most certainly not! I’m 25. Although I’m sure I’ll be happy to be over77 when I get there.

  13. 13
    Beth says:

    OK, so for a man, the brain goes dead as soon as he gets an erection…on this we all can agree.

    But for a woman, who is busy multi-tasking all freakin’ day long, we get what? 30 seconds of blissful brain silence as our “reward”? A 30 second break from “Mommy I need 4 dozen cupcakes by tomorrow” and “What’s for dinner?” and “You’ll have to stay late to finish this report” and “I don’t have any clean socks” and “Your kid has a fever, come get him from daycare in 30 minutes or be branded a BAD MOMMY forever.”

    It just doesn’t seem like enough, does it?

  14. 14
    Silver James says:

    I don’t think I want the med companies to find out what makes me horny…not if it reveals to them a way to turn me into Miss Stepfordville.  (^_^)

    Tina, I don’t think the pharmaceuticals in question are necessarily for reaching orgasm so much as they are for offering a woman the same things as Viagra(tm) does for a man. Unfortunately, age, menopause and/or disease/treatments can have an adverse affect on the physical side of sex. While some women would just as happy if their husbands moved into the guest room, I know of others who would pay whatever it took to have a healthy sex life again.

    As for the study, I do think the French have it dead on when they call orgasm La Petite Morte. I think that’s why I’ve always had a bit of trouble actually describing the feeling. For that brief moment, there is no breathing, no feeling, no thought. Now I know why – I’m truly brain dead, not just blond.

    (I need to log off and not sign in so I can get really cool spaminator words again. :-P – I also need to figure out the html to do quotes. *sigh*

  15. 15
    Victoria D. says:

    Hmmmm. I’m intrigued. Unlike Sarah, this rings totally true to me.

    I wouldn’t think “emotionless”, but I would think “thoughtless.” Meaning, at that point, everything in the surrounding world ceases to exist. I’d call it a moment of pure, involuntary (okay, totally voluntary) selfishness and inner focus in a life full of doing things for other people. No thinking about my husband and what he’s feeling or experiencing. No thinking about waking the house up. It’s just me. This is actually why I hate mutual, simultaneous orgasm, btw. I want to be fully there for both of them.

  16. 16
    Flo says:

    I could see this in maybe a total lock up peak moment that the body sort of holds in that gasp of air… then BOOM brain starts again.

    I can say that I’ve had the LOLorgasm and the crying one and all the ones in between but for each of them there is a moment where I’m sort of shut off.  Even if it’s just a flicker or a second.

    It’s actually kind of nice to know we can achieve this state of non-thinking.  Cause sometimes I just want my brain to shut the fuck up.  Now I know I can go get an O and get that feeling.  Yay!

  17. 17
    R. says:

    They ‘study’ 12 women [out of how many billions on the planet?], and decide that we’re all this way? 

    That’s kinda arrogant,… and stupid.

    As for how to ‘restore’ libido in a woman, that’s easy.  Get her a ‘parter’ who knows what the hell he’s supposed to do, how to do it, and is wiling to do it,… to her satisfaction.

    Again, duh.

    Makes me wonder what kind of ‘test’ they did on the guys.

  18. 18
    Tina C. says:

    I’ve cried and I’ve realized that I’ve forgotten to breathe.  I’ve only ever had my mind completely shut down a couple of times and, coming from someone who’s brain NEVER shuts up, it is an amazing experience.  But I really have a hard time with how the scientists are interpreting that experience, though—it sure as hell feels intense, physically AND emotionally, to me.

    bed91—hmmmm, just what is it trying to say?

  19. 19
    GrowlyCub says:

    R a lot of your question are answered in the article.  They describe what happened in the PET scans they did for both women and men.

    As for how to ‘restore’ libido in a woman, that’s easy.  Get her a ‘parter’ who knows what the hell he’s supposed to do, how to do it, and is wiling to do it,… to her satisfaction.

    Again, duh.

    I think there will be many, many women who disagree with this statement.  I happen to be one of them.

  20. 20
    Jackie L. says:

    I am never, make that seldom, surprised at volunteers being found for medical experimentation.  But that they found a dozen women willing to, er, reach the sublime plateau, in a fricking PET scanner seems like a lot of subjects, frankly.  I would love to see that ad in the paper.  Volunteers wanted for research regarding female sexual climax, etc., etc.  And to have been on the ethics committee when the research protocol was approved. . .

    As for Viagra for females, find it, sign me up.  Menopause has been the ruination of what used to be a fun time in my life.  Even if an orgasm only shuts down my brain for 30 secs, that’s 30 secs less time I have to fret about a lot of stuff.

  21. 21
    Compcat says:

    I’d feel better about this paper if they had used the same form of stimulation in both men and women.  I mean, there’s more than one path to getting turned on, and it makes sense that someone using visual stimulation would have different areas of the brain working (or not working) than someone using only physical (or mostly physical).

    So the guys in the next study need to make the “sacrifice” and just use physical stimulation.  Of course, maybe they already did this and I am to lazy to read more than the synopsis.

  22. 22

    I think there will be many, many women who disagree with this statement.  I happen to be one of them.

    Have to agree with Growly, here. Libido has a LOT more to do with hormones, general health and energy levels, and a woman’s internal mindset than it does with external factors, such as attractiveness, attentiveness or even availability of a sex partner.

    ‘Course, it helps to have a partner who knows what s/he’s doing, but that really hasn’t got much to do with the level of general interest a woman’s going to have in sex.

  23. 23
    willaful says:

    My husband and I have both been known to laugh.

    “provide34”? No thanks, I’m happy with one.

  24. 24
    TracyS says:

    I would agree with those that said that it’s not so much “emotionless” as just being in the moment.  I am one of those people whose brain never shuts the hell up. So, during foreplay my mind is still running on what needs to be done and all kind of crap. Annoying really. But when I reach the Big O, nothing is in my brain except what I am feeling at that moment.  It is not emotionless that is for sure!

  25. 25

    I stop the world…I melt with you….

    spaminator: anyone69 – certainly not with just anyone!

  26. 26
    snarkhunter says:

    No emotion in death?

    I feel like there’s a Roarke/Eve joke waiting to be made there…just can’t quite figure it out. Is Nora lurking here somewhere? :D

  27. 27
    Jackie says:

    Or maybe it’s because it’s inside a freaking PET scan machine. I mean, geez, the thought of someone watching me have sex is enough to paralyze me. A bunch of scientists watching my husband stimulate my clit while I’m in a PET scanner? Yeah, that would probably be enough to make me effectively brain dead.

  28. 28

    Gosh, I don’t find that analysis particularly strange or surprising. Here’s what Susie Bright has to say in her How to Write a Dirty Story:

    Writers who insist on drawing it out for paragraphs, with detailed ocean metaphors and inner burst of karmic sunlight, are killing it. Because the orgasm scene is the final shoe-dropping from the prosy foreplay that you’ve been teasing us with all along. When that relief comes, it had better be exquisite, sweet—and brief.

    and when I wrote one in The Bookseller’s Daughter
    , the orgasm was embedded, as it were, in one clause of a longer sentence:

    She threw back her head and cried out; she heard him cry out as well….

    The orgasm is the short, blank space of the semi-colon.

  29. 29
    Virginia says:

    Actually, if they tested me, I’d throw the whole thing off because my thought processes would still be wondering if I left clothes in the dryer, if my son would have clean clothes for school, did I remember to let the dog out…

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