Sex on the Brain: The science of orgasm

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Since neuroscientist Dr. Gert Holstege, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, presented his study on orgasms at a conference in Copenhagen last month, his work has made several lascivious-sounding headlines. His findings — that a woman’s fake orgasm produces a different brain pattern than the real deal, that men feel bad when they don’t achieve the big O, and that the fear center of the brain is less active during orgasm — may not be surprising, but they could pave the way to new treatments for sexual dysfunction.

Without a financial sponsor in a country that receives less than a third of the grant money the U.S. allots for scientific research, Dr. Holstege is taking on topics that he admits don’t make for traditional dinner-table conversation. Recently, he spoke to Nerve about how humans’ inner O-face could possibly lead to a new definition of happiness. — Kate Sullivan

Why an orgasm study?
Well, in 1994, we found that cats perform this very particular posture when they’re in estrus. Maybe you had a cat once, I don’t know, but when they are in estrus these cats behave completely different than normal.

It meant that in cats there was a "hardware of sex".

It’s the same with monkeys.
Yes. And so, you stimulate these cats by scratching their lower backs. Suddenly they’re going into this very particular posture, and that posture is necessary for the male cats to mate. We found the "hardware" of this particular behavior, the particular posture, in the central nervous system, in the brain stem and in the spinal cord, and it meant that in cats there was a "hardware of sex." So, the next question is, is the same true for humans? That’s the reason that we started to do this very high risk project, to see if there was similar hardware in humans.

Why would you call the project "high risk"?
[Laughs] Because no one else ever asked a volunteer to have sex in a PET scan.

Aren’t those machines too cumbersome for sex?
We asked ourselves the same questions: Is there anybody willing to do this in the scanner? And is it actually possible? Have you ever had a brain scan?

I have actually.
And you weren’t thinking about sex.

That’s true.
So, number one: is there anyone willing to do it? And number two: is it possible? This is what you call "high risk." So the first thing we did was hire a person who was not involved in the university, that had no relationship with it whatsoever except for this study. And then we asked him to find the volunteers. We didn’t want to know any of them.

What was the process exactly?
So it’s a big thing, this scanner, they’re lying there with their head in the scanner. There is a low level of light, no sound, and they do not masturbate, because then you’d see the part of the brain that does hand movements and arm movements, and I’m not interested in hand movements. If a woman was in the scanner, her male partner would be asked to do the stimulation.

Did they bring their own partners?
Yes. The scan takes two minutes, so before getting started, we’d tell the stimulator that they had fifty seconds…forty seconds… [and the person in the scanner] didn’t know anything about this. She wasn’t thinking of seconds so she could concentrate on orgasm or the stimulation.

What level of privacy did they have in the lab?
There was complete privacy, except for my student, who is working on a PhD in this field, myself, the volunteer and the stimulator. We had a very cozy conversation before; we’d talk about taxes or I don’t know, about everything. You also must not think of them lying there completely naked, because that wasn’t necessary. The stimulator had to give the stimulation, but it wasn’t necessary to have the whole body exposed. It would have been too cold.

Did you request that some subjects fake orgasms or did they just do it to be polite?
Yes, we asked. There was a special reason for this. In the male study, which we did first, we found that adult men who were not achieving orgasm felt really unhappy. When they were out of the scanner, they were very angry with themselves. I thought, "If this is so for men, and if women have the same kind of feeling, there is a danger that they are going to imitate orgasm." So I tried to solve this problem by asking them to imitate orgasm in the beginning of the experiment, because if you fake orgasm during a special task, you’re not going to fake orgasm during the real task. And it actually worked. None of the women, even if they didn’t get a real orgasm, faked it then.

If, as your study indicates, climaxing shuts down parts of a woman’s brain, will abstinence make me smarter?
No. [Laughs]

None of the women, even if they didn’t get a real orgasm, faked it then.

How long does the brain stay shut down?
It depends on how long your orgasm is; but "shuts down" is a little harsh, let’s say those parts that do alertness or anxiety, fear, those parts are not shut down, they are deactivated. They are at a lower level of functioning than normal. That is what we found. The results of our work also show that for those people who are experiencing a high level of anxiety for whatever reason, it’s normal to have problems with orgasm.

How would you use your research to treat sexual dysfunction?
The research shows that if you’re fearful and have problems with your orgasm, it is not an "and." If you are fearful, of course you have problems with your orgasm. So you have to treat the fear. And that’s very important, because it’s a totally different approach to this problem.

Do you intend on hosting similar studies to test the new theories you’ve developed?
Yes, we’re going to do another male study because the PET scan is built to obtain data during two minutes. But the problem with orgasm is that it never takes two minutes, so you have to readjust the data. We did it with the women, very carefully; for the men we have to readjust the data. But I predict that even with differences in men and women, the deactivation in the fear centers will also occur with men during ejaculation.

Were men more emotional during orgasm than women?
No. But when they didn’t orgasm, oh wow, then they were emotional.

You’re also involved with something called "Cream of Science." What’s that all about?
That has nothing to do with this work, but they selected from all the universities in Holland, according to whom I don’t know, the ten best professors, and they were publishing all the papers that they had done. And I was one of them. But it has nothing to do with this present work.

Since the study, has your view of sex changed?
No. The finding of this deactivation of fear, it’s not so strange, although I did not know what to expect. But you could ask yourself: "What is the feeling of happiness?" And perhaps the feeling of happiness you feel during orgasm is nothing else but the complete lack of fear.