It’s a mystery to many men and a source of frustration to many women. Now a study of the brain is helping scientists to unlock the secrets of the female orgasm.
By using scanners to observe which parts of a woman’s brain become active when they are aroused, researchers have discovered there are at least two ‘pathways to pleasure’.
One of them activates when a woman is alone and fantasising with the help of imagination. The other kicks into action when she is being physically stimulated by a lover.
The findings, revealed in the New Scientist, have come from two research studies. A U.S. study of solo female volunteers, led by Dr Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University in New Jersey, analysed MRI scans of women reaching climax to investigate the role of imagination and ‘top-down control’ in triggering a physiological response.
It found heightened activity in more than 30 parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, an area which controls functions such as decision-making, controlling urges and imagination.
In contrast, when Janniko Georgiadis and colleagues at the University of Groningen in Holland performed similar experiments observing women being stimulated by a partner, they found that the same brain region ‘switched off’ during orgasm.
This suggests that an orgasm is achieved with a partner when the woman ‘lets go’ and reaches an ‘altered state of consciousness’. An inability to do this may prevent women from reaching climax. Mr Georgiadis said: ‘I don’t think orgasm turns off consciousness but it changes it. When you ask people how they perceive their orgasm, they describe a feeling of a loss of control.’
The studies together indicate women’s brains have alternative pathways for experiencing sexual pleasure according to whether they are alone or with a lover. Mr Georgiadis added: ‘It is possible there is a difference between someone trying to mentalise sexual stimulation as opposed to receiving it from a partner.’
Scientists believe that further study of the orgasm – and the role of the prefrontal cortex – could help women who have difficulty reaching climax.
And Dr Komisaruk hopes more research will offer a valuable insight into how we might use thought to control other physical sensations, such as pain.
Attempts have been made to carry out similar studies on men, but have been hampered by technical problems. Male orgasms are much shorter and few women will be surprised to discover that men use their brain less during sex.