Armed with MRI scanners and willing volunteers, a hardy band of sex researchers is exploring the long-misunderstood organ that’s at the center of human sexuality — the brain.
Three of the leading lights in sex research have compiled several decades’ worth of knowledge into a new book called The Science of Orgasm.
The authors are Rutgers University professor emeritus Beverly Whipple (who helped popularize the “G-spot” in the ’70s), Rutgers psychology professor Barry Komisaruk, and Carlos Beyer-Flores, head of the Laboratorio Tlaxcala in Mexico.
In a Q&A with Wired News, Whipple and Komisaruk discussed what we’re learning about the eternal mystery of the Big O.
Wired News: What have we learned about orgasms in the past five to 10 years?
Beverly Whipple: With new technology and women being more open, we’re able to document that women can experience orgasms from many different forms of stimulation. There’s more than one nerve pathway involved: Orgasm is not just a reflex.
Barry Komisaruk: We recognize four different nerve pathways that carry sensory signals from the vagina, cervix, clitoris and uterus, and they all can contribute to orgasms. That’s a new recognition.
WN: You’ve discovered that women can have orgasms when a variety of parts of their bodies are stimulated, right?
Komisaruk: Orgasms have been described as being elicitable from any part of the body — the mouth, the nipples, the anus, the hand. It leads us to think that there is a general orgasmic principle of building up excitation from different parts of the body leading to a climax and a resolution — not necessarily ending in ejaculation, but a feeling of an orgasmic experience.
Whipple: We have documented in our laboratory that women can have orgasms from imagery alone without touching their body. The point is that women can experience orgasms and sexual pleasure from many forms of stimuli. It does have not have to be through genital stimulation.
WN: What are we learning about these non-genital orgasms?
Whipple: That they’re real. We may have to reconsider what people define as orgasms, and not just have it defined in the genitals. We find that certain of the same brain areas are activated during orgasms experienced by imagery only (as during genital orgasms).
Komisaruk: It broadens our perspective on the potentialities of the body and brain. If we understand better how we can generate such pleasure from all different parts of our bodies, that increases our potential for sensory experience.
WN: Do you think there might come a time when orgasms really get detached from the genitals?
Komisaruk: It’s happening right now. People have described orgasms through imagery, nose orgasms, knee orgasms. Although it sounds strange, the reports are believable. Now, people can show our book to someone who doubts it, and it can serve as a validation. Time will tell how prevalent non-genital orgasms are.
WN: You’ve found that even women with no feeling below the waist can have genital orgasms through genital stimulation.
Whipple: We’ve documented through our research that women who have complete transection — interruption of the spinal cord — can experience orgasms.
Komisaruk: The nerve pathway for that is via the vagus nerve, which can go directly from the cervix and uterus to the brain, passing outside the spinal cord. Women with spinal cord injuries told us that their doctors told them it was impossible to experience genital sensation, it was impossible to experience genital pleasure. They thought something was wrong with them when they experienced it, and they were troubled by it.
WN: What is the vagus nerve?
Whipple: “Vagus” means wanderer — the nerve wanders through the body. Previously, it wasn’t thought that it goes as far as the pelvic region. But our research and that of other laboratories is showing that it does in fact go to the cervix and uterus and probably the vagina. It carries the impulses from those regions, travels up through the abdomen, goes through the diaphragm, through the thorax (chest cavity), up the neck outside the spinal cord, and into the brain.
Komisaruk: Men and women have described an orgasmic experience from stimulation of the skin region around the level of the spinal cord injury. The injury creates an area of heightened sensitivity. They’ve told us if the right person stimulates that skin in the right way, it can produce very pleasurable sensation, including what they describe as orgasms.
We studied one such woman who had a spinal cord injury near her shoulders. She stimulated her neck with a vibrator, and she said that elicited an orgasm for her. We observed her blood pressure and heart rate, and they became elevated just as if it were a genital orgasm.
WN: Professor Whipple, you had a very emotional moment with one subject who had a spinal-cord injury.
Whipple: That particular woman had not tried any sexual stimulation, either with herself or a partner, in the two years since she had an injury. When she was in the laboratory, this woman experienced six orgasms through self-simulation. It was extremely emotional. She was crying, I was crying. She didn’t think this was possible, and she was so pleased that she had volunteered to be a research subject. This had helped open up her essential pleasure again.
Whipple: That some of the same brain areas are activated during orgasm in women with and without complete spinal cord injury, and also during orgasm from imagery alone, with no one touching their body, including the women themselves.
Komisaruk: Certain of the brain components — the insula and cingulate cortex — that are activated during orgasms in women are classically known to be activated during response to pain. We’ve seen that there is a strong inhibition of the response to pain during orgasm. What that leads us to think is there is some kind of very important interaction between the orgasmic experience and the pain experience.
Another brain component — the nucleus accumbens — which we see activated during orgasm in women has been shown by others to be activated by pleasure-producing drugs.
A third orgasm-activated brain component we see in women — the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus — produces oxytocin, which is secreted in peak amounts during orgasm in women and stimulates uterine contractions.
WN: What do you want to find out next?
Komisaruk: We’ve set up a mechanism by which the person in the scanner, the person in the fMRI, can see her own brain activity in near real-time. We project the person’s own brain image to her while she’s in the scanner.
We want to study chronic pain and relative insensitivity to genital stimulation. For those with pain, the question is whether they can voluntarily cool down the hot spots by looking at their own brain activity. Will that attenuate the pain?
For a person who has a relatively weak response to sexual stimulation, can they learn to intensify the activation of the responsive part of the brain, does that intensify the genital sensation? And there are some women who have undesirable high genital sensitivity. They wish to cool it down. Can they cool it down by voluntarily reducing their brain activity?
WN: Is there a holy grail of sex research?
Komisaruk: In terms of sexuality, the holy grail is: Why does an orgasm feel so damned good? I think we’re getting there.