The science of orgasms

When hearing the word ‘fireworks’, a lot of fleeting, colourful memories spring to mind: the intense expectation working up to the show itself, the beauty of it all unravelling in a synchronous and grandiose concerto of explosions, the smoky aftermath left on a clear night sky – all experienced in a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds, reminding man that both a moment and a lifetime are transient and we all doomed to crumple into chaotic nothingness. Many things have been compared to these intricate pyrotechnics, but one recent finding proves that we feel an intrinsic display of fireworks more often than one would think: the first MRI scan of a female brain during orgasm has likened the puzzling organic reactions to real small-scale supernovas.[1]

Initially thought to be a localised reaction, orgasm is scientifically defined as being the peak of the plateau phase of the sexual response cycle and is characterized, mainly, by an intense sensation of pleasure. Maybe the French have indeed coined an interesting euphemism when referring to it as ‘la petite mort’ – ‘the little death’. However, the recent scan shows that no more and no less than 80 different regions of the female brain exhibit ardent activity. Kicking off in the sensory cortex associated with genitalia, the stimulation spreads quickly to the limbic system (the component of the brain most involved with emotion, memory and the pursuit of happiness[2]).

As the pinnacle of the orgasm becomes, the pattern of activity engulfs the hypothalamus, causing the release of oxytocin. Sometimes referred to as ‘the love hormone’, this tiny peptide composed of nine amino acids is produced by magnocelluar neurons in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary. Even though the curious connection between oxytocin and the human sexual response is undergoing substantial investigation, it is an established scientific fact that this neurotransmitter is heavily involved in processes such as labour and breastfeeding. So far, the best guess is that oxytocin awakens feelings of contentment, calmness and security, also strengthening human bonding and overall romantic attachment.

Professor Barry Komisaruk, of New Jersey’s Rutgers University claimed that “The general aim of this research is to understand how the orgasm builds up from genital stimulation and what parts of the brain become recruited and finally build up into an orgasm”, while presenting his work at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC (November 12th – 16th 2011). The animation was compiled from sequential brain scans of Nan Wise, a 54-year-old PhD student and sex therapist, who is currently writing her dissertation under Komisaruk’s guidance. The professor also states that ‘we expect that this movie, a dynamic representation of the gradual build-up of brain activity to a climax, followed by resolution, will facilitate our understanding of pathological conditions such as anorgasmia (complete lack of orgasm) by emphasizing where in the brain the sequential process breaks down’.

All in all, can we simply reduce every sensation to a complex interplay and clash of chemicals? Just as fireworks are condensed explosives, one could suggest that each knotty reaction we feel is synonymous with the opening of infinitesimal vials of ammunition which our body has naturally primed, while awaiting the appropriate moment to release them. Sometimes, it’s best just to lie back and enjoy the show, as it’s all an evanescent matter of minutes.


Julie Kanya