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What happens to your brain during sex?

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Ever wonder what happens to the brain during sex? Utilize these research findings and consider the tips below to improve your sex life.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Sex is often viewed as a primal, physical act, but it’s more than that. Sex is a multi-sensory experience that intersects with psychological, emotional, relational, and physical processes—all of which are connected to your brain.

So what happens in the brain during sex?

The pituitary gland lights up. The nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental areas are activated. The hypothalamus goes into overdrive. And the centre of reasoning and behaviour shuts down entirely as you spiral into the euphoria of sexual pleasure. All this activity may sound like sensory overload, but this is actually your brain…on sex.

Though the heart is often thought to represent matters of love and sex, this vital organ’s involvement in sexual processes is minimal in comparison to that of the brain and the nervous system. PET scans of the brain during sexual ac- tivity and orgasm reveal that its reward circuit lights up with a flurry of activity during sex. These scans confirm anec- dotal reports that sex is both a physical and emotional experience, as the amygdala, which controls emotion as well as the area which manages muscle function, is activated.

Brain studies also explain why sex is so pleasurable from a chemical perspective: the areas related to dopamine release become hotbeds of sexual activity resulting in increased levels of this feel-good neurotransmitter. And, as the pituitary gland is activated, the release of endorphins, oxytocin and vasopressin promote pain reduction, intimacy and bonding. These observable brain reactions may not help you to perfect your sexual technique, but they might help you to understand and manage your emotions before, during, and after sex.

The power sex wields over our minds and bodies is also evidenced in our brain activity. Sex is so overwhelmingly exciting, pleasurable and rewarding that our brains during orgasm look almost identical to a brain on heroin. According to neuroscientist Dr. Gert Holstege, there is only a 5% difference between our brain’s observable reaction to sex and heroin, which may explain the euphoric high we experience after a passionate sex session.

And since the lateral orbito-frontal cortex, which is the section behind the left eye responsible for sound decision-making, turns off completely during orgasm, we often toss reason to the wind when the prospect of sex presents itself. Though it may seem risky to allow our animal instincts to take over as we set logic aside in favour of pleasure, a degree of letting go and losing control is essential to desire, arousal and orgasm.

For sex geeks

The cortical homunculus is a map of the brain that illustrates which parts of its sensory and motor cortices correspond to various parts of our bodies. It was first developed by Dr. Wilder Penfield and these somatosensory maps have been expanded upon by contemporary researchers.

Scientists postulate that non-genital orgasms may be related to this brain layout and the activation of sensory cortical regions. For example, when organs are injured or removed, remapping of the senses may occur allowing us to experience sexual and orgasmic sensations in other body parts.

The role of nerves

The brain may be your most powerful sex organ, but nerves are the airwaves that transmit signals and impulses so that you can experience pleasure. Though nerve endings throughout your entire body can contribute to sexual sensations and orgasm, the following large nerves communicate information from the genitals to the brain:

  • The pelvic nerve transmits sensations from the vagina and cervix in women and the rectum and bladder in both men and women.
  • The vagus nerve communicates signals from the cervix, uterus and vagina bypassing the spinal cord.
  • The pudendal nerve carries information from the clitoris, penis and scrotum.
  • The hypogastric nerve transmits data from the uterus, cervix and prostate.

These distinct nerve pathways illustrate the complexity of sexual response and orgasm and support anecdotal evidence of orgasms from various sources of stimulation.

Tips for improving your sex life

If you’re curious as to how these research findings can help you to improve your sex life, consider the following tips:

If the brain erupts into a flurry of activity in response to sexual stimuli and arousal, you don’t want distractions or intrusive thoughts interfering with its response to pleasure; utilize strategies that help you to remain present and in the moment so that you can reap the full rewards of your brain on sex.

For example, you might want to play music or a white noise app to drown out distracting sounds or you may consider performing a two-minute body scan when you get into bed to help you relax and stay in the moment.

If you have a recurring intrusive thought (I.e. you’re thinking about work or your kids), consider a visualization that allows you to shelve that thought away so that you can return to it in the morning. Visualize putting the thought or issue in a box, carrying it out of the room and placing it in a drawer. If it reoccurs, simply notice it, put it back in the box and give yourself permission to return to it at a later time.

Practicing mindfulness throughout your day will not only improve your overall health, but also help you to be more present during sex so that your brain can works its magic and take you to new heights of pleasure.

Since multiple nerve pathways inner- vate the pelvic region (and the rest of the body), you’ll likely find that sex is more powerful and pleasurable if you don’t get hung up exclusively on the genitals. Instead, take your time to explore your entire body to discover new pathways to pleasure.

Use a massage oil that doubles as lube or a full-body massager like the We-Vibe Wish to explore other erogenous zones including your inner thighs, sides of the chest, lower back, finger tips and cheeks. I’ve worked with several women who can orgasm from stimulation of their lower back and others who feel orgasmic sensations in their collarbones. Of course, you’ll never dis- cover your full-body potential if you do the same thing over and over again, so think outside the box, change positions and explore your entire body to stimulate multiple nerve pathways and overwhelm the brain with sexual pleasure.

Finally, focus as much on subjective (mental) stimulation as you do on the physical acts associated with sexual activity. You can learn every technique under the sun, but none will compare with the ability to draw your mind into excitement, fantasy and arousal. Whether you dim the lights and fantasize about a scenario that riles you up or blindfold your partner to tease them with a naughty story that allows them to escape from reality, you’ll almost always find that the hottest sex is experienced between your ears—not just between your legs.

More Inspiration: A little self-love can help in the bedroom, so check out this cool article on building your self-esteem.

Author: Dr. Jessica O’Reilly is a teacher, author and sex educator whose doctoral research focussed on brief interventions designed to improve teachers’ knowledge and comfort level with sexual health education. Her practical relationship advice reaches millions each month and she travels extensively across the globe to work with couples to transform their relationships.


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