Kayt Sukel was asked to stimulate herself while inside a functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) scanner, an act that for many would be too socially awkward. fMRI machines take pictures of active areas of the brain by measuring deoxyhaemoglobin levels in blood, which indicates energy-use and thus activity. Sukel lay in the brain scanner with her head strapped down and her naked body covered with a blanket. First, she was asked to tap her thumb with a finger, and next to imagine carrying out this same action. Following this, Sukel completed the same sequence with pelvic floor exercises, known as Kegel exercises, which involve the repeated contraction and relaxation of muscles underneath the pelvis, and then with clitoral touches. In the final, and most important stage of the experiment, Sukel was asked to masturbate until she climaxed, lifting her free hand to signify the euphoric moment.
This audacious study, conducted by Dr Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University, aimed to thoroughly investigate what actually happens in the brain during orgasms: an experience that has yet to be understood properly. Sukel’s scans showed that a sexual climax is a whole-brain event, with over 30 different areas differentially activated in lead up to, during, and after orgasm. It seems that everything processing touch and memory to reward and pain are implicated.
Komisaruk also discovered that the same areas were activated during real or imagined Kegel exercises and clitoral touches, except for one region: the prefrontal cortex. This area, at the front of the brain, was more active in imagined acts. The prefrontal cortex is partly responsible for elements of consciousness, such as self-evaluation and the experience of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Komisaruk suggested that heightened activity in this area indicates direct cognitive control of pleasurable physiological experiences that is unlike any other situation. He proposed that masturbation from imagined sexual fantasies is “a special case of consciousness”.
Other scientists that have examined the brain during sex found deactivation in the same region implicated in Komisaruk’s work. Dr Janniko Georgiadis, at the University of Groningen, used positron emission tomography (PET) to investigate orgasm in women while they had sex with their partner. Scientists using PET measure a biologically active substrate of glucose, previously introduced into the brain, which is transformed when the brain uses energy. Differing levels of this molecule therefore indicate brain activity. Comparison with this earlier study shows that imagining events does not match up to the authentic visceral experience of sex. Georgiadis thinks that mutual acts require less cognitive control and behavioural disinhibition to reach orgasm. This loss of control is reflected in the deactivation of areas in the prefrontal cortex. The PET scan also showed that the women were lacking in normal emotional activity during the exact moment of climax.
There is one thing that these two experiences have in common, as Georgiadis states, they are both an “altered state of consciousness”, not seen during any other act. The neurological evidence seems to verify the feeling that nothing else matters when you are climaxing, other than the orgasm itself.
Perhaps someone should put it to Sussex’s own psychology department: students might enjoy taking part in their experiments …