Science writer Kayt Sukel masturbated while inside a fMRI scanner just to see what the bloodflow in her brain looked like as she brought herself to climax. It turns out lots of unexpected parts of the brain help trigger female orgasm (and some change depending on whether you’re flying solo or with a co-pilot). So what did her research buddies at Rutgers University find?

According to Sukel and the researchers, there’s “more than one route to orgasm.” For example, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC)—”situated at the front of the brain and is involved in aspects of consciousness, such as self-evaluation and considering something from another person’s perspective”—gets highly activated as one approaches orgasm. Those who achieve orgasm using thoughts, imagined fantasy, and self-referential imagery experience less blood-flow in the PFC compared to those who use physical stimulation. Since the PFC becomes activated via thought and physical sensation, researchers assume the mind has the power to help render orgasm as a “top-down process”—that is, the brain activity helps create the physical sensation more than the physical sensation helps create the brain activity.

An earlier study at the University of Groningen found that during orgasm the left orbitofrontal cortex of the PFC actually shuts off and experiences significantly reduced bloodflow. Researches concluded that perhaps parts of the brain must achieve an altered state of conscious and actually “let go” of some of its processing power in order to achieve full orgasm. Sukel’s Rutgers study didn’t find this, possibly because their study involved masturbation while the Groningen study involved a partner.

According to Sukel, “It is estimated that one in four women in the US has had difficulty achieving orgasm in the past year, while between 5 and 10 per cent of women are anorgasmic – unable to achieve orgasm at all.”

In the past, pharmaceutical companies have been unable to formulate an effective “female viagra” because the vagina (unlike the penis) requires more than just increased bloodflow to increase lubrication and erogenous sensation. Researchers hope that understanding the neurophysiology behind the female orgasm will not only help find ways for anorgasmic women to manipulate brain activity and climax, but also help learn more about the brain’s “top-down” processes, especially when it comes to lessening pain. Could a psychotropic pill possibly help create mental conditions more amenable to climax?

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