This Is Your Brain During Orgasm
If you ever want to make even the most cosmopolitan of your friends speechless, telling them you have volunteered to travel to Newark, New Jersey, so you can masturbate to orgasm in an fMRI is a great way to start. Once they overcome the shock, chances are they will start to ask questions. Most I was able to answer.
Editor's Note 2/14: In honor of Valentine's Day, we're reposting this piece from Kayt Sukel, a favorite among Big Thinkers. Enjoy!
Editor's Note 1/22: A writer by trade, Kayt Sukel volunteered to masturbate in an MRI scanner for science. The point of the study? Neuroscientist Barry Komisaruk and sex therapist Nan Wise wanted to know what exactly goes on in the brain when a woman orgasms. Could the sensory cortex be activated by thought alone, they wondered, opening doors for treatments for people unable to orgasm through genital stimulation? This guest post is an excerpt from Sukel's just-released Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex, and Relationships.
What's the Big Idea?
If you ever want to make even the most cosmopolitan of your friends speechless, telling them you have volunteered to travel to Newark, New Jersey, so you can masturbate to orgasm in an fMRI is a great way to start.
Once they overcome the shock, chances are they will start to ask questions. Most I was able to answer. To start, no, I’m not kidding, I’m really going to do it. Yes, I will be in the scanner, the same sort of claustrophobic tube you got your knee scanned in that one time. Yes, I know it is a very tight fit. Loud too. Yes, I’ll be self-stimulating. How? Clitorally, to be exact, until I reach orgasm. Will I use a vibrator? No, most vibrators have metal, which is a no-no in the magnet.
I was going through the same spiel over and over again. I knew the procedure backward and forward. Or so I thought. When I arrived at Rutgers University’s Smith Hall, a 1970s-style building in the middle of the Newark campus, I was in a bit of a panic. Despite spending an hour or two trying to concoct some kind of sexy fantasy about lab coats and confined spaces the previous night, I was afraid that when push came to shove, I would not be able to reach orgasm.
The first order of business was to fit me for a head mask, a sort of modern Count of Monte Cristo–type restraint system made of tight plastic mesh. White and blue, the contraption was part low-budget bondage porn prop and part clinical radiation treatment kit. Once we started the scan, it would be screwed directly to the scanner bed, meaning that I would be unable to get into or out of the fMRI tube without assistance. Ah. No pressure then. None at all.
Getting to the Big O
A few hours later the party moved to the fMRI suite at the nearby University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Medical Center. I donned a hospital johnny and was pushed back into the scanner’s tube, as ready as I would ever be to have an orgasm in an fMRI. The magnet started to spin around me. As promised, it was loud. It lasted the majority of my session inside the scanner, which was approximately an hour and a half. Even with ear protection, I could feel each click, clank, and whir all the way down my spine.
Just as I was starting to zone out, not into sleep exactly, but into something like it, the noises suddenly stopped. It was now time for the big show. Ready or not, I had to woman up and bring myself to orgasm. In a few minutes I would know if loud clanks and clicks, hospital johnnies, and a tight mesh head restraint could make the magic happen.
Hearing my cue, I took a deep breath and got to it. It may not have been romantic or sexy in there and, man, this mask thing was starting to get really uncomfortable, but I was going to orgasm no matter what. I powered through it, keeping my head as still as possible. A few minutes later I raised my hand to let Komisaruk know my orgasm had begun. I wouldn’t say it was one of my best, but, hey, in my humble opinion, it still qualified.
I lowered my hand to signal my finish and, with it, let out a long breath of relief. If I could have reached around to pat myself on the back, I would have done so. I now had a great story if anyone ever asked me to name the strangest place I’ve ever had an orgasm. And I had helped science while doing it. Triumph for all parties concerned.
“An Orgasm Is a Whole Brain Experience.”
Two months later, in sunny San Diego, I met Komisaruk and Wise at the Society for Neuroscience conference, which gathers approximately 30,000 neuroscientists to discuss the newest advances in the field. They presented the data from my time in the magnet. And they did so with a 3-D movie highlighting the time line of brain activation. (Call it brain porn.) As I watched the film I was struck by the sheer amount of activation.
What happened in my brain during orgasm? Komisaruk and his colleagues saw distinct temporal activity, with different brain areas being recruited as I went from arousal to orgasm and then back around again to rest.
As I roughed up the suspect, so to speak, my genital sensory cortex, motor areas, hypothalamus, thalamus, and substantia nigra lit up. The hypothalamus was no surprise; it has consistently been implicated in all manner of reproductive behaviors, including arousal. The part of the brain that produces oxytocin, is located there too. My motor areas controlled my fingers as I self-stimulated, and my genital sensory cortex registered that stimulation. And the thalamus? It was integrating not only the activity of my wandering fingers but also the memories and fantasies I used to help build up my arousal. The substantia nigra, an area rich in dopamine-producing neurons, paired with the PVN’s oxytocin release, had me feeling nice and relaxed.
Areas implicated in memory, integration of sensory information, and emotion also became active. As my orgasm came to a close, the hypothalamus turned back on, and reward areas like the nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus were flooded with dopamine. That was what gave me that final rush. Getting to that point involves a variety of cognitive, emotional, and sensory components—even when it’s just you doing the work.
What's the Significance?
Like every study, Komisaruk's research raises more questions than it answers. Researchers still hope to understand:
As Komisaruk told Sukel: “I can envision a time when people can regulate their own brain chemistry through some kind of internal process. But we’re still in the infancy. Hell, we’re still in the prenatal in this field. But I can’t wait to see what will come in the next ten years. It’s going to be amazing.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Excerpt courtesy of Free Press. To read more, check out Sukel's book.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
Would you ever have sex with a robot?
- In 2016, "Harmony", the world's first AI sex robot was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix.
- According to 2020 survey data, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. This is an increase from a survey conducted in 2017.
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From homemade dildos to Harmony, the AI sex robot<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3f7451615568e74c6a839f04329c9902"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-cN8sJz50Ng?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><em>"...amid an economic crisis, with restaurants and retailers closing their doors and larger companies laying off and furloughing employees, the sex tech industry is booming."</em><br></p><p>A Bustle <a href="https://www.bustle.com/wellness/the-sex-tech-industry-is-booming-amid-economic-crisis-22819801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">article</a> published in April 2020, weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, explored the drastic boost in the sex tech industry. According to the research, <a href="https://www.dameproducts.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dame Products</a> (a popular sex toy retailer) experienced a 30 percent increase in sales between the months of February to April, and popular sexual wellness brand <a href="https://unboundbabes.com/?utm_source=%7Bsource%7D&utm_medium=%7Bmedium%7D&utm_keyword=unbound%20babes&utm_matchtype=e&device=c&utm_campaign=%7Bcampaign%7D&utm_adgroup=%7Badgroup%7D&gclid=CjwKCAjw1v_0BRAkEiwALFkj5qYbdEwANUjCdRkCeVZ2HZzHjcGmpYbsOXYcMcNneLc2nySvrbaalBoChEsQAvD_BwE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Unbound</a> reported selling twice as many toys as normal in this period.</p><p>While the new coronavirus was crashing the economy in other ways, the sex tech industry was one of the few that actually saw improvements, likely due to people all over the world being advised, encouraged, and in some instances forced to stay at home.</p><p>Something similar happened in 2008, <a href="https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/08/23/the-great-recession-is-a-turn-on-for-the-sex-toy-industry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">during the recession</a>: the sex toy industry was one of the only industries at the time that didn't gravely suffer. </p><p><strong>The evolution of sex tech from stone dildos to artificial intelligence.</strong></p><p><a href="https://sofiagray.com/what-is-the-history-of-sex-toys-from-stone-to-silicone-and-beyond/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The history of sex toys</a> is quite interesting. A 28,000-year-old siltstone dildo was uncovered in Germany in 2005. Luxury bronze dildos have also been found in China that are at least 2,000 years old.</p><p>Aside from various materials being shaped into dildos, there has always been an interest in how to advance sex technology, even before it involved actual technology at all.</p><ul><li>The 1700s: Steam-powered vibrators (such as the Manipulator).</li><li>The 1800s—1900s: The invention of the first electric vibrator (the Pulsoson) and "beauty tools" being used for sexual satisfaction (such as the Polar Cub massager)</li><li>The 1920s—1940s: The introduction of hand-held massagers (the Andis Vibrator) and compact devices (such as the Oster Stim-U-Lax)</li><li>The 1940s—1960s: Japan introduced the "Cadillac of Vibrators" (The Hitachi Magic Wand), which eventually made it's way to America.</li><li>1965: The invention of silicone, which most modern sex toys are made of.</li><li>The 1980s—1990s: The invention of the rabbit-style vibrator, made more popular with one of the first showings of a sex toy on television ("Sex and the City"). </li><li>The 2000s: Visual porn website Pornhub launched and sex toys became increasingly popular. Erotic literature also became more common and popular, with "50 Shades of Grey" and others like it. </li><li>The 2010s and beyond: Sex toys and technology start to blend, and the world's first internet-controlled sex toy was launched in 2010 by Lovense.</li></ul><p>In 2016, "Harmony", <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cN8sJz50Ng" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the world's first AI sex robot</a> was designed by a tech firm called Realbotix. </p>
From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.
Credit: Willyam Bradberry on Shutterstock<p>In 2020, more than one in five Americans (22 percent) say they would consider having sex with a robot. <a href="https://today.yougov.com/topics/science/articles-reports/2020/03/19/2020-both-men-and-women-are-more-likely-consider-h" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">YouGov conducted a study</a> in February 2020 that compared results from a similar study from 2017.<br></p><p>According to the results, 6 percent more people in 2020 are comfortable with the idea of having sex with a robot than in 2017.</p><p>YouGov points out that the increase in consideration is particularly significant among American adults between the ages of 18-34 years old. Additionally, how people feel about having sex with a robot has also changed. In 2020, 27 percent of Americans said they would consider it cheating if they had a partner who had sex with a robot during the relationship, compared to the 32 percent reported in 2017.</p><p><strong>"If you had a partner who had sex with a robot, would you consider it cheating?"</strong></p><p>The results from this interesting study also reveal that many people (42 percent) believe having sex with a robot is safer than having sex with a human stranger.</p><p>Robots (and robotic tech) already play a vital role in speeding up manufacturing, packaging, and processing across various industries. From television shows to real-life applications, artificial intelligence is becoming more and more popular in all areas of human life.</p><p>According to YouGov, "a <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-12/amazon-plans-high-end-echo-ramps-up-work-on-alexa-home-robot" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a> report outlining Amazon's plans for an Alexa-powered robot that follows and helps you around the home may redefine how these machines service humans in the near future." </p>