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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: 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.
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.