Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
How does sex alter the brain?
Sex alters the brain in a variety of interesting ways.
Many of us are aware of the impact sex has on our health. It can burn calories, help us sleep better, makes us less hungry, and even calibrates our metabolism. All of these benefits, and yet millennials are having less sex than generations past. While most people are aware of the health benefits, few know how it affects the brain. Turns out, it alters our thinking organ in a myriad of ways.
Sex is a complex process with many neurological networks involved. This includes the regions associated with emotion, pain, and especially the reward circuit. When we’re being stimulated in a sexual way, a host of biochemicals such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin flood our system and alter our neurochemistry.
This hormonal cocktail’s release is directed by the hypothalamus, a small area at the center of the brain that’s involved with a lot of biological functions, including regulating blood pressure, sleep cycles, the sex drive, childbirth, thirst and appetite, and even the production of digestive fluids.
Let’s face it: unless you're gifted with the good looks of Brad Pitt, it isn’t easy to find a partner. The whole reason we’re driven to take part in sex in the first place is, we get a big heaping dose of dopamine out of an orgasm. Sometimes called the “reward molecule,” dopamine is also released when we feel a sense of accomplishment, eat a rich dessert, rock out to our favorite song, win a monetary reward, or partake in drugs or alcohol (including nicotine and caffeine). This is why sex can become a full-blown addiction. Those who’ve had an orgasm also have higher levels of prolactin, a hormone thought to aid sleep, which may be why many of us doze off after an erotic romp.
Pleasurable experiences release dopamine in our brains and the more pleasurable the experience, the more dopamine is released. Credit: Getty Images.
Sex also releases endorphins--the body’s natural painkillers. Some studies have shown that intercourse can relieve a headache, despite being the classic excuse to abstain. Sex can even relieve the dreaded cluster headache, one study shows. Vasopressin and oxytocin meanwhile, give us feelings of arousal, emotional connection, intimacy, and even attachment to our partner. Oxytocin is known as the “calm and cuddle” hormone. This is the same biochemical that bonds mother to child through breastfeeding. It’s also thought to offset cortisol—the stress hormone.
In a 2003 Dutch study, researchers used a positron-emission tomography (PET) scan on male participants while their female partners sexually stimulated them, until orgasm. Scientists specifically zeroed in on the actions of the brain during orgasm. They found that blood flow to the cerebellum increased significantly. This region is known to process emotions. Meanwhile, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex—known as the center of logical reasoning, shuts down. But don’t worry fellas! This happens to the ladies, too.
In a 2005 study, the same Dutch team used a PET scan to monitor male participants once again, while they were being given pleasure by their partners. Here, researchers looked at the men’s brains from the time of arousal until orgasm. They found that when the penis became erect, blood flow increases to two important areas in the right hemisphere, the posterior insula and the somatosensory cortex. The right amygdala, however, saw a decrease in blood flow.
The insula processes feelings of warmth but also pain. While the somatosensory cortex is the area of the brain where pain is encoded. In the amygdala, emotions are created and regulated. It’s believed that the amygdala is dialed down so as to decrease anxiety and fear during arousal stage, up until orgasm.
Rutgers University researchers in one study found that women’s brains are slightly different during sex. Credit: Getty Images.
Surprisingly, reactions within male and female brains aren’t that different, according to a 2017 Rutgers University study. Here, 10 female participants either sexually stimulated themselves or were stimulated by their partner, while strapped into a fMRI. At the time of orgasm, in addition to the aforementioned parts of the brain, they also had heightened activity in the cingulate gyrus. This region helps to sense pain and process emotions. Could this mean that sex is a more emotional process for women than men? Only future studies can tell us for sure.
In the past, it’s been assumed that parts of the brain “shut down” when we orgasm. It can certainly feel that way. We melt into the moment and our consciousness seems to connect to something larger, something beyond ourselves. These studies have found however that nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than deactivating, the brain actually rises in activity as it approaches orgasm, peaking at climax, and settling down again in the afterglow.
To learn more about what happens to you biologically during sex, watch this:
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.