Big Think Interview With Barry Komisaruk
Barry Komisaruk studies the function of nerve pathways for sexual stimulation in women who have suffered spinal cord injury. He and fellow researchers at Rutgers published the first evidence of brain regions involved in orgasm in women. Also, he has co-published a comprehensive review of neurological, pharmacological, hormonal, and health aspects of orgasm in "The Science of Orgasm."
Question: Are men and women hard-wired to have the same sexual responses?
Barry Komisaruk: There was an interesting research study by Vance and Wagner that was done in 1975; it was a long time ago, but it was a very interesting study where they asked men and women to describe their orgasms in writing and then they removed all specific references to the genitals, so you couldn't tell whether it was a man or a women -- these were college students describing their orgasms -- and then they gave the descriptions. Each one was about a short paragraph of the description of the orgasm. They gave the descriptions to sex therapists and various experts in sexuality, M.D.s, asking, "Can you tell which one is written by a male and which is written by a female?" The upshot of the experiment was that they couldn't identify accurately whether the description of the orgasm was made by a man or a woman.
So on that basis, my conclusion and their conclusion is that the feelings of orgasm, when you remove the specific reference to the genitals or which difference between the the genitals and the sexes, that the feelings of the orgasm are indistinguishable from each other, between men and women.
Question: Why are some women unable to climax?
Barry Komisaruk: We don't really know why some women can't experience orgasms. I started out by some years ago trying to find women who don't experience orgasms to study them in looking at their brain activity during genital self-stimulation and we identified one women and she -- but she before she came to our lab she said she got a new boyfriend and now she's had her first orgasm. So that did it for that experiment. We're still looking and it is a very interesting question. We don't really know. Certainly there are situations in which with peripheral nerve damage or diabetes, these can impede the neural transmission, the sensory nerves.
It’s much rarer in the case of men. McKenzie reported that only a few, two or three, of the men they interviewed out of many hundreds could have orgasms by thought alone, but we have found a substantial number of women who can have orgasms just by thinking. We’ve studied them and are continuing to study them and it’s really very interesting. We measured their heart rate and blood pressure and pain thresholds, which pain thresholds go up during orgasm. In other words, we found that women become much less sensitive to pain during orgasm and also their pupils dilate. All those measures, the heart rate, blood pressure, pain thresholds, and pupil dilations, they are all about doubled during orgasm generated by genital self-stimulation.
What we found is that women – we had ten women in the laboratory who said they could have orgasms just by thought and we measured their physiological responses when they applied genital self-stimulation, actual physical stimulation, and then we compared it with when they said they had orgasms by though alone. The physiological responses were essentially the same. They were indistinguishable. In other words, those women were really having orgasms just by thinking. They had different ideas – we asked them what their thought process was to elicit the orgasm and some said they had erotic imagery, but others said they had pastoral imagery, like walking along the shore on a warm summer day. Other women have a much more abstract image such as imagining the energy moving up and down their body and producing the orgasm. So, there are big individual differences.
Now we’re looking at their brain activity in women who have orgasms by thought alone and we are seeing very great similarities between when they have orgasms by just thinking and orgasms when they do genital self-stimulation.
Question: Is there something psychological going on?
Barry Komisaruk: We’re starting to study men and it’s a very good question, but we don’t really know what the difference is. It seems to be much rarer in men than in women. One of the things we are finding, very new findings, is that when women think of different parts of their body, the thinking about those parts of the body activates the sensory cortex. There’s a map of the body on the sensory cortex. In other words, the fingers are in one place and the toes are represented in another place, the face is represented in another place, the genitals in another place. It’s all systematically laid out, very much like the body plan is laid out on the sensory cortex.
What we’re finding is that when women think about their finger being stimulated, or they think about their toe being stimulated, or they think about their clitoris being stimulated, or their nipple, that the corresponding part of the body, the representation of it in the sensory cortex, of those body parts is actually activated just as if they are really being stimulated physically. I think one of the interesting questions is whether, since women can think their genital systems into actual activity in the brain, can men do the same thing? If they can’t then that might be a way of understanding why women can have orgasms by thought alone. Are the activating their genital sensory representation, which then spreads to other parts of the brain? And can men not do that? We don’t really know. But we have the tools to investigate that.
Question: How is the brain related to female sexual response?
Barry Komisaruk: Well, it’s interesting that you ask that question because we are really dealing with that right now. Since we know that if you think about the clitoris, or think about the G-spot, or think about the cervix that the corresponding part of the brain map for those parts of the body, those become activated. So, one question is whether women who can think themselves to orgasm, do they think their genital activation that the brain representation of the genitalia into activity and does that spread to the other systems that are involved in orgasm, how do they do it? We want to understand how they do it normally and then the question is what if we ask women to think about the genitals more intensively? Or, will they be able to intensify the response in their genital sensory cortex, and will that spread to other parts of the brain, will that facilitate their orgasm? I think it could be very useful in women who say that they don’t experience orgasms; it could be useful in women with spinal cord injury who can’t feel their external genitals. Can they think their brain into greater activation and will that facilitate their orgasm?
That’s a question that we are currently dealing with our brain research. It’s a very important and interesting question and it could be therapeutically useful. One of the techniques that we’ve developed is to have the women in the scanner looking at their own brain activity in near real time. The question is, if we can see our own brain activity in near real time in specific regions, can we voluntarily increase the activity of that part of the brain just by thinking about it, just as we can think about moving our finger and we can move our finger? We can wiggle our finger. We don’t know what we do, we learned to do it as an infant because we got the feedback between what we see and what we do, maybe we can do something with the brain. If we see our own brain activity, maybe we can make a change and maybe that’s going to change the way we feel, or the way we move. So, this is a new technology of near real time brain imaging with unlimited frontiers. We don’t really know how far we can go with that. But it’s a new approach.
Recorded on October 29, 2009
A conversation with the Rutgers psychologist and author of the upcoming book, "The Orgasm Answer Guide."
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