Neuroscientists trying to untangle the riddle of desire and sexual pleasure in the brain have discovered something that turns conventional wisdom on its head. Though most people believe that men are less emotional about sex than women are, the neurology of orgasm says otherwise, at least according to an intriguing article in Scientific American. During orgasm, men experience heightened activity in the emotion-processing centers of the brain. But women's brains, say researchers, are shut down in emotion-processing regions during arousal and orgasm.
Scientific American's Martin Portner writes:
[Looking at the brains of orgasming men using a PET scanner] scientists also saw heightened activity in brain regions involved in memory-related imagery and in vision itself, perhaps because the volunteers used visual imagery to hasten orgasm. The anterior part of the cerebellum also switched into high gear. The cerebellum has long been labeled the coordinator of motor behaviors but has more recently revealed its role in emotional processing. Thus, the cerebellum could be the seat of the emotional components of orgasm in men, perhaps helping to coordinate those emotions with planned behaviors. The amygdala, the brain's center of vigilance and sometimes fear, showed a decline in activity at ejaculation, a probable sign of decreasing vigilance during sexual performance.
To find out whether orgasm looks similar in the female brain, [neuroscientist Gert] Holstege's team asked the male partners of 12 women to stimulate their partner's clitoris—the site whose excitation most easily leads to orgasm—until she climaxed, again inside a PET scanner. Not surprisingly, the team reported in 2006, clitoral stimulation by itself led to activation in areas of the brain involved in receiving and perceiving sensory signals from that part of the body and in describing a body sensation—for instance, labeling it "sexual."
But when a woman reached orgasm, something unexpected happened: much of her brain went silent. Some of the most muted neurons sat in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which may govern self-control over basic desires such as sex. Decreased activity there, the researchers suggest, might correspond to a release of tension and inhibition. The scientists also saw a dip in excitation in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which has an apparent role in moral reasoning and social judgment—a change that may be tied to a suspension of judgment and reflection.
Brain activity fell in the amygdala, too, suggesting a depression of vigilance similar to that seen in men, who generally showed far less deactivation in their brain during orgasm than their female counterparts did. "Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm; we knew that, but now we can see it happening in the depths of the brain," Holstege says. He went so far as to declare at the 2005 meeting of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Development: "At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings."
Portner also talks to Barry Komisaruk, who recently co-authored a book called The Female Orgasm, which I recommended as one of the 20 science books every science fiction lover should read.