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March 3, 2017

Sex and the Brain

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Sex and the brain is an area of active scientific investigation. Studying the brain helps us understand the big why questions in sex science. Sex is so much more complicated then just the act itself; it encompasses all of the attitudes, thoughts, and behaviours that revolve around it. Our sexual experiences aren’t only about having an intense orgasm but everything that comes before that. So you can imagine that there is an infinite number of why questions that have been asked and are still being asking today. The answers to these questions can help us not only better understand typical human sexuality but also it’s variations. There really isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to sexual experiences grounded in consent. One thing is certain though, having a healthy sex life starts with your psychological wellbeing. Poorly managed stress has consistently been linked to lower levels of sexual desire, contributes to a negative body image and often has an impact on our relationships.

woman_under_stressOne of the things that neuroscience has taught us is that our brain is equipped with a social bonding hormone known as oxytocin. Historically we’ve often talked about oxytocin as being the cuddle, trust and bonding hormone. More recently experimental psychologists have found that oxytocin is actually incredibly important for stress reduction. So what does all of this translate to? When you’re stressed your brain releases oxytocin as a way to get you to interact with your partner and use social bonding as a stress reduction tool. What that means is partners who openly communicate with one another can actually use stress as an opportunity to bond and further develop their relationship. A recent study found that couples given a dose of intranasal oxytocin prior to sex actually had more intense orgasms. So the next time your partner is in need of some tender loving care remember how important it is for your relationship, and that it may even come with some unexpected rewards.

Speaking of which, did you know that orgasms are actually incredibly beneficial for our physical and mental wellbeing? The last time you had a headache how did you deal with it? How about next time you throw away the pills and activate your brain’s innate ability to produce natural pain fighting chemicals. Yes that’s right, orgasms cause our brain to produce and release loads of pain
orgasmfighting endorphins. Research has shown that these brain hormones not only work on pain associated with headaches but other types of body pain as well. Endorphins along with circulating adrenaline and other hormones also explain why our pain tolerance is higher during sex.

What else happens in our brain during sex you ask? Sex leads to changes in parts of our brain (the hippocampus) responsible for memory consolidation. Sex better equips our brain to cope and respond to stressful situations. It can help induce sleep, especially in men, due mostly to a tuning down of activity in the front of our brain and spikes in oxytocin levels. Last but definitely not least, sex feels really good. But why? It all has to do with a part of our brain known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which sends signals carried by the neurochemical dopamine to various regions of our brain during orgasm. It’s this beautiful circuit that leads to the euphoria and pleasure associated with orgasm. Reality check…humans don’t have sex because we want to flood the earth with our genetic material; we have sex because it feels good. It’s also the same case for many other animals in our kingdom. But why does sex sometimes get dull and feel less pleasurable? Honestly, it’s all about predictability. The human brain is hardwired to enjoy novel experiences, which was recently shown in a brain imaging study where participants VTA was activated while presented with “new” as opposed to “older” images. Let me end off by leaving you with some words of neuroscience-guided wisdom. How can you ensure you don’t dampen your sex related pleasure? Make sure to try new things such as kink, using sex toys, role-playing, trying new positions and locations, and bringing spontaneity into when you have sex. You could also try exploring some of your partner’s deepest fantasies and zones of intense stimulation. Stop thinking genitals and start thinking full body pleasure. I promise you, you’ll thank me.

Lab1Daniel Michaels holds a bachelors of science in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate in neuropsychiatry. His expertise as a scientist includes not only his work on sexual trauma, but also all things to do with sex and the brain. He has collaborated and trained with some of the leading scientists in the field of sex neuroscience. Daniel is also a regular contributor to PornHub’s Sexual Health and Wellness website, which you can find here. He is passionate about psychoeducation and has spoken at various academic and public events. If you have any questions about your brain on sex you can reach him at daniel.michaels.neuro@gmail.com.