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Why Do Orgasms Feel Good??

posted 4/3/2008 12:36:48 AM |
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Carnal Knowledge: They give pleasure; science asks why
By Faye Flam

Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

There are some natural phenomena whose wonder only deepens upon scientific investigation.
Take the orgasm. Scientists know it involves muscle contractions. They know it makes your pupils expand, and heart rate and blood pressure surge.

But why do orgasms feel good?

I was surprised to find that this is still something of a scientific mystery - though one that a few intrepid researchers are just starting to unravel.

"Really and truly, people don't know," says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research and coauthor of Becoming Orgasmic.

Right now, says Heiman, there's a big debate over how the female orgasm evolved. Researchers would also like to know just how different the female kind is from the male.

"Why is it easier for women to have multiple orgasms than it is for men?" Heiman asks. "How does it interact with attachment issues?"

There are lots of other questions, she says, but oddly, in our supposedly sex-obsessed society, it's nearly impossible to get funding for sex research.

Another complication: The orgasm question touches on some profound mysteries about how feelings and consciousness can emerge from the brain.

For Barry Komisaruk of Rutgers University, that's what makes the neurobiology of orgasm so fascinating. A coauthor of the semi-technical 2006 book The Science of Orgasm, he got interested in applying his field of neuroscience to sex while studying rats.

Observing that vaginal stimulation caused a cascade of hormonal changes and kicked in a painkilling effect more powerful than morphine, Komisaruk reasoned that decoding the neurobiology of female rat sex might lead to a blockbuster drug for humans.

He never found that drug but the work did lead to the discovery that the electrical impulses needed for orgasm travel outside the spinal column, through what is known as the vagus nerve.

This explained why some people with complete spinal cord injury can lose all sensation from below the waist yet still have orgasms - sometimes through sex, and sometimes through stimulation of the chest or neck, where they can still feel.

But what happens once the signal arrives in the brain?

To get at that, Komisaruk started putting women into the decidedly non-romantic confines of a functional MRI - a machine similar to a regular MRI but designed to map the brain in action - and asking them to bring themselves to orgasm.

He was surprised to discover that orgasm activated the same areas of the brain that respond to pain - the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula.

Other neuroscientists have suggested that the cingulate controls the subjective feeling of pain or pleasure, while a different part controls the sensation. One researcher, for example, noted that a patient with cingulate lesions could still identify the location of the pain but no longer minded it.

Perhaps less of a surprise was Komisaruk's finding that orgasm acts chemically in the brain by sending the messenger dopamine from a region in the back to the front, where it triggers a reaction a bit like those inspired by nicotine or cocaine.

This pain-pleasure connection might also relate to a medical mystery Komisaruk has begun investigating. Some women, he says, feel like they're constantly on (or over) the edge of an orgasm - but instead of pleasure, many feel discomfort, annoyance or even pain. The condition, called Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome, has only recently been recognized.

Komisaruk's lab has also studied the brains of women who say they can bring themselves to orgasm with thought alone. For some it's a sexual thought that does the trick, he says, but for others it's more abstract - something that has to do with focusing energy.

In the scanner, their brains typically showed the same patterns as those of women having conventional orgasms.

While this is all fascinating and potentially useful, Komisaruk says, he always runs up against a wall that no one researcher, or even field of research, seems able to break through. So he's joining other psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers to try to tackle one of the most profound mysteries of life: How does the transport of chemicals and electrical impulses in the brain add up to subjective feelings - and, ultimately, to consciousness itself?

What, exactly, is pleasure?

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post a comment!


Apr 3 @ 12:44AM  
Highly intriguing... thanks for the post!

Apr 3 @ 12:48AM  
Thanks for the info.. but to me I just like the way orgasms make me melt over and over again....

Apr 3 @ 1:00AM  
I don't know- why is food tasty?

Apr 3 @ 1:18AM  
I need to refresh my memory to more accurately describe the feeling. Anyone available to help refresh my memory?

Apr 3 @ 1:22AM  
I am just curious if anyone really cares about these studies. We have them...we enjoy them...and we want more of them. It's not rocket science is it

Apr 3 @ 1:25AM  
You have got to be kidding me, a study on this?

Apr 3 @ 1:45AM  
I'm not really all that interested in "why"....... but it's for a good cause, the interest of science, and all that......... so..........
Where do I sign up to participate???

Apr 3 @ 2:01AM  
it feels so good so that people will keep having sex, thus offspring will be produced. it's the way of nature, Darwinism perhaps. lol just my opinion

Apr 3 @ 7:23AM  
What intrigues me is the different intensity levels of orgasms and not always based on my level of being turned on. Some roll in soft like warm oil rushing through my body and others send me into intense pounding of waves that sends me into kicking, screaming ecstasy.

The neat thing about orgasms is the eliment of surprise is always there...each one is unique unto itself and it's sorta like having a new experience every time, like each one is the first one I've ever experienced and that doesn't seem to ever wear off for me. The anticipation alone is delicious.

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Why Do Orgasms Feel Good??