The Science of Orgasm

Defining an orgasm seems like such a simple task at first. Every month, magazine covers tout the newest way to get one, make one better or have a bunch in a row. Orgasm is a sex word so ubiquitous that we often fail to think about what it actually is that happens. An orgasm is that thing that marks the end of sex, right? Something that, well, feels so good you have to scream at the top of your lungs? A phenomenon that is paradoxically difficult to achieve yet simple to fake, a la Meg Ryan’s performance in When Harry Met Sally?

If you take a moment to ask someone what an orgasm feels like, people often find themselves at a loss for words. Have you ever tried to describe an orgasm to someone who has never had one before? Take a moment and try to come up with a description. (One word responses like “amazing” don’t count.)

An orgasm, technically defined, is a physiological response to nerve stimulation triggering a unique chemical reaction in our brains. Signals from nerves on our skin travel to the brain, which then reacts to the stimulation. Sexual stimulation utilizes a specific set of neural pathways to relay sexual sensory information. Signals of sexual pleasure travel along the pathways of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation and maintenance of the body. This can help to explain why stress and sex don’t go together—stress activates the opposite pathway, the sympathetic nervous system, effectively shutting down the parasympathetic pathways that sexual signals need to travel along. To get your sexual motor running, relaxation is key.

Once the parasympathetic pathways are lit up and the body is ready for sexual response, pleasurable stimulation travels along two key nerves from the pelvic area to the brain. The pudendal nerve conveys messages between the external genitals to the brain, while the pelvic nerve conveys signals to and from the internal pelvic structures like the vagina and anus.

Many people report different types of orgasms for women resulting from clitoral versus internal stimulation, which may be due to the difference in stimulation of these two nerves. Some lucky people have also reported having orgasms from nipple stimulation or by the power of thought, which indicates that while these nerves may be the main pleasure pathway for most of us, they are definitely not the only one. Wherever your pleasurable sensations come from, the signals to the brain create an escalating response, and with enough input this stimulation can result in an orgasm, kind of like the tension that builds up to a sneeze.

Right before, during and after our body “sneezes” our brain releases a potent cocktail of neurotransmitters. These brain chemicals are responsible for the mental high of orgasm and even some of the emotions that can accompany it.

Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter in orgasm stimulation. This is a major pleasure chemical, responsible not only for the pleasure we feel during orgasm but also the high experienced from the use of drugs like cocaine and heroin (though using sexual stimulation is an infinitely healthier way to attain this sensation). Dopamine also has a painkiller effect, which is the reason why pain thresholds can double during orgasm and sexual arousal.

Serotonin, although known as the “happiness” chemical, helps return your body to a normal state after orgasm and can act as an orgasm inhibitor. People taking a class of antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac or Paxil) often report lowered libido and difficulty attaining orgasm, likely an effect of raised serotonin levels.

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