What Happens Inside Your Brain When You Orgasm

Whether with a partner or yourself, orgasms feel amazing to most people. But this physiological phenomenon affects a lot more than your reproductive organs. Much of the sensation you experience during an orgasm comes from your brain and the many hormones and neurotransmitters released. Understanding what happens in your brain during an orgasm can help you better understand your body and pleasure.

Key takeaways:

What is an orgasm?

You’ve most likely had an orgasm or are curious about having one. Experiencing feelings in your body is different than understanding the science behind it. You know the physiological sensations that happen when you climax, but what exactly is an orgasm?

According to the Cleveland Clinic, an academic medical center, an “Orgasm occurs after the stimulation of the genitals or erogenous zones. It’s the peak of sexual arousal and causes intense feelings of pleasure” in the genitals and the rest of your body.

Orgasms can feel different for different people, and different orgasms can feel different for the same person. This is normal. Although people experience orgasms differently, they are more or less the same when you look at the physiological processes behind them.

The sexual response cycle

Orgasms usually aren’t an immediate reaction. Whether you have one alone or with a partner, there is typically a build-up before the climax. This may include cuddling, kissing, foreplay, and sex (before an orgasm). These different acts of intimacy affect your brain and play a role in the build-up to orgasm. Scientists call this four-phase process the sexual response cycle.

The female sexual response cycle does not necessarily move in a linear way, but these are the various steps:

  1. Neutrality.
  2. The awareness of a non-sexual need to be sexual.
  3. The deliberate choice to experience stimulation.
  4. Some sexual arousal.
  5. The awareness of desire to continue with sexual stimulation.
  6. More arousal and/or orgasms

Then females may move to either a feeling of well-being and/or a "spin-off" which may include feelings of bonding, emotional closeness, acceptance, love affection, and commitment.

The male sexual response cycle looks like:

  1. Desire. Researchers found increased brain activity in the SPL, ACC, hypothalamus, and orbitofrontal cortex. These parts of the brain help with spatial orientation, empathy and emotions, managing hormones, and sensory integration, respectively.
  2. Arousal. During this phase, increased brain activity in the insula helps with body awareness and the ACC and HT. There is decreased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in decision-making and emotional processing.
  3. Orgasm. Involves the sympathetic nervous system, thalamus, and other parts of the brain. We’ll go more in-depth on this one in the next section.
  4. Resolution. The brain becomes less responsive to a given reward, like sexual stimulation.

These different structures of the brain might not have meaning for you, but you may be familiar with some of the hormones involved in orgasm.

Your brain during an orgasm

During an orgasm, your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase. The muscles in your genitals and anus rhythmically contract, and you feel the release of building sexual tension.

You also experience an array of changes in the brain. More than 30 parts of the brain activate during orgasm, especially those involved in processing how we perceive touch. Other parts of the brain that become activated include the:

  • Hypothalamus. This contributes to unconscious body control, like the muscular contractions in your genitals
  • Limbic system. It helps with memory and emotions
  • Prefrontal cortex. Is is involved with decision-making and regulating thoughts, actions, and emotions

During orgasm, the body turns off the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, the orbitofrontal cortex. This is why you may feel “out of control” during an orgasm.

Orgasms: hormones and neurotransmitters

It’s not just different structures of the brain that become activated during orgasm, there are also biochemical changes that result in the release of different hormones and neurotransmitters.

The most well-known hormone released into the bloodstream during an orgasm is oxytocin. Also known as the love hormone, oxytocin is created by the pituitary gland in the brain and released by the hypothalamus during orgasm. It is responsible for the uterine contractions experienced during the climax.

During an orgasm, the hypothalamus is also responsible for releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine acts as a hormone and helps to manage sexual behavior while regulating body temperature. Dopamine is well known for its role in pleasure and desire, acting on the brain’s reward system.

Your brain after an orgasm

It’s common to feel intense relaxation, euphoria, or intimacy with partner after an orgasm. While part of that is because you shared an intimate experience with someone (or with yourself), it’s also because of what happened in your brain.

After the intensity of an orgasm, your body and brain need to take steps to regulate. One hormone that builds up during sexual arousal is vasopressin, which helps to regulate sexual motivation. After an orgasm, vasopressin levels go back to normal. Because of its role in developing attachment, vasopressin can contribute to possessiveness after sex.

After an orgasm, the parasympathetic nervous system helps regulate and calm the body. The serotonin it releases helps to elevate your mood and increase relaxation. It’s also one of the reasons you may feel sleepy after having an orgasm.

Orgasms for men and women

Orgasms can feel different for different people, but are there biological differences between the sexes?

One of the biggest differences is in the amygdala – the part of the brain that processes emotions. During orgasm, activity in the amygdala increases for women but decreases during ejaculation for men.

Another difference is in the hypothalamus, which houses a “sexual pursuit area." In men, this part of the hypothalamus is more than twice as large as it is for women, with twice as many cells and significantly more testosterone receptors.

The brain benefits of orgasms

The neural activity during an orgasm can offer the brain a wide array of health benefits. These are just a few ways orgasms can benefit brain health:

  • Anti-depressant. The release of serotonin, oxytocin, and noradrenaline help to regulate mood, which can act as a natural antidepressant and lower stress levels.
  • Pain relief. The release of endorphins can help provide the brain and body with pain relief.
  • Increased blood flow. Orgasm and sexual stimulation increase blood flow to the brain, which helps it get more nutrients and oxygen, helping with overall brain function.

Sex and masturbation are a great way to feel more connected to your body, yourself, and your partner, and they also can offer some science-backed health benefits. When you have an orgasm, your whole body is affected, especially your brain.

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