Women certainly know when they experience one, but science, on the other hand, knows surprisingly little about the female orgasm. Most studies have looked at animals rather than humans, focusing on how sensory information flows to and from the sex organs. Now a new study suggests that a woman’s orgasms have more to do with her brain than with her body. Not only do neural networks play a large role, but the feelings a woman has for her sexual partner are tied to just how good her orgasms are.
Researchers at Geneva University in Switzerland and the University of California, Santa Barbara, asked 29 head-over-heels heterosexual women to rate the intensity of their love as well as the quality, ease and frequency of the orgasms they achieved with their partner. Then the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the subjects’ brain activity while they focused on an unrelated cognitive task. As the subjects worked, their lovers’ name flashed on screens in front of them too quickly to be noticed consciously but slowly enough to evoke a subliminal response from the brain—a technique that has been shown to reveal the neural networks involved in partner recognition and related emotions.
The more “in love” the subjects reported being, the greater activity the name flash triggered in the left angular gyrus, a brain region involved in memories of events and emotions. The most smitten subjects also reported having orgasms more easily—and far better ones, too—with ease and quality linked to activity spikes in the left insula (circled above), a region involved in reward and addiction. “The more they were satisfied by their sexual relationship in terms of orgasm, the more this brain area was activated,” explains U.C.S.B. psychologist and study co-author Stephanie Ortigue. And this finding has implications: “Do we have to consider orgasm as another addiction?” she asks.
Ortigue points out that her study found no link between intensity of love and how often the women climaxed. After all, and quite fortunately, she says, a woman doesn’t have to be in love to have an orgasm.