Before digging into the specifics about what happens when you orgasm to your body and mind alike, neuroscientist and sex therapist Nan Wise, PhD, says it’s important to understand that our research-backed knowledge skews limited, leaving quite a bit to learn. But for starters, Dr. Wise notes that there are many different types of orgasms: Some may be big while others skew more toward the smaller, “ooh, that feels good” variety. Female orgasms don’t always have the same sort of concrete beginning and ending that male orgasms do, either. “They can be like waves of pleasure,” Dr. Wise says of them.
The different nerves that can lead to different types of orgasm
There are multiple nerves that can trigger orgasms, too: According to Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast and author of The New Sex Bible, the pelvic nerve transmits signals from the vagina, cervix, rectum, and bladder; the vagus nerve transmits signals from the cervix, uterus, and vagina; the pudendal nerve communicates info from the clitoris; and the hypogastric nerve does so from the uterus and cervix.
“There are different kinds of orgasms in terms of how we experience them, depending on the predominant way that we’re stimulating ourselves or being stimulated.” —sex therapist Nan Wise, PhD
In 2011, Dr. Wise conducted research wherein woman-identifying participants used a device to separately stimulate these various nerves by applying pressure to their clitoris, then the interior wall of the vagina, and then up against the cervix, and finally, the nipples. She found that each kind of stimulation created a unique pathway to the place in the brain that registers genital sensations. “These results suggest there are different kinds of orgasms in terms of how we experience them, depending on the predominant way that we’re stimulating ourselves or being stimulated,” she says.
You can think of these various touch points like different keys on a keyboard, which together form a specific tune, Dr. Wise adds. “If you’re playing just, let’s say, the clit keys, then you might add a couple of vagina keys, and then maybe a deeper note that goes with the cervical key, and then throw in a side order of nipples before flipping over for some anal notes,” she says. An orgasm resulting from that medley is going to feel different than one resulting from clitoral stimulation alone.
How the brain responds to orgasm
Regardless of how you reach orgasm, the event itself activates the brain in all sorts of ways. Dr. O’Reilly says that upon reaching climax, the pituitary gland (which regulates the body through hormone production) “lights up,” the nucleus accumbens (critical to the brain’s reward circuit) and ventral tegmental areas (deals, in part, with motivation) of the brain are activated, and the hypothalamus (which, among other things, controls stress) kicks into overdrive. Then, she says, the part of your brain responsible for reasoning shuts down, and the amygdala, which controls emotion, is switched on.
And because of all of this activity, the brain floods with feel-good chemicals: oxytocin, which is colloquially known as the cuddle hormone; dopamine, which is released as a reward response; endorphins, which are the body’s pain relievers; and endocannabinoids, or “the brain’s marijuana.” Orgasms also increase blood flow to the brain, which in turn, Dr. Wise explains, increases oxygen to the brain. This can result in improved cognitive function.
So to recap: Different types of orgasms may feel differently on an experiential level, but ultimately, they all result from nerve stimulation that lights up various parts of the brain, leading to the release of a neurochemical cocktail that not only majorly blisses you out but may boost your brainpower, too. That’s a pretty decent argument for making orgasms a regular part of your health care regimen, especially in a year like this one since, as Dr. Wise points out, many of us are experiencing lower levels of hormones like dopamine due to isolation and distancing. (And if you need an assist to help you climax, technology is here to help. Try this vibrator, which promises an orgasm in 60 seconds or less.)
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