What Sex Does to the Female Brain

When it comes to sex, your brain is mission control. Researchers have mapped what happens in your bawdy brain when you get frisky, and the results are fascinating.

In one study, women masturbated while strapped to an fMRI machine, and it turned out over thirty — yes, thirty — different parts of their brain were activated, from pleasure centers to areas that deal with pain, memory and touch.

Arousal

The moment a woman starts getting frisky, her brain’s limbic system kicks into high gear. This is what’s responsible for the initial spark of attraction, and it also controls all the feels that accompany a sexy time. It acts as mission control, creating the perfect atmosphere and setting off a chain reaction of bodily sensations that lead to orgasm.

Arousal is triggered by sexual stimulation (or the anticipation of it) and by a natural chemical called oxytocin, released when you cuddle, hug or kiss someone you love. It’s the same chemical that bonding mothers release to their newborn babies and it has been shown to reduce stress and promote a sense of trust in close relationships.

As the arousal progresses, the nucleus accumbens in the brain’s reward system gets excited and releases dopamine, which gives you that rush of pleasure when you think about your partner or imagine sex. Brain stem activity also increases, resulting in increased levels of serotonin and endorphins. Sex, as well as the activities that lead up to it, make you feel good and boost your confidence, which is probably why women are so eager to keep the party going after they’ve had their orgasm.

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A fMRI study from Rutgers University showed that the area of the brain responsible for logical thinking goes on vacation during orgasm. The lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which normally helps us control our impulses and evaluate risky behaviors, deactivates during climax, possibly contributing to the bolder feelings some people experience during sex.

Orgasm

When the mood is right, the brain kicks into overdrive. Several different brain regions become activated and release hormones and neurotransmitters that cause the pleasure we feel during orgasm. One important chemical is oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, which causes those amazing uterine contractions that you’re so familiar with when climax comes to a close.

Your body also releases other substances during orgasm to reduce pain and promote bonding. And your heart rate increases to help supply oxygen to your brain, allowing you to concentrate even more on the task at hand.

Researchers have discovered that the same areas of the brain become active during orgasm, regardless of whether you’re doing the sex on your own or with a partner. A recent study involved scanning females’ brains as they masturbated alone or with a partner, and found that brain activity gradually increased leading up to orgasm and then peaked during it. The same regions are activated, including the reward center, nucleus accumbens.

Then, once the orgasm is over, activity in those same brain regions begins to decrease. The brain also seems to remap itself in order for you to be able to reach orgasm, as shown by experiments at Rutgers University where women with spinal cord injuries who couldn’t feel their lower extremities were still able to reach orgasm. During orgasm, the amygdala becomes very active, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls sex drive, turns on too. The anterior cingulate cortex, which inhibits pain, also switches on during orgasm, as does the insula, which processes emotions.

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Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are a form of non-verbal communication that use the movement of 43 different muscles in the face. They convey emotions and thoughts, and can even reveal hidden feelings like sadness or anger. Unlike body language, facial expressions are generally involuntary, although some can be controlled through the use of a smile or a frown. They can also be influenced by culture, with some facial expressions being universally correlated with certain primary emotions such as fear, surprise, sadness, happiness, anger, and disgust.

When we express our emotions through the face, the brain interprets those expressions in a very similar way to how it would interpret spoken words. In fact, scientists have developed methods to analyze facial expressions using images and a computer system to categorize them into their various meanings. The results suggest that a universal language of emotion may exist.

It has also been suggested that the facial expressions we make are a result of our evolution as a species. For example, Darwin noted that a baby’s smile evokes nurturing responses in its parents. In addition, many primates bare their teeth when aggressive or in fear and humans have been known to clench their fists in anxiety. Therefore, it is possible that some of these expressions have a survival value. However, studies are still ongoing and the understanding of facial expressions is a highly active area of research.

Memory

Sex is not only great for the body but also for the brain. Researchers have found that the part of the brain responsible for genital touch is more developed in women who get it on often. The study, published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved 20 female participants between the ages of 18 and 45. They had their clitorises stimulated while wearing an fMRI headset, and the resulting reactions were recorded. During orgasm, both men and women had heightened activity in the cingulate gyrus, which helps process emotions. However, a larger area of the cingulate gyrus was activated in women with high levels of sexual desire.

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In other studies, researchers have uncovered sex differences in the way the brain handles memory. For example, a 2017 study by Rutgers University found that when female participants were asked to remember words, they had heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex and early visual processing regions, but only the latter was activated in male participants. This suggests that sex-specific activations may be linked to emotional memory.

Other studies show that males and females perform differently on spatial-based memory tasks, like mental rotation of three-dimensional shapes. In these cases, the sex difference seems to be due to differences in hippocampal neuronal recruitment and resting cerebral blood flow (although females recruit the hippocampus more than males) or different strategies for encoding and recalling spatial information.

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