fMRI scans reveal why pain tolerance goes up during female orgasm and shows brain does not turn off

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

(Medical Xpress)—A team of researchers at Rutgers University has determined why women are able to tolerate more pain during the time leading up to and during orgasm. In their paper published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the group also showed that the female brain does not shut down just prior to or during orgasm.

Much research has been done regarding the physicality of male and female , but much less is known about what goes on in the during sexual climax, especially for women. This has been attributed to the environment used for such studies—most involve asking volunteers to throw aside their inhibitions while they masturbate inside of an fMRI machine. The cold, noisy and mechanical setting is not exactly conducive to arousal. Nonetheless, the researchers with this new effort undertook just such a challenge, enlisting 10 women of various ages and asking them to stimulate themselves as the researchers watched their brains at work from a . The women were asked to attempt to reach orgasm twice if they could. The experiments were all repeated a second time with male partners providing the stimulation. The women were all also fitted with a special device to prevent their heads from moving, preventing blurring of the readings.

The researchers report that despite the clinical environment, most of the volunteers were able to reach an orgasm, allowing the research team to see what happened in the brains of the volunteers as it happened. They report that they found that on the precipice of orgasm, the dorsal raphe nucleus became more active. Prior research has shown that it plays a major role in controlling the release of serotonin, which in addition to making people feel good, also serves as an analgesic. That, the team notes, explains why women report feeling less sensitivity to pain just prior to and during orgasm.

But the researchers also found something else—rather than shutting down, most of the brain regions actually became more active during stimulation and orgasm. This finding contradicts that of a team back in 1985 who conducted similar experiments using a PET scanner and reported finding evidence of multiple brain regions essentially going to sleep during orgasm, which led to claims by others that require a worry, distraction-free environment if they are to have an orgasm. Using fMRI, the team notes is much more accurate.

Explore further

There's no such thing as a vaginal orgasm, review finds

More information: Nan J. Wise et al. Brain Activity Unique to Orgasm in Women: An fMRI Analysis, The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.08.014


Although the literature on imaging of regional brain activity during sexual arousal in women and men is extensive and largely consistent, that on orgasm is relatively limited and variable, owing in part to the methodologic challenges posed by variability in latency to orgasm in participants and head movement.

To compare brain activity at orgasm (self- and partner-induced) with that at the onset of genital stimulation, immediately before the onset of orgasm, and immediately after the cessation of orgasm and to upgrade the methodology for obtaining and analyzing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) findings.

Using fMRI, we sampled equivalent time points across female participants' variable durations of stimulation and orgasm in response to self- and partner-induced clitoral stimulation. The first 20-second epoch of orgasm was contrasted with the 20-second epochs at the beginning of stimulation and immediately before and after orgasm. Separate analyses were conducted for whole-brain and brainstem regions of interest. For a finer-grained analysis of the peri-orgasm phase, we conducted a time-course analysis on regions of interest. Head movement was minimized to a mean less than 1.3 mm using a custom-fitted thermoplastic whole-head and neck brace stabilizer.

Ten women experienced orgasm elicited by self- and partner-induced genital stimulation in a Siemens 3-T Trio fMRI scanner.

Brain activity gradually increased leading up to orgasm, peaked at orgasm, and then decreased. We found no evidence of deactivation of brain regions leading up to or during orgasm. The activated brain regions included sensory, motor, reward, frontal cortical, and brainstem regions (eg, nucleus accumbens, insula, anterior cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, operculum, right angular gyrus, paracentral lobule, cerebellum, hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, ventral tegmental area, and dorsal raphe).

Clinical Translation
Insight gained from the present findings could provide guidance toward a rational basis for treatment of orgasmic disorders, including anorgasmia.

Strengths and Limitations
This is evidently the first fMRI study of orgasm elicited by self- and partner-induced genital stimulation in women. Methodologic solutions to the technical issues posed by excessive head movement and variable latencies to orgasm were successfully applied in the present study, enabling identification of brain regions involved in orgasm. Limitations include the small sample (N = 10), which combined self- and partner-induced stimulation datasets for analysis and which qualify the generalization of our conclusions.

Extensive cortical, subcortical, and brainstem regions reach peak levels of activity at orgasm.

Journal information: Journal of Sexual Medicine

© 2017 Medical Xpress

Citation: fMRI scans reveal why pain tolerance goes up during female orgasm and shows brain does not turn off (2017, October 13) retrieved 15 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Oct 13, 2017
I have seen on youtube, Male cats & dogs holding the skin on the backs of females for even an hour with their teeth during Mating ! To have under control ? As though someone had Ordered that. How come all of them do that and all of them tolerate that?

Oct 13, 2017
To whom are these women reporting said pain tolerance, and how would they know? Are they into the wierd stuff? How come I wasn't invited to at least be the cameraman? These are burning question that demand answers.

Oct 13, 2017
I wonder if it is related to this strange phenomenon

"Of those who report their rapes, around 4–5% also describe experiencing orgasm. But the true numbers are likely much higher. In a 2004 review paper, a clinician reports, "I (have) met... several female victims of incest and rape who had lubrication and orgasm.""

-Tribal encounters often result in the victor slaughtering all the males and incorporating the females. This process is described in of all places, the bible.

And the females who could survive this brutality may have developed defenses against physical and mental trauma, which could include reduced pain and even orgasm.

And from a genetic perspective warfare is the ultimate male/male competition, and women prefer to judge relative quality in potential donors by causing them to compete.

So the victors would have proven themselves as more worthy of repro rights since the now defunct tribesmen were unable to defend theirs.

'Alls fair in love and war.'

Oct 13, 2017
Both males and females want to determine who they are going to mate with. This desire obviously manifests in different behaviors.

Some even believe that rape was prevalent during the Pleistocene

"It is possible that sexual coercion may actually enhance female fitness by providing a behavioral filter for higher quality males as mates or guaranteeing that females' sons will carry sexually antagonistic traits that enable them to achieve higher reproductive success (Eberhard 1996; Cordero and Eberhard 2003). If the net effect on female fitness is therefore positive, then sexual conflict becomes a mechanism of female choice, which Eberhard (2005) contends explains most male mating aggression to resistant females. " - Conflict and Bonding Between the Sexes
Ryne A. Palombit

-and if so, a womans survival strategy may have been to try to convince her attacker to spare her life during the attack itself. Hence

"the group also showed that the female brain does not shut down..."

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more