What Sex Does To The Female Brain
“In January 2013, a team from UCLA published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience titled “”Neural Bases of Emotion Processing During Sexual Activity.”” The researchers’ stated objective was to identify areas within the brains of women who were having orgasms while viewing erotic videos.
The results were startling. While watching porn, it turns out that the part of our brain that processes emotions (the amygdala) is significantly less active among those women who have reached climax than it is in non-orgasmic women. In fact, the scientists found that when these same women reach orgasm, their amygdalae become even less responsive to emotional stimuli than they already had before. This leads them to experience a kind of loss of consciousness or “”trance”” — not unlike what happens when we’re dreaming.
This is significant because, as far back as 1878, Sigmund Freud noted that dreams occur in two forms: daydreams and nightmares. He described daydreaming as “”a state of mind which resembles sleep,”” where the dreamer loses all sense of time and place. And he defined nightmares as “”conditions under which the most primitive instincts awake again, so that one can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion.””
Freud would likely agree with the new study’s findings. After all, he believed that the unconscious mind has its own logic and agenda, separate from that of the conscious mind. It follows then that if there are certain functions of the human brain that are dedicated to specific tasks, like processing emotions, then this suggests that we cannot fully control our behavior without taking into account the role played by our deep selves.
It also helps explain why some people wake up screaming after only five minutes of REM sleep; why others seem to be able to fall asleep at will; and why still others report vivid dreams almost every night. Dreams are not random. They may not provide us with any real answers, but they do help us work through our issues and concerns.
So how does sex impact the female brain? Is it possible that, while sleeping, a woman experiences something akin to the male version of “”daydreaming?”” Or maybe she relives her deepest fears and anxieties by way of a nightmare?
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on inside the female brain when we have sex…and see if we can’t figure out what exactly causes the differences observed in the study.
During sex, the hypothalamus is activated, which controls our fight/flight response. Our bodies prepare us for action based upon whether we feel threatened or safe. If we feel safe during sex, our bodies release oxytocin and prolactin, both of which promote bonding and attachment, and increase feelings of calmness and relaxation. Conversely, dopamine is released if we feel threatened, triggering the fight/flight response. These chemicals trigger endorphins and adrenaline, causing us to feel pleasure, well-being and euphoria.
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When it comes to sex, men and women aren’t wired alike. A 2008 study showed that the size of the hippocampus differs between males and females, indicating that women’s brains are better suited to handle spatial relationships. Men tend to think linearly, while women prefer to conceptualize spatially.
Another key difference occurs in the frontal cortex, located above the eyes, forehead and scalp. The right side of the frontal lobe is larger in men, making men better at math than women. Women have a larger left side of their frontal lobes, making them better at reading social cues and understanding other people’s perspectives.
A final difference is seen in the olfactory bulb, the small structure atop the nose that sends smell information to the brain. The olfactory bulbs are bigger in men, meaning that men’s noses are generally much keener to picking up smells than women’s.
But, according to Dr. Candace Pert, a neuroscientist who studies neurotransmitters, hormones and receptors at Stanford University, there isn’t really a reason why men and women should process life differently. She believes that the primary difference in the brain stems from the presence of estrogen and progesterone. Both sexes produce these hormones naturally, but the ratio of estrogen to testosterone makes all the difference. Estrogen increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, while decreasing levels of acetylcholine, glutamate and GABA. Progesterone decreases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, while increasing levels of acetylcholine, glutamate and GABA.
Based upon her research, Dr. Pert says that the brain is designed to respond to chemical signals, rather than electrical ones. So, instead of thinking in terms of “”fight or flight,”” she describes our physiology in terms of “”stress and adaptability,”” since sex involves both physical exertion and mental stress. Her theory is supported by the fact that many mammals use a combination of chemical, hormonal and neural signals for communication.
Dr. Pert theorizes that the major difference in the male and female brain is due to the amount of available sex steroids, particularly testosterone. Males produce higher amounts of testosterone throughout adulthood, while females produce relatively little. Testosterone appears to influence brain development and function, especially in the prefrontal cortex. Recent evidence indicates that it reduces neuron growth and cell division in infants, thus reducing overall brain volume.
Testosterone also affects the metabolism of amino acids involved in mood regulation, including tryptophan, tyrosine, methionine, lysine, phenylalanine and valine. Tryptophan in particular plays a crucial role in the production of seratonin, a hormone known to affect memory, learning, sexual drive, appetite, immune system functioning, body temperature regulation and sleep cycle.
Since sex releases endorphins, it actually promotes the secretion of tryptophan and serotonin. But, it doesn’t stop there. Endorphins are also associated with the feeling of being relaxed and happy. Serotonin regulates sleep cycles, appetite, bowel movements and menstrual cycles. When taken together, these facts suggest that sex influences brain function in multiple ways, leading to enhanced mood and improved health.
While the study referenced earlier focused on the role of emotion in female sexuality, another recent study examined the effect of sex on pain threshold and tolerance. Researchers discovered that women who engaged in regular intercourse experienced lower rates of chronic pain and reported greater happiness than women who did not engage in intercourse. Women who participated in the study said that sex helped to relieve tension, improve energy and reduce depression.
How does sex impact the male brain? Do you understand the difference? What do you believe creates the unique dynamic between the male and female brain? Please share your thoughts below.
Sex Differences Explained by Dr. David Greenstein
I’m often asked questions about gender differences. Below are answers to some common queries.
Do women get more sensitive breasts than men?
Yes, but only if you count fat distribution and breast density as sensitivity. Because breasts are composed primarily of fatty tissue, they expand and contract depending on hormonal changes. Breast tissue is very sensitive to touch, just as skin is. However, men’s nipples, unlike those of women, are erectile tissues that are not as sensitive as surrounding skin. For this reason, men typically don’t notice nipple stimulation as acutely as women do.
Why do women sometimes find it difficult to orgasm?
Women’s arousal patterns differ from men’s. Most women need direct clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm. Some require internal vaginal penetration, while others require external pressure applied directly to the clitoris. Male ejaculation depends entirely upon a man’s ability to stimulate his penis organ with sufficient speed and force. Stimulating a woman’s vagina externally with fingers or a vibrator can cause her to experience intense sensations. Since the majority of women require direct stimulation of the clitoris, they are usually unable to achieve orgasm solely through indirect methods.
Doesn’t masturbation hurt women?
Masturbation hurts everyone. Masturbating requires intense stimulation of the genitals. The intensity of this stimulation varies widely among individuals, ranging from gentle stroking to vigorous rubbing. Any form of stimulation that causes discomfort is painful, regardless of the person doing the touching. Unfortunately, the discomfort caused by masturbation is compounded for women because society places such high value on feminine beauty and attractiveness. Many women are expected to appear perfect at all times, so they feel enormous pressure to perform perfectly during masturbation.
Is oral sex pleasurable for women?
Oral sex is enjoyable for both men and women. There are several reasons why. First, it provides a visual stimulus, allowing couples to communicate through subtle expressions and gestures. Second, oral stimulation stimulates the entire surface area of the genital region, providing a rich sensory experience. Third, it allows partners to express affection and intimacy through kissing and caressing. Finally, it offers mutual pleasure, which can lead to deeper psychological bonding.
Are men attracted to beautiful women?