Most human beings have an orgasm at least once in their lifetime. The experience is common, almost universal, and yet it still remains poorly understood by medical science. The observable effects of an orgasm include increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, heavy breathing and muscular contractions. However, although these outward effects of orgasm can be easily analyzed, scientists still find the neurological underpinnings of this phenomena to be elusive. Exactly what goes on in the human brain before and during orgasm is only beginning to be understood.
Why is an Orgasm Important?
Nor have we always understood the purpose of orgasm—at least, that of the female orgasm. Obviously, males need to have an orgasm in order to ejaculate and therefore reproduce. However, the female orgasm has mystified experts as far back as the days of Aristotle, who mused, “What is the evolutionary reason for the existence of the female orgasm, when it’s not necessary for reproduction?” The current leading evolutionary theory is that the female clitoris is a vestigial remain from the point in evolution where females needed to have an orgasm in order to stimulate ovulation. Since then, however, humans have developed spontaneous ovulation, rendering the female orgasm enjoyable but not strictly necessary for the survival of the species.
Additionally, although the female orgasm is not necessary for reproduction, it still can be said to play a secondary role. During orgasm, the hormones oxytocin and prolactin are released by both partners. Oxytocin, in particular, is released in large amounts during partnered sex, and it is responsible for a large portion of emotional bonding. Because females can have orgasms, they become closer to their partners. Strong pair bonds provide an evolutionary advantage because a strongly-bonded couple is more likely to stay together, reproduce multiple times, and help each other survive.
Study Looks at the Effects of Orgasm on the Brain
To date, the only thing we fully understand about orgasm is how great it feels. As the decades pass, more and more research sheds light on the true nature of orgasm. One recent study examines the effects of orgasm on brain activity. This particular study was conducted by Adam Safron of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Safron notes that most of the research on orgasm to date is about the evolutionary purpose of orgasm. His research is a departure from this mainstream, instead examining the neurological aspects of sexual climax.
The idea that sexual experiences can be trance-like is somewhat of an ancient idea. The notion calls to mind the spiritual and meditative purposes of sex according to the teachings of Tantra, an ancient Eastern tradition. Indeed, Safron found that people’s brain activity during sex and orgasm signifies a rhythmic state of trance during which all of the brain’s attention is directed toward the immediate sensations of orgasm. The brain waves during an orgasm become synchronized, creating an altered state of consciousness. Anyone who has had an orgasm can relate to the idea that orgasm involves complete sensory absorption. It may seem like common sense, but in the face of very little research on the neurology of orgasm, this is actually an important finding.
The Implications of Recent Findings on Sexual Health
These findings on the neurological effects of orgasm could have implications for sexual health. It is common, especially for women, to have trouble achieving climax. Although this difficulty is overall normal, it can still be frustrating and unpleasant. The author says that the research may be relevant for people who want to improve their sexual function. Since orgasm has a rhythmic effect on the brain, it could be helpful in the quest to achieve orgasm to focus more on the rhythmic aspects of sexual activity. For example, some might find that keeping a more straightforward rhythm during intercourse may promote orgasm.
This research may also help pave the way for the public to view sex not only as a source of pleasure and intimacy, but also as an altered state of consciousness. Those who are interested in achieving altered states of consciousness for spiritual reasons may find what they’re looking for in the trance that is sexual pleasure. The practice of Tantric sex has already become accepted in the West, but perhaps this research and more research like it will encourage many more people to give it a try.