Mirrored at Forget Su Doku, orgasms are better for the brain | Jimi Disu Blog|
Two researchers in New Jersey are pioneering research into women’s orgasms. Will Pavia reports
Nan Wise worked as a sex therapist before she joined academia. She is tall and engaging; beneath the hem of her white lab coat peep a pair of knee-high leather boots. For her PhD she needed females who would lie inside a brain scanner and bring themselves to orgasm. Many women duly volunteered in the name of science, though more than occasionally, Wise stepped in herself. “I have been my own subject more times than I would like to say,” she says.
There are only two places in the world where this brave work takes place:one is in Holland, the other is the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. There, since 1982, Professor Barry Komisaruk has pioneered studies of women in the throes of carnal pleasure.
People often ask him why he didn’t devote his career to curing cancer. “We know virtually nothing about pleasure,” he says. “It’s important to understand how the brain produces it. What parts of the brain produce such intense pleasure, and can we use that in some way? What would that do to depression or anxiety or addiction or pain?”
Komisaruk is a solid, jovial fellow. He is 72 though he looks younger. “I guess the orgasms keep me young,” he says.
Really? “At orgasm we see a tremendous increase in the blood flow (to the brain). So my belief is it can’t be bad. It brings all the nutrients and oxygenation to the brain.”
But can it be as good for our brains as a game of Su Doku, or a vigorous crossword? “Mental exercises increase brain activity but only in relatively localised regions,” he says. “Orgasm activates the whole.” This is perhaps something for all of us to bear in mind, as we face the loss of our youth, not to mention our marbles. Put down your pencils, dear reader, and take up a more stimulating pastime.
That orgasms might stave off senility is just one of Komisaruk’s investigations. He has also discovered that the intense sensation of orgasm blocks pain — a mechanism that may also be triggered to reduce the agony of childbirth — and he has worked with paralysed women whose spines have been severed by gunshot wounds. “Their doctors told them they couldn’t have any sensation and they gave up on their sex lives.” He identified a nerve, outside the spinal cord, that was carrying sensations to their brains. However, in a white research laboratory, before a genial man in a white coat, they came to orgasm. It surprised them — and him. “It was very emotional,” he says.
He gathered the first evidence of where an orgasm occurs in a woman’s brain. He and Wise mapped the sensory pathways from the vagina and the pair studied ten women who could give themselves an orgasm merely by thinking.
We are in the brain scanning laboratory where these imaginative women reached a state of sexual ecstasy. The Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, or fMRI scanner, is a huge white and grey beast with a circular mouth into which the volunteers are fed head first. Gregg Ferencz, a lab technician, operates it from the other side of a thick glass window in an adjacent room. “I’m the Igor,” he says.
Komisaruk began his research intovaginal stimulation in the 1960s. At the time he was working with female rats, using a new technique to listen to the neurons firing in their brains. “I tried all different kinds of stimulus. Giving them chocolate milk and water and vinegar, brushing the fur and pinching their feet. I tried vaginal stimulation too.” When he did this, using a small glass rod, the rats momentarily became paralysed and appeared insensible to pain. The pleasure seemed to block the pain.
Rats are small so the logistics of these experiments seem a little awkward to me, I say. “Well It’s a small rod,” he says.
But I think of the complaints that men have big fingers and are clumsy. I would imagine with rats it would be a lot harder.
“I can perform a very fine surgery,” he says. “People said I had magic fingers because I could elicit in rats a sexual response that others couldn’t.”
In spite of his abilities, he says that it got to the point where he had to get “a verbal report. I figured that the only way I’m going to know for sure is by asking women”.
His fellow academics formed a delegation and protested that Komisaruk would give the institute a bad name. Investigating the sexual peccadilloes of monkeys or pigeons was science, doing the same thing with women was a scandal. The director of faculty rebuffed them. “He said it was academic freedom.”
They may, in any case, have underestimated his determination. In the late 1970s, Komisaruk’s wife developed breast cancer. “She was in such terrible pain,” he says. “I thought: ‘What am I screwing around with stuff that’s so theoretical? Do something useful. Focus on the pain-blocking action’.” She died in 1982: the year he began his work with women.
Beverly Whipple, who had just co-authored The G Spot and Other Discoveries about Human Sexuality, came to study with Komisaruk. “She had a lot of contact with the women who she had studied for the G Spot book, and that was how we got our first subjects,” he says.
Wise did her bit too, although she has now stopped “donating” her own orgasms. “I’m retired from active duty here.” She thinks that women volunteer “almost as a sexual empowerment thing”, making T-shirts that declare: “I donated an orgasm to science”.
Still the bare room, the narrowness of the tube in which they must lie, the presence of the scientists in lab coats does not seem remotely sexy unless you are into that sort of thing. Plus, the volunteers must be extremely still, like Victorian women dreaming of England, as the slightest movement can render the brain scan useless.
To smooth the progress of science, Komisaruk began designing dildos, heating plastic tubes in his oven at home and bending them into different shapes. I ask to see one and he produces a translucent plastic rod, bent at one end.
While the women climax, the fMRI scanner measures the blood flow in their brains and produces matrices of numbers. On the wall of Komisaruk’s office hangs a brightly coloured rendering of one set of results, showing increasing activity in every region of the brain in shades that brighten from red to yellow until the point of orgasm when everything is illuminated.
“That’s my brain,” Wise says.
The actual business of comparing brain with brain requires a lot of drudge work, however. “The thing that most surprised me is how different each brain is,” Wise says.
The Times’ photographer, arrives to take their portraits. “Are you learning a lot?” he asks me. “Will the girlfriend be happy?”
I don’t know how applicable it is, I say.