This organ serves the god of pleasure, said Jim Pfaus, a psychology professor at Charles University in Prague, taking a plastic model of the brain in his hand. How is that!?
Many people think that pleasure is a purely physical sensation. However, pleasure does not actually happen in the skin, digestive system, penis or clitoris, but in the brain. Research on sexual desire and arousal proves this. Arousal is based on brain-body communication. The body is stimulated in conjunction with visual, auditory, olfactory and taste sensations. The brain, on the other hand, is the ticket to sexual pleasure. It receives a sensory signal that is processed, experienced as pleasant, and triggers a cascade of reactions throughout the body, from where pleasant stimuli again reach the brain. This is how bliss is born.
And what happens in my brain when I fall in love. How will it be different from when I’m not in love?
At the functional level, we can expect greater activation of the system associated with reward and less activity of the system associated with stimulus inhibition. This is clearly visible on fMRI imaging, i.e. magnetic resonance imaging. Example: when you are aroused, you want sex – we expect more brain activity in the area of the hypothalamus, which is responsible for activating the genital response. Activity in all circuits of the reward system will also be increased. And characteristically, with the onset of orgasm, there is an increasing quieting of those parts of the brain that are associated with maintaining conscious control. This is why during orgasm we are in a slightly altered state of consciousness, surrendering control. And that’s why people who control themselves very strongly, have difficulty “saving” – they often also have difficulty experiencing an orgasm. It’s like they can’t “turn off” their prefrontal cortex.
Brain activity changes depending on the situation, context, which is very difficult to faithfully reproduce in experimental conditions. While it is easier to test the behavior of the brain in response to a specific sexual stimulus – for example, a photo of a naked person in a provocative shot – it is more difficult to convey the experience of passion between the subject and his partner. The brain of a person in love during sleep will function completely differently than during a date. This activity changes from second to second. It is not easy to create a simple research model of how the brain of a person in love works.
You take a lover’s brain under a magnifying glass, or rather under an MRI, and what do you see?
I will say half scientific, half romantic – our brain starts to spark, because many centers are activated and the release of neurotransmitters is increased, which are responsible for experiencing pleasure. He is flooded with a wave of dopamine. The inhibiting centers that tell us to behave in a prudent and careful manner have less to say – so the prefrontal cortex begins to fall asleep. Hence the term “seeing the world through rose-colored glasses”. I think it’s a beautiful adaptive mechanism because it makes pairing so much easier.
MRI of the brain allows you to see what is happening in each slice of its cross section. We are interested here not only in one snapshot, imaging the structure, but also imaging the variability of activity over time. The results of the study, being the end result of data collection by the machine and their processing by an experienced analyst, show the image of the brain, or rather its various cross-sections at specific moments of the experience. You can clearly see the activity of specific areas of the brain by measuring blood oxygenation. Generally, it is information that the most intense processes are taking place in a specific place of the brain right now, because this region of it is crying out the most for oxygen, glucose and blood.
To give an example, in one study, performing brain function imaging among patients with compulsive sexual behavior, we wanted to find out how the brain reactivity differed in men who could not stop themselves from watching pornography and masturbating persistently. The surveyed men reacted to the appearing neutral images – the announcement of a financial reward and an erotic reward. It turned out that in people who compulsively used pornography and masturbated, the brain reacted much faster and more intensively to erotic reward signals.
Earlier, in 2002, English neuroscientists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki from University College London conducted a study of newly in love couples. They were shown pictures of loved ones and pictures of friends – the brain activity was significantly different.
With the machine you know everything.
Not exactly. In order to visualize functions, we need to stimulate the brain in some way – with a picture, sound, activity. If we take a person in love to the scanner and start talking to them about quantum physics or politics, we will not find out what triggers the feeling of falling in love in them. But if we take a person who is currently in love, another who is in a relationship of 20 years, and a third who is on the verge of divorce, and we ask each of these people to start imagining their partner, their last meeting, or we show them pictures of their partner – surely their brain will behave differently. We can expect that in a person who experiences strong romantic elation, strong passion, at the sight of a loved one, the reward system will light up like Las Vegas after dark.
I saw a video where neurologists show what the female brain looks like when it is approaching orgasm, experiencing it and recovering from it. Shines like lights in a disco.
First, the sensory cortex begins to respond, then the limbic system, the cerebellum, and finally the frontal cortex. The hypothalamus becomes most active at the time of climax. Activating parts of the brain use more fuel – different imaging methods can measure oxygen uptake, glucose, blood flow. The colors visible in the recording correspond to the activity intensity of individual areas.
The image in fMRI depends on what you’re thinking about at the time the scan is being done. When you drive into an MRI tube in love and get pictures of your beloved, the neural response is completely different than when you get pictures of a camel in the desert. In the case of a beloved view, your reward chip will be especially activated and will be lit up. The brain wakes up at the mere thought of a reward. So if you see a photo of your loved one, your reward system will glow, but it will be fully illuminated the moment you fall into each other’s arms.
Not completely. ( laughs) Because on the other hand we have a brakeman. It is the prefrontal cortex, to which signals are also sent, and at the same time as we receive signals to the reward system. Imagine that now your loved one comes in and you throw yourself into each other’s arms – and that’s okay in this situation. But you won’t start copulating on the floor right next to me because the prefrontal cortex will send you a warning. The prefrontal cortex is such a voice of reason. Maybe if you can’t wait, you’ll eventually invite him upstairs, tell him you have something important to discuss, and you’ll consummate the matter, but you’ll do it another way. You can’t expect that from your heat-running cat Oi if she meets a nice tomcat. They won’t care so much about us.
And where does the orgasm itself take place? Also in the brain?
Mainly in the frontal and temporal lobes. The limbic system is activated, which includes the hippocampus and the amygdala, i.e. the structures responsible for emotions. Because we experience sex as emotional elation. It is said that love and affection are in the cortex, and lust and passion are in our “reptilian brain”, i.e. in subcortical structures.
In a state of passion, the autonomic system is also activated, i.e. a piece of the nervous system that is not subject to conscious control, which means that we do not have to think about our genital reactions for them to occur. Just as we do not make the heart beat faster, the skin on the face blush, and the pupils dilate.
And how will my brain react to a photo of my husband after 10 years?
It depends. If you’ve managed to keep the heat in your relationship, or build sexual tension on a weekend without the kids, he’ll react the same way he used to. And on the other hand – you don’t have to wait 10 years for your brain to “shine” less. It is enough that you have a bad day or your husband’s behavior has awakened unpleasant memories from a previous, failed relationship, or you feel hurt after an argument – then your cerebral cortex will not let the “reptilian brain” light up so easily. Love begins and ends in the brain.