Friday, January 2, 2009

Men > Women > Brain > Sex

I happened across an article written about a study on orgasms by neuroscientist Dr. Gert Holstege, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, recently presented in Copenhagen. One thing I found very interesting with this study were the different ways the story was reported across the world, ranging from sensational to erudite to positively dreary. That last's not an easy task, either, given the subject matter. One example, the BBC News, where a more circumspect approach might be expected, used the somewhat misleading headline "Scan Spots Women Faking Orgasms!" Okay, so there was no exclamation point, but it was implied. I guess the British Broadcasting folks are fighting the gossip rags for readership now.

One wonderful quote from Dr. Holstege came out of the BBC story, though, so all lovers of women, please attend: "When you want to make love to a woman, you must give her the feeling of being protected." Yep, works every time with me. And if you want to make love to a man, you must give him the feeling of being physically stimulated. Hey, I'm serious here. I wouldn't make stuff like that up!

Here's one news report out of Ghana:

An orgasm is literally a mind-blowing experience for a woman, scientists have revealed.

Much of her brain shuts down when she reaches a sexual climax.

The discovery was made during experiments in the Netherlands when couples' brains were scanned during lovemaking.

Neuroscientist Dr Gert Holstege, from the University of Groningen said it appeared that shutting down the brain during orgasm ensured that obstacles such as fear and stress did not get in the way.

"When you are fearful or have a very high level of anxiety, then it's hard to have sex because during sex you really have to give yourself and let go."

Men were studied in the same way but because the male orgasm during ejaculation takes such a short time - typically 20 seconds - it was difficult to obtain meaningful brain scan data.

Another part of the study in which couples stimulated each other for two minutes without reaching orgasm showed distinct differences between men and women.

In both, a "fear centre" called the amygdala was deactivated. But in men alone, the scientists saw activation of an ancient, primitive part of the brain linked to emotion called the insula.

There was also a difference in the way touching the genitals affected the somatosensory cortex of the brain. Women merely experienced a sensory feeling, whereas in men emotions were involved.

"Men are seeing it as a big deal, the interpretation of what is happening is important to them," said Dr Holstege. "Women apparently do not have this idea that, OK, this is so important. With women the primary feeling is there, but not the interpretation."

Another odd observation was that the hippocampus, which deals with memory, was deactivated in women. The researchers have no idea why.

A total of 13 women and 11 men, ranging in age from 19 to 49, took part in the experiments at Dr Holstege's laboratory, all were partners and recruited through advertisments in Dutch magazines.

Since it was vital to remain completely still in the scanner, volunteers had to have their heads restrained while being stimulated. The rest of the body was free to move.

The men and women, who were all heterosexual and right-handed, stimulated each others' genitals, but did not have full intercourse.

Participants lay naked on a table with their head inside the scanner. Dr Holstege said a major problem was that they got cold feet - literally. A solution was found in the form of socks supplied by the scientists.

The key appeared to be to reduce fear and anxiety - as was illustrated by the aphrodisiac effect on alcohol.

"Alcohol brings down the fear level," said Dr Holstege. "Everyone knows if you give alcohol to a woman it makes things easier."

My favourite bits from the above?
  • "because the male orgasm during ejaculation takes such a short time - typically 20 seconds - it was difficult to obtain meaningful brain scan data." (yes, all of this tallies with my own experience, but I confess an extra fondness for the final phrase as I have found it difficult to obtain meaningful brain scan data with men no where NEAR the throes of orgasm!)
  • Participants lay naked on a table with their heads inside the scanner. (I can see where this was a very stimulating environment for the participants...I know how hot I get whilst having a CT Scan)
  • all (participants were) heterosexual and right-handed (did they reject left-handed participants, and if so, why? How would it have skewed the results? Did the room layout dictate the need for right-handed participants? How did right-handedness present? Masturbation? Delighting one's partner? Or perhaps through the far more mundane writing and eating test?)
Least favourite bit?
  • "Everyone knows if you give alcohol to a woman it makes things easier." PARDON ME? "makes things easier?" Easier as in alcohol will artificially reduce a woman's fear and anxiety so it will be EASIER for you to get YOUR jollies? Grrr.. Curious choice of phrasing, bub, especially from the same person who said "When you want to make love to a woman, you must give her the feeling of being protected." Gee, I guess giving alcohol to a woman must make it "easier" to give her a feeling of being protected. What? No? Oh, I makes having sex with her easier in that you don't have to bother with giving her a feeling of security. Say, that is easier! Rat Bastard...
Assuming the "news" organisations who reported this could have misquoted or slanted Dr. Holstege's words, I went in search of more information, and wasn't disappointed. At least my lip is not longer unpleasantly curled in the good doctor's direction.

All in all, the premise and circumstances of this experiment are questionable at best, just starting with "what kind of volunteers does one attract to such a set of parameters?" There are SO many questions I want to ask, such as "Did they get magazines or videos to watch?" "How much privacy did they get? You know, lights, one-way mirrors, what?" "Did participants have to have a good track record of achieving orgasms with one another?" "What were the some of the decisive questions asked for the purpose of selecting participants?" mind just races with curiosity.

Dr. Holstege was interviewed by Kate Sullivan of, an interesting addition to the above story.

Another, excellent story on orgasms and the science behind them was published by the LA Times: "The Science of Orgasms," or you could read the marvelous SF Chronicle's Mark Morford's diatribe on "Female Orgasm: Proof of God."

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