If you think that the ability to orgasm hinges solely upon genital stimulation, you’re in for a surprise. “Orgasm doesn’t actually happen in the genitals. It happens in the brain,” says Carol Queen, PhD, Good Vibes staff sexologist and sex-positive educator and activist. Or, at the very least, it takes a team effort. The physical component can be seen as a type of launching pad or supporting act for a variety of responses—many of which occur in the brain—that culminate in the big O.
Keep reading to learn more about all the titillating activity that takes place in your noggin while you’re indulging in solo or partnered play. And later: how to engage your hedonic hotspots for greater presence and pleasure.
Orgasm and the Brain-Body Connection
“The brain is the most important sex organ,” notes Nan Wise, PhD, a behavioral neuroscience researcher, certified sex therapist, and author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier and More Purpose-Filled Life. In fact, through her research, she found that merely imagining sexual stimulation mirrors brain activity that occurs with the actual act. (ICYMI in our guide to female orgasm, you can literally think yourself to arousal *and* sweet release.)
“Over the course of stimulation, you have increases in blood pressure and heart rate, the buildup of blood flow and muscle tension, activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the engorgement of genitalia… Orgasm is a big physiological event, peripherally and in the brain,” she explains. Since it activates and brings oxygen to so many regions of the brain, having an orgasm might just be the best mind game there is.
Ahead: More details on what happens to your brain when you orgasm.
Natural Opioids Provide Pain Relief
The act of orgasm doesn’t only have the ability to yield toe-curling pleasure. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it can even help alleviate the sensation of pain as different opioids (i.e., the body’s endogenous painkillers) are released. “They’re designed to kick in naturally with orgasm,” says Dr. wise. “These don’t just block pain, but also promote feelings of well-being.” Endorphins—the same ones that make you happy from exercising—are one such natural opioid factoring into the equation.
Dopamine Makes You Want to Chase the High
Orgasm initiates activity in the mesolimbic pathway, which shuttles dopamine from the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens and amygdala. Dopamine, or what Dr. Wise refers to as “the slutty neurotransmitter,” is often linked to reward—yet it’s actually more accurately associated with reinforcement. She offers the concept of sex, drugs, and rock and roll: “It has people wanting, but not satisfied,” she explains.
Testosterone Stimulates Desire
More on driving desire: During orgasm, testosterone levels also get a boost. While this sex hormone is most often discussed in the context of manhood, women have this sex hormone too—and supporting its production can be beneficial if you’re trying to fire up a snoozy sex life. “It’s common for women to lose active sexual desire in long-term relationships because of kids, work, stress, or otherwise,” Dr. Wise shares. But when you actually do have sex, the ensuing testosterone boost can help make your bedroom activity more regular.
Serotonin is perhaps best known for its anti-depressant effects, though it’s more largely connected to mood regulation. Dr. Wise says that serotonin is released during orgasm, which offers a sense of soothing.
Oxytocin Fosters Connection
Oxytocin, aka the love hormone, is released in response to sensory nerve activation during activities as diverse as getting a massage, breastfeeding, and orgasm. It doesn’t only have the ability to help you feel the highs of sexual delight; it can also help reduce stress, boost overall well-being, and facilitate deeper connections. “Orgasm is often a really bonding experience for partners,” says Dr. Queen, in large part thanks to pleasure hormones like oxytocin. She says it may even lead some people to think that they’ve found “the one.”
Dr. Wise emphasizes the importance of connection to foster orgasm—whether you’re with your S/O, a casual partner, or even by yourself. “If solo, the relationship with yourself is strengthened,” she shares. “With a partner, the act of orgasm becomes biopsychosocial. Gazing and being connected with them may amplify the experience of the orgasm.”
How to Overcome Obstacles to Orgasm
As we can see, there are many activities, hormones, and neurotransmitters at play when you experience orgasm. Some aspects of the body and brain’s involvement with orgasm may be automatic, but your state of mind—including how you feel about sex and your own self—also plays a huge role in your ability to achieve orgasm to begin with. “The brain is really the seat of sensation, mentation, and personality,” Dr. Queen explains. “A person who is in touch with their body and its sensations, able to communicate about them, and not subject to negative ‘slut-shaming’ messages or fear of sex, is much more likely to have body and brain alignment so that orgasm is easier for them.”
On the flip side, there’s no shortage of fears or hang-ups that can make orgasm seem intangible—especially for (but certainly not limited to) women. “Believing you can’t orgasm, that there is something wrong with you, or that you don’t deserve it and sex isn’t really for your benefit anyway: This all closes the door to what you need to be able to orgasm,” Dr. Queen continues.
To help you keep that door wide open, heed the sexperts’ must-follow tips below.
Silence Stress to Tune into Sensation
Ruminating during sexual activity can impede your ability to experience even slight pleasure, let alone orgasm. Dr. Queen says your monkey mind might race leading up to and during sex. (Think: autopilot anxieties over getting turned on, being able to come, coming too soon, and so on and so forth.) “Meditation and mindfulness can be corrective, as chatter is completely problematic for arousal, pleasure, and orgasm,” she shares.
Dr. Wise adds that staying present and honing in on sensations are crucial if you want to, ahem, enjoy the ride. “When coaching people having challenges with sexual pleasure, I help them get out of their thinking minds by focusing attention on sensations.” (P.S. This exercise can help.)
If you find yourself unable to experience orgasm with a partner, aim to work on getting more comfortable and confident with your body and/or sexuality solo. “Being comfortable enough to masturbate can make a huge difference, especially for women and AFAB folks,” Dr. Queen shares. “If you can live a reasonably sex-positive life, where you are not grappling all the time with whether what you enjoy is okay—and are empowered to explore enough to recognize what that is—you may have a much easier [time].”
“We have no reason to believe that processes between masturbation and partnered sex are any different,” Dr. Wise reiterates. So long as you feel safe, comfortable, and connected, you’ll set your brain and body up for success—blossoming into a gift that keeps on giving.
Practice Makes Perfect
“The more we lay down the pleasure pathways and the more we stimulate the ‘brain crotch’ of the genital regions, the stronger the connection between the genitals and the sensory brain will become,” Dr. Wise explains. “The more neurons and the stronger their connections are, the more easily accessible orgasm will be.” In sum, she says that it’s all a kind of learning… and it comes with some pretty fun homework you’ll actually want to finish.