Sex And The Brain
What goes on in your brain when you have sex? And why do these thoughts, feelings and processes happen?
As Kayt Sukel notes in This is your brain on sex, for a long time, sex has been considered a “taboo topic of discussion” and as a society we have been raised to believe it is a “private act” (Sukel, 2014). However, it’s important to understand what happens in our brains as it enables us to develop a better understanding of how the human brain works in regards to sex. Furthermore, it shows us how and why certain feelings and behaviours occur when we get intimate.
Sex can make us feel good. Many “neuroscientists have suggested that sex (amongst other things) is one of our basic human needs”. It helps us to survive as a species along with a few other benefits thrown in along the way such as pleasure and fun. Scienctific research shows us that healthy sex can potentially benefit our health, brain and body.
Healthy sexual intercourse can have a real positive effect on your thinking, thought processing and it can encourage the creation of new brain cells. A 2010 study conducted by neuroscientists reported that “frequent sex can prompt the brain to create new neurons”. Now, you may be wondering why this is important. Well, neurons are basic elements of the nervous system and are responsible for carrying both chemical and electrical forms of information throughout the human body. “Each neuron can communicate with hundreds and thousands of other neurons and change its networks and connections all the time. A process called neuroplasticity” this boosts your brain as it encourages it to change, adapt and grow over time.
Engaging in sex or sexual activities release a myriad of “feel good” hormones in our brain which, we identify as that ‘warm fuzy feeling’ after sex. One of these hormones is dopamine. “Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter” and is a chemical which affects your emotions and feelings of pleasure. Large amounts of this chemical are released through the oxytocin system, a hormone which is often referred to as the “love hormone”. When this happens, the reward centers in our brains can light up like the London Eye on New Year’s Eve.
Sex vs Love
Love and sex can both make us feel good, according to research featured in The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain The Neuroscience of How, When, Why, and Who We Love, the feeling usually goes something like “you go around in a haze of euphoria, well-being and preoccupation with the beloved” demonstrating how both states induce similar feelings. Although, ‘sex’ and ‘love’ affect the brain in opposite ways. Studies suggest that “love makes us creative whilst sex makes us analytical,” both of which can work wonders for our brains.
The arousal system in the brain is located in the brainstem and “drives all of our behavioral responses to stimuli”. Donald Pfaff suggests in his 2006 research, Brain Arousal and Information Theory: Neural and Genetic Mechanisms, that “arousal mechanism are exciting and important to understand because at the deepest level, they impact human behavior”. Scientists now know, through the help of brain imaging that, “sex is acted out with the genitals, but desire, arousal and orgasm happen in the brain”. Pfaff suggests that sex can be beneficial for the brain as significant sexual stimuli from the genitalia, signals to the lower brainstem and in turn, “wakes up the entire forebrain.”
Whilst sex may have once been a controversial subject of conversation with a plethora of discources, as technology and science progress, we begin to learn more and more about our brains and what makes them tick. So, it turns out that healthy sex can be a powerful tool for the brain. Who’d have known?
Sukel, K. (2014). This is your brain on sex. Free Press.
Horstman, J. (2012). The Scientific American book of love, sex, and the brain. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pfaff, D. (2009). Brain Arousal and Information Theory. Harvard University Press.