After donating one of my orgasms to neuroscience, I watched a scan of my brain at the moment of ecstasy go viral on the Internet. And as a result, I find myself being simultaneously accused of being a sinner, an exhibitionist, a pervert and a tease.
It all started as a purely research endeavor. As part of my background research into the neurobiology of sex for my book, "Dirty Minds: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships," I interviewed Barry Komisaruk, a lovely and brilliant professor at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. While many researchers avoid sex and love experiments like the plague due to lack of funding and scientific prestige, Komisaruk and his lab have been studying what happens in the brain during orgasm for decades. He's a true pioneer.
As we chatted on the phone, I learned that while understanding the neurobiology of orgasm is important to Komisaruk and his team, he is equally as interested in a bigger picture neuroscientific question. That question being “What is the nature of human consciousness?”
“This is something that goes beyond understanding pleasure,” he told me. “How does the nervous system produce any sensation? Really, we’re just bags of chemicals. How do we feel? How do we differentiate between pleasure and pain? How do we even have awareness of those feelings? We don’t know. But if we can understand how something like the orgasm works in the brain, we might find a few clues.”
He had me at “bags of chemicals.”
That first talk inspired me to offer what little I could to his life’s work. What little I could turned out to be my very own orgasm.
The actual experience of “self-stimulating to orgasm” is not quite as sexy as it sounds. I engaged in an activity that I’ve done countless times in the privacy of my own bedroom -- I used my hand to pleasure stimulate my clitoris until I reached orgasm. A big machine just happened to be recording blood flow in my brain while I did it -- and, yes, I had to stay very, very still.
Really, there wasn’t much to it. What stands out most in my mind is when I first saw the image of my brain at the point of orgasm a few weeks later.
It’s always a bit of a thrill to see the contents of one’s own head -- especially when you are a brain nerd like myself. But this landscape of bright greens, reds and yellows was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
My orgasm turned on over 30 distinct regions in the brain -- some that are not commonly known to fire together. And one area of the brain known for its role in consciousness, my prefrontal cortex, was dyed bright with color. Seeing pleasure and consciousness tied together in this way inspired me to document the experience for a scientific magazine, the New Scientist.
The piece discussed the idea that this prefrontal activation at orgasm could denote an altered state of consciousness -- and might offer the field of neuroscience far more than just a peek at the brain’s role in orgasm. It was a straight-up science article -- but one that included my personal experience as a study participant and that pretty, pretty picture of my brain.
Within days, it went viral. Hello, Internet. Meet my brain on orgasm.
What is it about the female orgasm that shocks, unnerves and titillates us so? It’s a question that has been on my mind -- literally, as it so happens -- since I participated in the neuroimaging study last year.
There is no nudity or sexual content in the brain image -- there’s no real way of knowing, barring the image captioning or the accompanying story, just what I was doing when the snapshot was taken. And yet, just the word orgasm paired with a brain had the power to take this story round the Internet and back again. But like most sex research, it seemed to go viral for all the wrong reasons.
I had expected an old boyfriend or two to get in touch and say something like, “So that’s what your brain looked like when we were together!” But I wasn’t prepared for just how far and wide my "big O" would go.
Reporters from London to Bogota were getting in touch to ask me questions like, “How old were you when you first had sex?” and “Where is your G-point?” (Sex terms, apparently, don’t translate so well).
Strangers across the globe posted the story to message boards and forums, where the big debate seemed to be whether I was hot or not (the jury's still out).
It became a picture meme, with the words “I came” typed below in all caps. And I received all manners of emails, tweets and Facebook messages requesting dates, calling me nasty names and asking for nudie pics.
At first, I was pleased with the attention and hoped it would help me sell a few books. But after a week of being asked what kind of underwear I prefer and whether I’ve ever had a threesome, I started to feel like a high school girl who was rumored to have gotten it on with the entire football team under the bleachers. The orgasm image was driving a lot of talk, but I had no say in just what that talk was.
I struggled to understand why everyone was so interested in the fact I stimulated my clitoris (which one should probably assume I’ve done once or twice before in my life) but not the science, and the fascinating questions, it represented.
The furor eventually died down. But I’ve learned there is no unringing a bell on the Internet. Anyone who Googles my name will soon learn that I once masturbated in an fMRI scanner -- and can read all manner of interesting commentary from the WWW peanut gallery regarding that fact.
As a single gal, I’m well-versed with typing names into a search engine field -- I consider it simple date fact-checking. And now, when a date decides to do a little fact-checking of his own, he’ll find himself face to face with my brain at orgasm.
Most are sophisticated enough to ask about it and let it go. But more than one date has assumed that if I was willing to get it on by myself inside a medical imaging device, I should be more than happy to get it on with them, too.
On one occasion, a man I’ll call “Dick” likened the dirty men’s toilet to the cramped, confined space of the fMRI -- as if that would immediately get me hot and bothered and open to a restroom quickie while we waited for our appetizers. Sorry, that’s not how it works.
Time and time again, I’m asked what I was thinking about inside that fMRI scanner -- I imagine people are hoping I’ll say something like “Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow” or “I loved the idea of so many people in lab coats watching me get off” -- very few have asked me why I participated in the study in the first place.
So let me address that here: I thought the results would provide me with an insider’s look at this kind of research and help me better explain it and its importance to readers. And yes, I’ll admit I hoped I’d come out of it with a good story for cocktail parties. And while part of me would like to put my fMRI orgasm behind me, I’m still writing about the experience to help others understand how rare and important this line of research actually is.
While it is easy to make jokes and dismiss it as some kinky medical equipment fetish, this reasearch has the potential to not only help us understand that elusive concept of consciousness but also provide new treatment opportunities for disorders that diminish pleasure like depression and anxiety.
So the answer to that “Why did you do it” (and perhaps, why are you still talking about it) question is, and remains, that I came for the science. And that, in and of itself, should be enough.