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The neurological connection between pain and pleasure

Posted at 20:35 on 6 Feb 2011 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: in the news, Kink activism, Politics, those crazy kinksters

What happens in the brain during orgasm? I don't know about you, but I've always wanted to know. It turns out to be pretty cool. Did you know that the clitoris alone has more than 8,000 nerve-endings? Or that women with a severed spinal cord can still enjoy vaginal orgasms?

Interestingly, they discovered that there aren't too many differences between men's and women's brains when it comes to sex. In both, the brain region behind the left eye, called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, shuts down during orgasm. Janniko R. Georgiadis, one of the researchers, said, "It's the seat of reason and behavioral control. But when you have an orgasm, you lose control" [source: LA Times]. Dr. Gert Holstege stated that the brain during an orgasm looks much like the brain of a person taking heroin. He stated that "95 percent is the same" [source: Science News].

This research doesn't seem to have included any non-cisgendered participants. Other studies show that the brains of transgendered people have more in common with their chosen gender than the gender they were born as, but it's unclear what extent the differences in the nervous system would have on orgasm at a neurological level.

There are some differences, however. When a woman has sex, a part of the brain stem called the periaqueductal gray (PAG) is activated. The PAG controls the "flight or fight" response. Women's brains also showed decreased activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, which deal with fear and anxiety. The team theorized that these differences existed because women have more of a need to feel safe and relaxed in order to enjoy sex.

I'm obviously cagey about the team's reading of the decreased activity in the amygdala and hippocampus. I'm not a neuroscientist, but I've written before about the problems inherent in the assumption that women need to feel "safe" to enjoy sex. Most people need to feel reasonably safe to enjoy sex, in the sense of trusting that your partner will respect your boundaries - and it doesn't match my experience at all that women are any more likely to enjoy risky play within those boundaries than men. I don't know enough about the amygdala or hippocampus to make a sensible theory myself, but it seems possible that the causation there is the other way round - i.e. the pleasure of orgasm temporarily decreases fear and anxiety, rather than vice versa?

The most interesting part for me, of course, was this:

In addition, the area of the cortex associated with pain was activated in women, which shows that there is a distinct connection between pain and pleasure.

It won't come as a surprise to any spanko that there's a connection between pain and pleasure in the brain. What's interesting is that the research picked up this difference on gender lines. Since not all women are into spanking or pain play, and of those that are, not all of them are into receiving it, this is a curious finding indeed. I'd be fascinated to see some research which compares the level of activation in this part of the brain during orgasm between men and women who identify as kinky or non-kinky, dominant or submissive, sadistic or masochistic. It would surprise me to discover that masochistic women had more in common with non-masochistic women than with masochistic men. If the neurological connection between pain and pleasure is not universal among humans, I'd expect the differences to along lines of preference rather than gender. But I suspect we won't see much of this sort of in-depth research conducted in a gender-neutral and kink-positive way quite yet.


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