Quirks & Quarks

Want to orgasm? New research says it's all in the rhythm

A new theory suggests the key to achieving orgasm and unlocking the trance-like state that comes with it is all in the rhythm
In this metaphor for neural entrainment, the person (or people) pushing the swing is the rhythmic sexual stimulus and the person on the swing is your brain's response. (Ruby Buiza/CBC)

A new theory published in this week's issue of the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology suggests the key to orgasm is all in the rhythm. Bob McDonald spoke with the scientist who came up with this theory. Adam Safron is a Ph.D candidate in neuroscience and psychology at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Bob McDonald: What is actually happening in the brain in the lead up to climax?

Adam Safron: Climax at a physiological level seems to largely be controlled by nuclei in the brain stem, these collections of neurons go into a mode where they are going to trigger muscle contractions and changes in hormones and neurochemicals when you get past a certain threshold of stimulation. And the model argues that through entrainment, you get a high degree of synchronized activity among multiple parts of the brain.

BM: So all these parts are working together instead of apart. I'm thinking about the old days of sailing when the sailors had to raise the big heavy sails. They would all grab onto a line and chant rhythmically, so everybody was moving together to 'Haul it up, haul it up.' Is that the kind of thing that's going on here?

AS: Yes. Actually I think that's what is going on both in terms of describing what's happening with the neurons ....and also the sex act itself - when two people are in synchrony together they might experience a state of feeling more bonded or connected to each other.

When they're all going together, they're able to send their messages to these brain stem control areas at the same time. And because all these messages add up, you're able to get past these thresholds to trigger climax.- Adam Safron

BM: What is that state? What goes on in the brains of the people who are in sync like that?

AS: Well we don't fully know. So in the model that I've introduced, I proposed different ways of testing it. But the idea would be that two people because they're in motion together, the parts of their brain that correspond to sensation and motion would be receiving inputs and would be active at the same time. Then as sex procedes, they get deeper and deeper into the act together, and that more and more parts of their brain would get recruited at this frequency, and they would both be at the same frequency having this shared experience.

Nude couple in bed. Roman fresco from the Casa del ristorante in Pompeii (WolfgangRieger)

BM: Does this idea apply to both men and women?

AS: I think it does. The only thing that might differ is the ease with which you enter this kind of trance state or what you need to get past thresholds.

BM: Why do you think humans have evolved this experience of actually sort of getting in sync with our brains to experience orgasms?

AS: I think this dependency of sexual pleasure on rhythms, it might not only serve an evolutionary function of allowing people to gauge each other for evolutionary fitness or compatibility but it helps to gauge whether reproduction would be a good thing for your genes.

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