Woman as Lab Rats: Orgasm in an fMRI Machine

When you review the history of psychological research, you come across some pretty weird studies.

In the Stanley Milgram experiments, for instance, we saw researchers insisting that a subject provide a (seemingly real) electrical shock to another subject in order to study how people obey authority figures. Philip Zimbardo examined power structures in the Stanford prison experiment, where subjects were randomly assigned a role of either prisoner or guard.

Psychology’s history is filled with odd experiments like these.

So when I came across an experiment describing women as mere lab rats whose brains needed examining while reaching orgasm — sometimes with a partner — I was intrigued. The more I read, the more bizarre it became.

There is some seemingly odd desire among researchers who study the brain to map all human behavior onto specific brain regions, as though that will somehow help us understand how our most important organ actually works. I’ve often referred to this as modern-day phrenology. While such mappings may be accurate, decades of science in this area show that it doesn’t really help us with understanding the brain’s functioning itself. It’s like categorizing leaves on a tree without ever understanding the science of photosynthesis — the actual reason the tree lives and grows.

Nan Wise and colleagues (2017) at Rutgers University in New Jersey wanted to study mappings of brain activity at the exact moments before, during, and after orgasm. So the researchers designed an experiment to scan and map the brain while a person is in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. As Wikipedia notes, fMRI “measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases.”

In order to get these measurements in an fMRI machine, a person has to be perfectly still. You can see the difficulty facing the researchers.

The Orgasming Brain Scan Experiment

Fourteen women initially volunteered for the experiment. Four of the women either didn’t have orgasms or had a problem with their scans (“additional datasets were discarded because of technical problems with the scans”). That left a total of 10 women, ages 29-74, to be strapped into the fMRI machine.

And strapped they were — at least their heads — to minimize any type of head movement. The researchers used two methods to ensure the subjects’ heads did not move. The first was the Philadelphia Tracheotomy Collar, “a two-part, light, rigid, polyurethane foam with Velcro fasteners.” The second was the Aquaplast Thermoplastic Mesh Radiology Mask, a mesh mask that covers the face and is secured behind the person’s head to a stationary frame.

Example of a mesh mask

 

“For the participant’s comfort, the portion of the face mask covering the eyes, nostrils, and mouth were marked with a felt pen, and then the front (face) half of the mask was removed from the participant and an electric tool” — a Dremel, the researchers helpfully note.

If this sounds bizarre, it’s because it is, in my opinion, bizarre. It gets worse.

The study had two conditions: self-induced orgasms and partner-induced orgasms. First up, the self-induced ones.

Once securely immobilized within the cold, sterile cocoon of the fMRI machine, the subject had to follow the instructions on the screen in front of their eyes: “press when start stimulation,” meaning the subject was to press a button they held when the subject started self-stimulation. Then the screen read, “press when orgasm begins,” so the subject could alert the researchers to the impending orgasm. Finally, “press when orgasm ends,” so the scientists would know when the magic was all over.

The protocol for the partner-induced orgasms was different in that the subject’s male partner (this was purely a heterosexual experiment) sat next to her in a chair. He was then cued when to stop and start manual stimulation on the subject via audio instructions through headphones he wore.

press when orgasm begins

Sexy.

The results? Not surprising to anyone:

The present findings provide evidence that genital stimulation activated widespread brain regions […] in the approach to, during, and after orgasm involving the activation of sensory, sensory integrative, limbic, motor, frontal cortical, and other neocortical regions.

We found no evidence of deactivation of frontal or temporal regions during partner-stimulation–induced or self-stimulation–induced orgasm or when these two groups were combined.

Wow, so you’re telling me that brain activity gradually increases before an orgasm, then peaks, then gradually decreases? And you needed an fMRI scan to confirm this amazing discovery? The researchers found no brain activity that was uniquely tied to orgasm — unless they lowered their statistical analysis cutoff. (Uh, yeah, you really can’t do that posthoc…)

The brain while orgasming

 

What Psychological Science Won’t Do to Get Off?

I definitely have mixed feelings about this sort of experiment. Immobilizing the heads of subjects just to measure their brain activity while performing a natural, everyday activity seems bizarre to me. Yes, the subjects volunteered for the experiment, so they knew what they were getting into.

But, really? Despite the enormous amount of data gathered by this study, the researchers came to an obvious and, I would argue, already well-known conclusion. And the punchline? Found at the end of the study:

This study was supported in part by grants from the Rutgers University Brain Imaging Center, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the NIH 2R-25-GM060826, and by the Rutgers University Research Fund.

That’s right — taxpayers helped fund this orgasm research.

 

Reference

Wise NJ, Frangos E, Komisaruk BR. (2017). Brain Activity Unique to Orgasm in Women: An fMRI Analysis. J Sex Med. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2017.08.014.