This is what happens in your brain during orgasm

Sex art

The term mind-blowing orgasm exists for a reason.

When we orgasm, it’s not just a physical experience. Our brains are the supercomputers of our body, sending signals back and forth between various parts of the body, including the genitals. Also, sex can be very emotional, hence why sometimes we cry during or after.

While your body is being stimulated, your brain is as well. There is a constant flow of activity to and from your genitals and brain, including the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin.1

Here’s what’s happening in your brain, stage by stage, from pre-arousal (foreplay) through to post-coital snuggling.

What Happens in Your Brain During Foreplay?

Before things have even started really heating up, the brain and body are already coming online. The genital sensory cortex, the area of your brain responsible for communicating back and forth with your genitals, begins firing.

There is a theory, Penfield’s homunculus,2 that says that each of us has a “little man” in our brains—that is, a “person” within ourselves—and the neurons in the “little man” for each body part map with the neurons in our bodies.

In women, the clitoris, vagina, and cervix each activate slightly different parts of the brain, The perineal (groin) region is also stimulated in the process of stimulating the clitoris, vagina, or cervix,3 something that was only discovered recently.

Since each of these parts can lead to orgasm on its own, combining stimulation in more than one of these areas can lead to a more intense orgasm. Men can only achieve orgasm from the penis, meaning there are also fewer areas of the brain affected/lit up than in women.


What Happens in Your Brain During Arousal?

As things start to get more hot and heavy, and touch leads to arousal, the front medial lobe of the brain turns on. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for initiating sexual behavior. 4 

Depression is associated with a blunted reward signal in this same part of the brain,5which may explain why sexual dysfunction and issues often happen in people dealing with depression.

Meanwhile, the continued stimulation activates the hippocampus, which manages our memories. While having sex, this may mean associating sights and smells with past sexual encounters, or fantasizing about best encounters in an effort to turn up arousal. It also assigns emotional significance to the incoming erotic stimuli.6

The amygdala, which governs human sexual drive,6 starts really getting involved as one becomes more aroused. It also acts as something like a sexual control center—once the stimuli are assigned an emotional relevance, they are then communicated to the prefrontal cortex, which modulates sex drive.

In fact, the amygdala is so important to sex drive, that lesions on it, such as in Kluver-Bucy syndrome, lead to abnormal, hypersexual states.6

What Happens in Your Brain Right Before You Orgasm?

As you approach orgasm, it’s not just your genitals that are active. Your cerebellum—the part of your brain which controls your body’s movements—sends signals to your thighs, glutes and abs to begin tensing.4

It is this muscle tension that contributes to orgasm by increasing blood flow to that area and increasing nerve activity. In turn, this tensing sends signals back to the brain to be aroused.4

The frontal cortex also joins in on the fun pre-orgasm. This part of the brain, associated with planning and more abstract thought, may be responsible for your mind wandering to sexual fantasies just before you reach orgasm.3

Finally, the anterior cingulate cortex, which is thought to be involved in modulating pain, turns on.7 Its orgasmic role is to inhibit pain, so that all you feel is pleasure. 

Here’s What’s Happening in Your Brain As You Orgasm

But once it’s game-on time, several other neurotransmitters and brain regions join the party. The hypothalamus releases oxytocin, which causes uterine contractions that people with vaginas are so familiar with.

The oxytocin (feel-good bonding hormone) is created in the pituitary glands of the brain during sex8 and then released in the hypothalamus.

Fun Fact

In men, the part of the hypothalamus related to sex drive is 2.5 times larger than it is in women,9providing a biological explanation for why it seems like men have sex on the brain more than women—because they literally do.

This gland’s roles include releasing other hormones, such as the dopamine it will release at this point. It also regulates your body temperature (important as things get hot and heavy)6 and manages sexual behaviors. 

Dopamine is also released during orgasm, from the ventral tegmental area6 (VTA), which communicates with other parts of the brain to assess how well your human needs are being satisfied.

Associated with pleasure and desire, the release of this feel-good hormone acts on the reward system in the nucleus accumbens—the same area associated with drug addiction and Pavlovian responses.10

If the VTA has assessed that these needs have been met, it will send dopamine to the nucleus accumbens to reinforce this motivation and desire to keep seeking these feelings of desire. The path between the nucleus accumbent and VTA is known as the “reward circuit.”11

So, this is why just seeing your partner, or one certain movement might lead to orgasm—because your body is conditioned to know what’s next and want it.

If you’ve ever felt out of control during an orgasm, it is because climaxing turns off the part of the orbitofrontal cortex that is responsible for decision-making.6 This may result in either seemingly-involuntary sensations like screaming louder than intended at the time of climax, or just feeling more daring in bed.

While both men and women have the hormone vasopressin, which is associated with regulating sexual motivation, its levels increase dramatically in erection and male sexual arousal, leading to increased male desire to continue engaging in sexual activity.12 Following ejaculation, these levels drop back to baseline.

Vasopressin may also be responsible for any feelings of possessiveness we feel after sex—its biological function is to develop attachment. (However, it may also be responsible for aggression.)12

What Happens in Your Brain After You Orgasm?

In both men and women, orgasm signals the parasympathetic nervous system13 to start down-regulating/calming the body. Brain also pumps out serotonin, which is responsible for good mood, relaxation AND the drowsiness which may make you want to nap.

Both men and women may release oxytocin, though women typically release more of the feel-good, connecting hormone.14 It also may relieve pain, potentially helping any post-sex headaches or any pain from rougher (consensual) sex.