ORGASM: Potential to treat depression, anxiety, pain, addiction and obesity! Improve brain function, increase memory, help with decision making ability and sO much mOre!
Nobody needs to convince me that orgasms are good for your health. As a former editor of The Erotic Review and a veteran sex columnist, I’ve written about sex for more than 17 years. I’ve interviewed fetishists, swingers, sadists and even met a charming lady from Sevenoaks who ran a bordello.
But I’ve yet to meet a man who has devoted as much time and energy to the female orgasm as the avuncular 72-year-old who is currently peering down at me as I sit on a medical table just outside New York.
Dr Barry Komisaruk has dedicated 30 years of his life to exploring the science of the Big O, and I’m so intrigued by his research that I have volunteered to become one of his human orgasm guinea pigs. I will be the first British woman to take part in his project. So what’s involved?
Well, strange as it may sound, I am about to lie down and be propelled backwards into the narrow tube of an MRI scanner, where I will hit the heights of passion and have my brain mapped by the scanner as I do so – and all in the name of science.
How on Earth did this happen? Professor Barry Komisaruk is hardly your typical scientist. For three decades he has studied the science of orgasm from his base at Rutgers University, New Jersey.
The Professor worded his conclusion cautiously, as befits a scientist still compiling key data: ‘The surge of blood and oxygen and nutrients throughout the brain during orgasm is most likely going to be beneficial to brain health.’
In other words: orgasms are good for the brain. This is great news for Hugh Hefner and, indeed, the rest of us, although the exact ways in which orgasm boosts brain function are still unclear. It certainly seems that the moment the French call the petite mort is actually an invigorating zip of new life.
So could an orgasm give the brain a better workout than Sudoku? And if so, then what might the implications be for our ageing population? Might having regular orgasms help improve our memory, keep your brain youthful or even help us live longer? There’s only way to find out.
He found that during orgasm there is a surge of blood, oxygen and nutrients most likely to be beneficial.
In practice, however, having an orgasm in the name of science is not a simple feat – and I’m not even talking about the wide ocean of embarrassment to cross. As anyone who has ever had an MRI scan will know, you must stay motionless during the procedure, especially the area that’s being scanned – in my case my head. It is a tough call in the throes of ecstasy.
So the scientists have devised a fetching neck brace and mask system to make sure subjects don’t move, even if the earth does. With my mask on, I look like Hannibal Lecter’s more sinister sister. It’s hardly aphrodisiacal and the fitting process is particularly unsexy.
The brace is tightened until my chin and neck are immobilised. The plastic mesh of the mask is then softened with hot water and the two halves moulded round the head. When it sets, the mask is removed, the eyes are cut out and – bingo – my very own orgasm helmet.
‘Might having regular orgasms help improve our memory, keep your brain youthful or even help us live longer? There’s only one way to find out’ I wonder how I’m ever going to have sexy thoughts while wearing this contraption. However, many women have managed the manoeuvre before me and I’ll be hanged if I let down British honour by failing to progress where my American sisters have triumphed. I have decided the only way to manage the whole exercise is to treat it like a Girl Guide challenge.
Having said that, under normal circumstances, nothing would induce me to share such an intimate experience with a bunch of strangers. I am British, I am married (my husband rolled his eyes when he learned of the assignment, then went off to make a model Spitfire) and, despite years of writing about sex, I am disinclined to share exact details of my own experience of it.
However, this research is so pioneering, while the implications for mental health are so intriguing, that I found the invitation to participate in the Professor’s study compelling.
For he is hardly alone in his conclusion that orgasms are beneficial to people’s wellbeing.
Researchers elsewhere have shown that men who have frequent orgasms are less likely to suffer prostate cancer, while women who experience a higher instance of climax are less likely to fall victim to heart disease.
But it’s the implications for the brain, mental health and the human capacity to control pain that really intrigue the Rutgers team. They believe that pleasure is a powerful tonic all of its own, as demonstrated by the uptake of oxygen and nutrients to the brain during orgasm.
They have also long demonstrated the fact that the orgasm has a powerful ‘pain-blocking’ effect on the body – essentially that the pleasure of a climax helps block feelings of pain.
As Professor Komisaruk says, ‘If we understand how pleasure is produced in the brain, and if we can increase the activity of the pleasure systems of the brain voluntarily, then it could have beneficial effects on depression, anxiety, pain, addiction and obesity.’
I can’t help wondering what inspired this measured and intensely reflective scientist to devote his life to unlocking the mysteries of the orgasm. The answer is both complex and moving. His work on the topic began when he discovered a link between sexual arousal and an increased pain threshold in an experiment on female laboratory animals.
He was fascinated by the connection, and followed it up with focus on the female orgasm. His research is, of course, also applicable to men, as he says, ‘There are some slight differences between men and women at orgasm, but the similarities are far greater than the differences.’
His interest in the subject only deepened when his beloved wife contracted breast cancer in 1971.
Feeling helpless in the face of his wife’s agony, he was spurred into action. ‘I said to myself, “Don’t just stand there like a dummy. If you think you’re so smart, go do something useful and figure out how to help her block pain.”‘
Komisaruk determined to see if the brain’s signals for pain can be overridden by those for pleasure.
His research took years to advance, and sadly, his wife died in 1982, a tragic turn of events which only strengthened his resolve.
In 2000 he started to use a highly sophisticated MRI scanner which enabled him to see exactly what happened to the brain during orgasm. He believes that if we better understand our brains’ pleasure pathways, we are one step closer to utilising them to counter pain, stress and anxiety.
‘My hope is that in the future we will be able to harness the brain’s capacity for sexual pleasure to counteract pain, depression, anxiety and addiction.
Intrigued by all this, I ask the professor how he believes pain relief will have changed, say, 50 years in the future.
He believes that, as the existing technology improves, humans will learn how to activate their brain’s pleasure pathways to counter pain.
This, he believes, would prove a powerful antidote to all manner of disorders, from the pain of cancer to mental trauma. He also thinks there could be implications for the ageing brain, since there’s already good evidence that people who have active sex lives live longer than those who don’t.
The charming Komisaruk laughs when I ask him if having an orgasm can really make me smarter. He points out that he’s just at the start of many avenues of research.
‘We really don’t understand how neurons (which are nerve cells) produce such profound experiences of pain, or pleasure, or even how the activity of a neuron can produce the simplest bit of consciousness and awareness.
‘For me, that’s just as intriguing as the question of the origin of the universe.’
He appears quietly confident, however, that there are major health benefits to human orgasms which are encrypted in our brains, just waiting to be deciphered and liberated for the good of the human race.
So when I offer myself up as an orgasm volunteer, I do so for the good of us all. Or, at least, that’s my excuse when Professor Komisaruk escorts me towards the Orgasmatron (as I’ve started thinking of the scanner).
The Professor’s doctoral research associate, the ebullient 56-year-old Nan Wise talks me through the procedure, while I confess my fears. I am frightened of being seen by others, but Nan assures me they will dim lights and pull down a blind in the observation window when the scan begins. The only person who will be able to see anything of me will be the MRI operator, who will just glimpse the soles of my bed socks (note to self: don’t flex soles in ecstasy).
I am also worried about claustrophobia, but Wise tells me they use mirrors to create a periscope effect over the subject’s face that both relays instructions from a computer screen and gives the illusion of space. Above all, I am anxious about trying to achieve lift-off in such a clinical environment. Wise says that while most scan subjects get there, some don’t and it doesn’t matter.
I don’t tell her that I’ll believe myself a bad Girl Guide if I don’t.
Once clad in a white cotton robe and blue fleece bed socks, there’s only the mask to fit, which is when I have my only serious wobble.
The plastic mesh has set hard against my nostrils and is restricting airflow. I begin to panic; this is more Silence of the Lambs than 50 Shades of Grey.
The whole team rushes to help. The mask is removed and the rubber covering my nose is cut out by the Professor. I may look even madder, but I can breathe. Finally, everyone exits the room, apart from the scan operator.
He lays a panic button on my stomach and says they’ll stop the procedure immediately if I press it. In my right hand I clutch another switch with a button to be pressed at the start and end of my orgasm, so the researchers can match the exact point I start to climax with the MRI data and time its duration.
I glide backwards into the tube of the scanner and find my face directly under what appears to be a computer screen.
The operator asks if I’m ok and I say yes – or an approximation of yes, considering my mouth’s covered by mesh, my ears are plugged against the scanner’s metallic hum and I can’t nod my head.
Then he turns the scanner on and we’re off. I wasn’t expecting how removed I feel from reality. It’s like being David Bowie’s Major Tom, ‘floating round my tin can/Far above the world’.
It’s strangely intimate here inside the scanner’s snug womb. Then a set of instructions commence on the screen, telling me what I should be doing, and how long for.
The whole exercise is rather like a form of sensory meditation and by the time I’m instructed to commence countdown to the big O, I’m strangely in the mood.
This is a family newspaper, so I will draw a veil over the more kinetic aspects of what next transpired. Suffice to say, the Girl Guides should be proud of me.
Having pondered Komisaruk’s research – and her role in it – Rowan says she is increasingly convinced human orgasm may prove to be our greatest natural panacea: key to countering pain with pleasure
The only problem was that I was so carried away that I pushed the button twice by mistake (or maybe in an ecstasy of ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’), making it appear my orgasm lasted all of one second. However, I had a chance to reprieve myself as I was given a second chance.
This time round I was more relaxed, and, Reader, I managed it. Twice. It may not be the most romantic story to tell my grandchildren, but it will nevertheless be a feat I’m proud of.
After all, I’ve played an important role in pioneering research. And when Dr Komisaruk analysed the scan data he found that – confirming his previous studies – the areas of my brain controlling memory, emotion, decision-making and pain all lit up like the National Grid as vital blood and nutrients flowed to them.
It seems that at the peak of my sexual pleasure, my brain was having a party.
While it’s easy to see that doctors working on investigating brain function have much to learn from the Professor’s work, it is the relationship between pain and pleasure which most fascinates him.
As he says, ‘If further research enables us to understand this interaction better, it may help us to more effectively control pain.
‘My hope is that in the future we will be able to harness the brain’s capacity for sexual pleasure to counteract pain, depression, anxiety and addiction.’
As I clambered out of the MRI scanner, I thought that even if it’s hard to know just how good sex is for the brain, it certainly can’t hurt it.
In the early evening light, I bid farewell to the Big O Hunters in a daze of science and post-lab languor. Having pondered Komisaruk’s research – and my role in it – I’m increasingly convinced human orgasm may prove to be our greatest natural panacea: key to countering pain with pleasure.
Plus the power of passion certainly does seem to have upped my IQ: I finished a cryptic crossword yesterday for the first time ever.