Female Sexuality and Neuroscience

in News, Opinion, Pop Culture
October 1st, 2012

As feminism becomes mainstream, much of scientific research is following suit, from a book being written about female sexuality to mapping out the female orgasm in the brain.

For many feminists, this effort to better understand female sexuality can be a means of empowerment, and it is not surprising that neuroscience research has branched into this area. Many people, rightfully so, believe that to understand our body and mind we must also understand the mechanisms of behavior in the brain. Yet due to its complexity, much of neuroscience research gets misinterpreted, reduced, or even generalized when written about for the public sphere.

Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, attempts to explain female sexuality by pulling from both subjective accounts and neuroscience to support her arguments. But what exactly does neuroscience research have to contribute to our knowledge of female sexuality? Although Wolf’s attempt at writing such a boldly stated book is admirable, it fell short, especially in terms of the science. Wolf misinterprets the roles of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin in the brain and how they could plausibly influence a female’s romantic relationships.

As Maia Szalavits so eloquently wrote:

“The kind of oversimplification seen in Wolf’s book and, sadly, in many other popular accounts of neuroscience, threatens to perpetuate a psychological myth. Rather than illuminating the complex interplay between mind and body, it portrays human beings — especially women — as automatons, enslaved by brain chemicals we cannot control.”

So what does neuroscience have to say about female sexuality? At last year’s Society for Neuroscience Conference in Washington D.C., a 3D movie was presented of the brain during a female orgasm. Barry Komisaruk, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to map brain activity in several women. The women were required to masturbate to an orgasm in the fMRI machine. (fMRI results are brain images reflecting activation in specific areas, and these areas are said to be lit up.)

Many areas lit up during the scanning, first, the sensory areas mapped to the genitals in the cortex. Next, the insula cortex, which is an area that is also activated when individuals experience pain. Since an orgasm is pleasurable and not painful, the researchers postulate that this is an activation of inhibitory neurons, because during an orgasm sensitivity to pain is decreased. Then activation migrates to the amygdala: many believe this area is part of the fear circuit, but others believe that it is actually activated in response to all salient information: the latter better explains its activation here. Next, the hippocampus is activated, the area especially devoted to the consolidation of memories. The pre-frontal cortex is also lit up, which could make sense because the individuals were actively pleasuring themselves, a decision requiring the executive function of the PFC. The next two areas of activation are where Wolf misinterpreted the role of the neurochemicals involved: the hypothalamus is activated, excreting oxytocin, and the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which is largely known as the pleasure center in the brain and once the orgasm is finished the activation subsides.

It is quite fascinating that there is now such openness in science that allows for the study of previously taboo subject matter: the female orgasm. But the findings from neuroscience research should not be reduced to explain matters of the behavior so flippantly. More caution should be taken when writing about the brain especially regarding fMRI studies, because activation in the brain through imaging studies is not quite equatable to behavior. For instance, although the area in the nucleus accumbens is activated during pleasure due to the release of dopamine, it does not mean that dopamine’s release from the nucleus accumbens is solely responsible for female sexual pleasure. As seen from the video, many brain areas are involved in a complex manner during a female orgasm.

Read more:
Naomi Wolf’s Vagina Aside, What Neuroscience Really Says About Female Desire – Time
Naomi Wolf defends Vagina – Slate
The first 3D movie of the female orgasm in the brain – Time

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