What Does Sex Do to the Brain?

From first caresses to final slump on your pillow, the brain is mission control for all things sexy. Researchers have found that sex does some pretty amazing things to the body and the mind, too.

Forget mindfulness meditation, computerized working memory training or learning a musical instrument; regular sex can actually make you smarter. One study found that getting jiggy with it increases neuron growth in the hippocampus, which is responsible for long-term memory.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that encourages you to seek out reward, whether it’s the next level in a video game, food, money or sex. And it’s the same part of the brain that activates when you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol. Dopamine gives you the motivation to keep going, even when it’s tough.

One of the first things that happens when you start to get aroused is that the part of the brain called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which is in charge of your logical reasoning skills, goes on vacation. This deactivation helps you to avoid fear and anxiety so that you can stay in a state of pure arousal until orgasm hits.

When you do hit orgasm, multiple areas of your brain become activated, including the nucleus accumbens, which runs your reward system, and the hypothalamus, which controls body temperature and hunger and thirst. The release of these hormones and neurotransmitters creates a feeling of intense pleasure, euphoria and satisfaction.

A recent study by Rutgers University had a group of lucky women masturbate inside an fMRI machine and found that over 30 different areas of their brain were activated during the racy sequence. This includes parts of the brain that control emotions, memory and touch. In addition, those who have sex more frequently also had increased neural tissue growth in the hippocampus, which is associated with better memory function.

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Oxytocin

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus — a small region at the base of your brain. This hormone is responsible for many things, including social bonding, parental instincts and uterine contractions during childbirth. It also stimulates your brain to release dopamine and serotonin. It is also associated with a sense of trust and affection. It’s often referred to as the “love hormone.” In fact, just holding hands with your partner can trigger its release in your brain. The same is true for cuddling. Oxytocin also decreases stress and anxiety levels.

During sex, the hypothalamus produces and secretes this hormone to increase blood flow to the genitals and heart. It can also increase vaginal secretions, making sex more pleasurable. The hormone also helps you synchronize your breathing with your partner and improves your ability to communicate with them. It can also increase your libido by stimulating the pituitary gland.

The brain regions that are active during sexual arousal and orgasm include the insula, the somatosensory cortex and the amygdala. The cingulate gyrus, which is involved in sensing pain and emotions, also becomes active during orgasm.

Studies have shown that regular sexual activity can encourage neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons in your brain. This can lead to better memory function, as well as lower stress levels and symptoms of depression. However, the type of sex that is most effective for this purpose is not always obvious. For example, researchers found that older adults who had sex weekly performed better on tests of attention, word recall and visual and verbal recognition than those who didn’t.

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Endorphins

When you have an orgasm, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins flood your body. These feel-good chemicals bind to specific opioid receptors in the brain to create feelings of pleasure and euphoria. This trio of hormones are known as the “love hormones,” and they also promote bonding, affection, and trust between partners. Oxytocin is also the same hormone that bonds a mother to her newborn, and it has anti-inflammatory and calming properties.

The release of these hormones also increases blood flow to the brain, which can help boost cognitive function. Studies have shown that regular sexual activity can increase neurogenesis, which helps grow new neurons in the hippocampus. This is important for long-term memory retention.

In one study, researchers used an fMRI machine to monitor female participants as they masturbated. They found that brain activity in several regions gradually increased leading up to orgasm and then peaked at orgasm. This activity included areas of the brain that control pain, arousal, and memory.

During orgasm, the brain also produces prolactin and oxytocin. These hormones promote a feeling of contentment and bonding, similar to the experience of breastfeeding. During orgasm, the brain also releases serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are known to improve mood, lower stress levels, and provide relief from pain. They also act as a natural antidepressant and can lower blood pressure.

Serotonin

Serotonin, which is also a hormone, helps transmit chemical messages between nerve cells throughout your brain and body. It has many functions, including regulating moods and promoting sleepiness. During orgasm, serotonin triggers the release of other hormones and neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin and endorphins, which promote bonding and feelings of pleasure. Serotonin also stimulates the genitals to contract, causing the intense sensations associated with orgasm.

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As a result of these chemicals, the limbic system—which is more primitive and responsible for physical drives and elements of emotional processing—activates during orgasm, while parts of the cerebral cortex that govern logical reasoning shut down. This makes it harder to think about things like how your actions will affect your partner and the consequences of what you’re doing.

As the sexy feelings begin to fade, serotonin and other hormones help you get back to your senses. However, you may still feel a little blue post-orgasm. This is a common experience known as the “postcoital dysphoria” or the “moment of regret”—though it’s more likely to happen in women. This is a result of how many areas of the brain are activated during orgasm, and can be complicated by the fact that those feel-good hormones have to start coming down, too. Fortunately, regular sex can boost brain health and increase memory capacity by spurring the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus.

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