The Mind-Blowing Science of Orgasms Explains Why We Get Performance Anxiety

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

You are your own worst enemy in the bedroom. Sometimes you have got trouble getting started, sometimes you have problems finishing. Either way, the root of the problem is the same: You can't shut off a certain part of your brain. A hard day at work, problems at home, bills, responsibilities and self-confidence issues all live in your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. And it's what's keeping you from calming down and getting down to business time.

To understand performance anxiety, you first have to understand what orgasms do to the body — and why reaching them is so easy when we're alone, but often harder with a partner.

Source: Giphy

When you orgasm, it takes near-total control of your brain and nervous system. According to Rutgers University neuroscientist Barry Komisaruk, the systems activated during an orgasm run from head to toe.

"We see activation in the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain, [and] the hypothalamus, which excretes oxytocin," he told Mic. "We see activation in the cerebellum, which is involved in muscle tension; we see activation in the insular and cingulate cortex, which are interesting because those same areas react to pain, so it may be inhibiting pain in its processes; we see activation in the amygdala, which increases heart rate and blood pressure and sweating. They're all activated, and they're all activated maximally."

Clearly, your brain has a lot to say about how you experience an orgasm — but it's also the gatekeeper. The two most important players are the orbitofrontal cortex, located right above and behind your eyes: 

And the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, located directly above the former and roughly behind the hairline: 

The orbitofrontal cortex is what's activated when you're aroused. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is what makes you not act on it in the middle of Trader Joe's.

Most of the time, you need that filter. It's what keeps you doing socially appropriate things even when you're aroused, and makes you conscious of yourself and your body. "The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is active in order to suppress your impulses or innate desires," Dr. Heather Berlin, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, told Mic. "The dorso will suppress them because you're in the middle of a lecture and maybe it's not appropriate to act out sexually."

Your brain has a lot to say about how you experience an orgasm.

But not turning that self-consciousness off, or, more accurately, decreasing activation, is what leads to performance anxiety. When people talk about "getting in their heads" and not being able to fully enjoy the situation unfolding before them, what they're getting into is that DPC.

"When you're actually in the act of having sex, you have to turn off that filter in order to let go and allow all the pleasurable feelings to come forth in that cascade of hormones and chemicals and brain activation that occurs during orgasm," Berlin said. "And if you keep your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex turned on, it'll suppress that and you won't be able to even get erect or excited or whatever."

Source: Giphy

There's a reason you don't get performance anxiety when you're just by yourself, even though you're thinking critically about what you're doing — and it's not just because you know what you like.

When you're touching yourself, you don't have to turn off those frontal cortex pieces because you still need them to focus on what you're doing — how you stimulate yourself, where your hand goes, how hard you're pressing and so on. You have a focal point that is serving your desires. When you rely on another person for stimulation, that focal point doesn't exist. Your mind wanders. And in anxious people, it doesn't wander to fantasy, it wanders to self-consciousness, or to the day you had. That dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is sabotaging your groove.

"You're wondering what they think about you, if you look fat in these jeans, and you lose that flow state and your performance suffers," Berlin said. "When you don't decrease activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, you're not able to access a flow state and let those subcortical parts of your brain take over. But that's difficult to do, because it's a novel thing to be like, no, actually you're allowed to completely let go and not suppress."

Source: Giphy

Is there a difference between masturbation and partner orgasm? It's likely — but the science is still catching up. 

Take a look at the brain scans below, which show different parts of the brain lighting up when parts of the body are touched. The results are from self-stimulation, and while the feeling of a self-stimulated orgasm and a partner-stimulated one feel markedly different, according to Komisaruk, they're hard to tell apart when shown on an MRI.

Brain activity in women when self-stimulated in different regions.
Source: 
Barry Komisaruk/National Center for Biotechnology Information

"There are cognitive subtleties that brain imaging can't detect," Komisaruk said. "Think of people speaking English versus Spanish. Clearly we can hear the difference between the two, but we can't detect that in the brain. The same parts of the brain are activated. That's the same for stimulation. But so far our methodology is not subtle enough to pick up those differences in brain activity. Brain imaging isn't even in its embryonic stage yet. The functional MRI was only developed 25 years ago."

How to overcome performance anxiety: If you're the kind of person who lets the stress of the day leak into the night, don't worry, there are things you can do.

Focus on what's important in that moment. You'll probably have better sex because of it.

According to Berlin, there are other brain states that people can achieve a similar pattern where you can decrease dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation and increase activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex and other areas responsible for pleasure.

One way to get better at clearing your mind is to get into meditation that focuses on quieting your thoughts and train your brain to let go and let your thinking flow freely. You can't consciously tell yourself to decrease your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation, but you can figure out what your "flow states" are. It might be reading, biking, climbing or running, where you lose that sense of self and time and place. That's the sweet spot. Figure out how to get yourself there, and stay there more often.

Source: Giphy

When you get better at leaving your day — and your bills, and that jerk who cut you off in traffic — in a pile of mental refuse somewhere out of the room, you'll be able to focus on what's important in that moment. You'll probably have better sex because of it.

"You want to get in that state where you lose yourself," Berlin said. "You're getting your mind used to letting go, and it will have carry-over effect in the bedroom."

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Max Plenke

Max Plenke is a staff writer at Mic, where he covers breaking news, climate science, health and the future. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ and Wallpaper. Send story tips to max@mic.com.

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