Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: 'How Women Orgasm'

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Ever wonder what a woman's brain looks like in the midst of an orgasm? Barry Komisaruk did—and being a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, he devised a way to study it.

Komisaruk's most recent method has been to put women—volunteers all—into a specialized magnetic resonance imaging device called an "fMRI" which measures changes in blood flow related to neural changes in the brain and spinal cord. While each woman gets herself off—under a sheet, of course; this isn't porn—the machine scans the subject's head every two seconds, noting how its neurons are firing as the increased blood flow generated by the erotic stimulation leads up and finally completes the orgasm.

A graphic available here shows how mental activity in different parts of the brain increases as the woman goes through various stages of arousal. Areas including those responsible for touch, emotion, memory and satisfaction are involved.

Although Komisaruk's been studying pussies for over 25 years, he still gets surprised by some of the results. For instance, he's found that during orgasm, the woman's pleasure response can be so great that it temporarily shuts down her pain receptors. He also found a wide variation in the number of orgasms different women can have, and how long it takes them to get there.

"In one experiment we asked women to self-stimulate and then raise their hands when they orgasmed," he told the Daily Mail (UK). "Some women raised their hands several times each session, often just a few seconds apart. So the evidence is that women tend to have longer orgasms and can experience several in rapid succession."

He also found that women's orgasms average 10-15 seconds each, while he estimated that men top out at a mere six seconds. (Komisaruk plans to run similar fMRI studies on men.) He also found that most women take less than five minutes to reach orgasm, though some in the experiment took as long as 20.

The object of the research is both to provide information on what a "normal" orgasm looks like, in order to help  sexually dysfunctional women, one in seven of which never has an orgasm, and also simply "to find ways to increase pleasure in people's lives," Komisaruk said. He envisions a time when women who have difficulty having orgasms can be hooked up to a "neurobiofeedback" display so they can watch how their own brains react in real time as they try to stimulate themselves, and possibly use that information to manipulate the areas of their brains that are activated, to achieve better orgasms.

Sadly, Komisaruk's had trouble finding funding for his study, and says he spends at least half his time applying for grant money—a particularly difficult process since much of society sees little benefit in studying sex.

"There’s no premium on studying pleasure in this society," Komisaruk told volunteer (and reporter) Mara Altman. Added Komisaruk's associate Nan Wise, "What do you expect? We were founded by Puritans."

Of course, the research may go a long way toward answering a question that's plagued scientists for years: What is the exact relationship between human activity and consciousness of self?

"It’s the hard question I want to answer," Komisaruk said. “What creates consciousness? I find that, and I find the Nobel Prize."

Komisaruk and his team have made a film documenting the experiments, which was slated to debut at the Neuroscience 2010 symposium which ends today in San Diego.