What Happens to Your Brain When You Have Sex

The brain is the most powerful sex organ.

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brain during sex
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A lot is going on in the brain when you have sex

One of the last things you’re thinking about during sex is probably chemicals and your brain—but they’re more involved than you think. One study on women found that as many as 30 areas of the brain are active leading up to and after orgasm. Still, research on this topic is still developing as it’s a challenging topic to measure, test, and study. Here’s everything researchers know so far about what happens to your brain during sex.

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Certain parts of the brain warm up

The limbic system, a more primitive region of the brain responsible for physical drives and elements of emotional processing, activates during sex, according to Jason Krellman, MD, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center. Other parts of the cerebral cortex that govern higher reasoning, however, shut down. “As a consequence, the sexual act itself is driven more by instinct and emotion than rational thought,” Dr. Krellman says. Here are 39 more sex facts you probably don’t know.

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brain during sex
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Other parts of the brain cool down

Interestingly, two specific areas of the brain seem to shut off during sex for women, according to Jennifer Sweeton, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the greater Kansas City area. One region that shuts off involves social judgments and awareness, which might be why people say, “love is blind,” Dr. Sweeton says. The area of the brain linked to self-awareness and self-inhibition have also been found to deactivate in female brains resulting in out-of-body-like experiences during sex, according to Dr. Sweeton. This “neural disinhibition” helps women orgasm, according to Nicole Prause, PhD. Ever tried tantric sex? Find out why it may be the key to a mind-blowing orgasm.

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Your brain releases dopamine

Sex causes the brain to release much higher levels of some neurochemicals, according to Dr. Krellman. These chemical changes help regulate and pace sexual activities, according to Dr. Prause. One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which promotes feelings of desire, euphoria, satisfaction, and reward, Dr. Krellman says. Dopamine, a key part of the brain’s reward system, releases in the same part of the brain that activates when people consume certain foods or drugs, according to Mimi Shagaga, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology. This part of the brain, the hypothalamus, also regulates hunger, thirst, and emotional responses, as well as things like body temperature, Healthline reports.

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brain during sex

Your brain releases oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, which increases with sexual arousal and orgasm. One misconception, however, is that oxytocin encourages bonding between partners post orgasm. Dr. Prause says there’s no evidence of this in humans. In fact, there’s only some speculative research that women might be more emotionally connected after orgasm thanks to oxytocin and vasopressin (more on that later.) There’s no current method to measure oxytocin in the brain either, so we don’t know if it actually changes the brain, Dr. Prause says. What researchers do know is that oxytocin released during sex could have pain-relieving effects, according to Dr. Krellman. This could add to why sexual pleasure and pain are often linked.

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brain during sex
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Your brain releases vasopressin

Although some research suggests changes in vasopressin post-orgasm might make women experience sexual activity as more of an emotional connection, vasopressin changes are larger in men, according to Dr. Prause. “Given that vasopressin promotes sleepiness, this may reflect the gender differences—sometimes the butt of jokes—as men rolling over and snoozing immediately after sex,” she says. “There may be a biological basis for that.” Sex also has longer-term changes, too. Find out how many times you need to have sex to slow down aging.

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brain during sex

Your brain releases serotonin

Serotonin helps regulate mood and sleep, so when people don’t get enough they might feel depressed, Dr. Sweeton says. Since serotonin increases during sex, it can lead to feelings of happiness and peace post-romp. Dr. Krellman adds that research shows, under healthy conditions, that sex can boost your mood, reduce stress, and perhaps as a consequence, improve memory. If you also want to reap as many health benefits from sex as possible, here’s how much sex you should be having.

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brain during sex
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Your brain releases norepinephrine

Norepinephrine increases arousal, attention, and energy by activating the sympathetic nervous system in the brain, says Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist in Santa Monica, California. “The norepinephrine releases to increase our heartbeat and rouse us,” he says. Many stereotypes of being in love or lust, like a loss of appetite, excess energy, and trouble sleeping, are associated with high concentrations of norepinephrine, too.

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brain during sex
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Some of these changes might make people sad post-romp

After orgasm, the brain releases the neurochemical prolactin and drops dopamine. This change post-sex might explain why some people have post-coital dysphoria, or feelings of sadness after sex that are distinct from feelings of regret or loneliness, Dr. Krellman says.

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All of these chemical brain changes have a purpose

Not only do chemical changes in the brain make the experience more pleasurable, but they also have evolutionary value, according to Dr. Krellman. “Sex is vital to our survival as a species, so it makes sense that the act would be rewarding, pleasurable, and make us less vulnerable to physical discomfort that might interrupt the act,” he says. Need a libido boost? Here are 31 natural ways to send it into overdrive.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest