In this post: some sexy news about the female brain, then, some careful caveats about brain claims in general.
First off, Time reports on the first three-dimensional movie of a female orgasm. Captured by a team of researchers led by Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University, the movie shows the brain activity correlated with the orgasm of a single subject. Like most fMRI captures, the ‘heat’ of the colours is correlated with oxygenated blood movement, and thus brain activity – the more rufous the colour, the higher the activation. In the case of an orgasm, the entire brain is dense with activity. (By the way, if you are interested in what it is like to achieve an orgasm in an MRI – the guardian has the scoop here)
In his as-of-yet-unpublished findings, presented to the Society for Neuroscience conference, Komisaruk speculatively links the sequence of brain activation to (presumably, though not mentioned) first-person experiences of such orgasms, third-person observations, and previous literature on orgasm and brain circuitry. This yields some pretty titillating conversation for a scientific finding, such as:
…facial expressions during orgasm (the “O face”) are often indistinguishable from those made in pain, and suggests this may be explained by activity in the insula.
Funny, but general and speculative. And more to the point, I don’t believe that there will be anything earth-shaking (aside from… well, you get the idea) to come from this study. But this is far from undervaluing this kind of work: gaining an understanding of a normal or average female orgasm will help not only with understanding why some women can achieve orgasm and others cannot, but, as Time rightly notes, will also aid understanding those wider situations where desire and motivation get tangled into pathological snarls.
But already, Komisaruk’s work faces a challenge: there are large differences between his research, and that of Gert Hostelge at the University of Groningen (referred to in Time as so many ‘Dutch researchers’). Working along a similar train of thought, Hostelge’s work has found that brain activation actually decreases during orgasm (a good summary here, and why you should wear socks, courtesy of the BBC).
So what are we to make this discrepancy? Well, Komisaruk speculates that at least some of the difference comes down to the fact that in Hostelge’s work, orgasm was initiated by partners, and that the act of ‘surrender’ may account for some decrease in brain activity. Pretty thin, if you ask me. More likely is the fact that we just don’t know. At the moment, there are so many intervening variables that such wild speculation is all one can do.
And this brings us to the second, and much shorter, part of this blog post. What are we supposed to do with neurological findings such as these? Writing on the particularly hot-topic of sex-based differences, William Saletan at Slate, discusses ten aspects of research (and popular reporting on said research) to watch out for. This article is relevant not only for its lucid remarks on suggestion and interpretation in research, but also for those on the politics and promotion of scientific results that deal with gender and sex, both in the academic sector and the public press.