How Orgasm Could Dull Pain

A professor's lifelong research leads to a growing understanding of pleasure, pain, and the genital-brain relationship.
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Above his desk at Rutgers University, psychology professor Barry Komisaruk has a framed image of what female brain activity looks like during orgasm. It looks like a sunset. Every major region of her brain ignites at the height of climax. He is the first to record such an image, and in recent years has used his research to improve women’s lives.

It started with hormones and doves. Back in the 1950s, Komisaruk, a behavioral neuroscientist and an author of The Science of Orgasm and The Orgasm Answer Guide, was looking at what he called “invisible forces that act at a distance” or, more specifically, at how neurons produced consciousness. He was anesthetizing doves, clamping them down, and drilling minuscule holes in their skulls to then implant hormone crystals into their brains. He was studying how hormone production stimulates behavior, and how behavior stimulates hormone production. This was his initial claim to fame, and the beginning of a long series of sexual behavioral studies that eventually revealed important facts about women, pleasure, and pain.

Komisaruk

What followed were even more studies that included rats, dildos, MRIs and masturbation. It sounds a bit crazy, like a juicy episode of Masters of Sex, but what Komisaruk learned from subsequent experiments laid the foundation for what he is able to do to help people with sexual pathology today.

As a graduate student, Komisaruk, who was raised in the Bronx area of New York City, studied with Elizabeth Crosbythe famous neuro-anatomist who wrote the three-volume Comparative Anatomy of the Nervous System of Vertebrates.

“I took a chance writing to her for help with identifying the structures of the dove brain, and she answered me,” he told me. “She had been doing work on pigeon brains. She was five feet tall, and in her 90s, and sharp as a tack. I brought my brain slides and she went through and identified the structures of the dove brain for me.” This research led to his doctoral dissertation that showed where in the brain progesterone acts controlling aspects of reproductive behavior.

According to Komisaruk, the next logical step was to examine how sex hormones affect neurons. In the 1970's, he studied with James Olds, a neuroscientist who discovered the “pleasure centers” in the brain. Olds had developed technology to record activity of single neurons in awake animals and invited Komisaruk to the University of Michigan to see if he could correlate the activity of single neurons in the brain to the rats’ behavior. In Olds’ lab, Komisaruk used different stimuli—brushing the face; giving the subjects chocolate, milk, and water; pinching a toe—and measured their neurological responses.

“Because in previous labs I saw that vaginal stimulation had such strong effects on the activity of neurons,” Komisaruk explains, “it was obvious to try the same stimulus in the awake rats in Olds’ lab.”

The test on the rats was simple. If you lightly pinch a rat’s foot, there is a pain reflex response as the leg withdraws from the pinch. When Komisaruk inserted a glass rod “dildo,” as he calls it, into the rat’s vagina, it became immobilized and went into the mating posture. Rats only mate every five days, on their cycle, but these female rats went into mating posture immediately upon vaginal stimulation at all stages of their cycle. When Komisaruk pinched their feet, that crucial pain response did not occur.

Was this a state of paralysis? Could they not feel the pain at all or was it the sexual state that overtook the pain altogether? Was the rat actually not feeling pain? He couldn’t ask the rats, but a similar experiment with human women would be able to provide him with the verbal feedback he needed.

Back at Rutgers in the early 80's, Komisaruk ran a course on human sexuality. He had heard about the research that Beverly Whipple, a registered nurse on the faculty of Gloucester College, was conducting on what she termed the “G-spot” or “Grafenberg spot” and on female ejaculation.

She would go on to become Dr. Beverly Whipple, co-author of The G Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality and would be named one of the 50 most influential scientists in the world by New Scientist Magazine in 2006.

Komisaruk brought her in to give a guest lecture in his course. Whipple mentioned that she wanted to earn a Ph.D., so Komisaruk invited her to enroll in the doctoral program at Rutgers, and to join his lab study to look at whether vaginal stimulation blocks pain in women.

“He invited me to come speak,” Whipple says. “He wanted someone with experience [and] from the human subject he wanted a verbal report he couldn’t get from the rats. I wondered why the G-spot was there, and Barry wanted to work with women."

Whipple had been doing her own research for years. She was a sex therapist, a nurse, and now a doctoral student as well. Prior to meeting Whipple, Komisaruk had never done any sex research on humans.

“It was the first time that any kind of sex research was going to be done on campus,” Komisaruk says, “and I wanted to be very careful about it. Nobody softened up the beaches for me to do the research. I had to fight to get it started.”

Their first tests were on how pain thresholds were altered by vaginal self-stimulation in women. “I wanted to know whether it would work and if so, which nerves were involved,” he explains. They used a machine that measured pain thresholds by gradually compressing the fingers, while asking women to masturbate manually. Whipple was in the room with the women, Komisaruk was in a separate room evaluating the data collection on a computer. They found that vaginal self-stimulation more than doubled the women’s pain thresholds.

In a subsequent study, they measured pain thresholds during childbirth. They found a significant reduction in pain sensitivity as the baby started to emerge through the birth canal, a correlation with G-spot stimulus. They speculate that without the pain-reducing effect of vaginal stimulation, childbirth might be even more painful, and that the pain-reducing effect could lessen the stress of childbirth and thereby promote bonding between mother and newborn.

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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a freelance writer and sex educator based in the Bay Area.

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