Although masturbation is a physical activity, it turns out, our brains play a huge role in solo sex as well. When discussing the possible connections between arousal and the mind, it's important to realize that scientific knowledge at this point is limited. Knowing exactly what happens in your brain when you masturbate isn't always clear, according to staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, Carol Queen, Ph.D., and clinical neuroscientist, Daniel Michaels.
"We still don’t have as much knowledge of sexual arousal and response as many of us sexologists would like — brain science on sexual topics is more or less in its infancy," Dr. Queen tells Elite Daily. Fortunately, there is some information about the link between masturbation, pleasure, and certain brain activity that we do know. "It seems we have sex because it feels good," Michaels tells Elite Daily. "If we follow that same logic, then it's also likely the case that we masturbate because it feels good. Other reasons might be person-dependent and can include things like releasing sexual tension, relaxation, stress relief, or even to help one sleep."
According to Dr. Queen, a fascinating aspect of masturbation is that while many people do it because they are turned on, it's also common for masturbation to lead to arousal from an unaroused state. "Whether we are turned on when we start masturbation, stimulating the genitals will send nerve signals up the spine and likely result in sexual arousal," says Dr. Queen. "This may be boosted via fantasy, which is a common supplement to masturbation. While fantasizing, the thoughts that the person finds erotic can add to the experience."
Even though everyone's relationship to self-pleasure is individual, Dr. Queen points out that letting go of mental inhibitions is an important part of having satisfying sexual experiences, both alone and with a partner. "If someone is inhibited, that inhibition must itself be inhibited by the brain for them to have a successful sexual experience of any kind," she says. "In this situation, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex cools down its usual job of reasoning and making value judgments." Basically, shifting into a sexual headspace requires the brain to partially bypass some of the normal mental processes that might hinder arousal.
Experiencing sexual pleasure involves "parts of the brain that process emotion, and our bodily awareness tuning in," adds Dr. Queen. "The brain controls the full-body physical experience of arousal and the sexual response cycle. This includes increased blood flow, heightened blood pressure, flushing, body chemistry, hormones, and arousal-related changes in the genitals like erection and wetness."
Both Dr. Queen and Michaels also note that the brain's activity during sexual arousal seems to peak during orgasm. "At orgasm, the brain lights up, notably the genital sensory cortex, hypothalamus, thalamus, and substantia nigra," explains Dr. Queen. "While some segments in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and amygdala with their 'control center' functions, do the opposite." According to Dr. Queen, the function of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala are likely temporarily inhibited to allow the body and mind to fully surrender to orgasm. The end result is a rush of feel-good hormones. "The neurochemistry of arousal and orgasm involves oxytocin, prolactin, and endorphins as well as dopamine," she adds. "Post-orgasm, serotonin levels, a hormone that promotes relaxation, also go up."
Although there are still many mysteries on the topic of how our brains impact our sexual responses and vice versa, many people find masturbation to be a pleasurable way to sexually connect with themselves. So, the next time you decide to engage in some solo fun, just know that part of your brain are putting in some serious work.