When Traci’s hand rises up from under the white hospital blanket, one of the scientists spots it and calls out, “Orgasm!” This is completely unexpected for many reasons. Traci is waist deep in an MRI machine at the Center for Advanced Imaging at Rutgers-Newark University. The room is cold. She’s encased in a kind of high-tech plastic hockey mask that helps centre the MRI’s magnetic scan. She’s already been in the MRI machine for almost an hour as researchers map the parts of her brain that light up when she thinks about her toes and fingers, and also the parts that light up when they touch her toes and fingers with a dull plastic knife. She’s wearing earplugs and headphones, and her head is wrapped with memory foam to keep it as still as possible, a technique Dr Barry Komisaruk – distinguished professor of psychology at Rutgers and lead author of the definitive scholarly study The Science of Orgasm – finds more workable than making his volunteers clamp their teeth on a fixed bar. On top of that, a group of complete strangers is watching her every move through a big glass window: the lab technician in his white coat, the PhD. Candidate making notes in her loose- leaf binder, the reporter with his tape recorder, the undergraduate research assistant who just announced an intense craving for cashews. But here’s the biggest reason Traci’s orgasm is a surprise: There was no apparent cause – or at least no physical cause. She was merely thinking. Komisaruk leans toward the microphone. At 68, with a balding dome ringed by professorial tufts of hair, he has a gentle and fatherly manner. “You had an orgasm, Traci?”
“A little bit.”
“Just right toward the end, right?”
“Were you thinking of tapping your clitoris yourself or having it tapped by someone else?” (Tapping is Komisaruk’s attempt at a neutral alternative to words like caressing.) She laughs. “I don’t know.”
“Okay, that’s fine. Nonspecific.”
He nods to the PhD candidate, who has been tracking the movement of Traci’s signaling hand in 10-minute increments and charting each signal to the exact minute and second. She makes note on her clipboard that the orgasm lasted for the final eight seconds of this 10-minute session. “I’d say six seconds or so,” says the research assistant. “But she had a thinking orgasm,” Komisaruk says, smiling. Says the PhD candidate, visibly impressed, “She sure did.”
These are exciting times in the study of excitement. Not long ago John Steinbeck could say the typical American man knew “more about the Ford coil than the clitoris.” Now, recent advances in brain imaging are helping scientists draw the schematic that links the clitoris to the biggest sex organ of all: the brain. Komisaruk is at the forefront of that research. Born and raised in the Bronx, the son of Eastern European immigrants who ran a humble Harlem pharmacy, he received a doctorate in neuroscience at Rutgers and began his career studying the pleasure centres of rats at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. When he became a professor at Rutgers, Komisaruk noticed an odd thing: Horny rats don’t appear to feel pain. He decided to see if the same was true of horny humans – but he ran into fierce resistance from opponents who thought that kind of research would damage the university’s reputation. About the same time, in 1982, Komisaruk’s wife died from cancer. “It was a very, very difficult year,” he remembers. “She was in the hospital in terrible pain, and I felt like a dummy just standing there not being able to do anything for her.”
Freshly determined to make pain relief his mission, Komisaruk finally received the university’s permission and began the first series of human tests to explore the neurology of orgasm. Working with a grad student named Beverly Whipple (now one of the world’s foremost researchers on the science of sex), he quickly established that vaginal stimulation in women increased pain thresholds by 50 percent. Orgasm was the ultimate painkiller, raising the threshold to 100 percent – but not for men. Despite the powerful effect orgasm had on women, it had no effect on male pain. Komisaruk and Whipple learned this was because male orgasm is carried exclusively through the pudendal nerve (which doesn’t carry inhibitors for pain), while female orgasm also travels through the pelvic nerve (which does). They even discovered that a specific peptide produced by the pelvic nerve creates the pain-blocking effect, which Komisaruk was able to simplify and patent. Then he began focusing on orgasms in women with spinal cord injuries. Since their pudendal nerves were usually severed, these women provided him a clear picture of which nerve pathways sexual information rides on its way to the female brain.
With the data from this research, Komisaruk was able to produce the first detailed map of the female sexual response system, proof of what folk wisdom has said all along: Men are simple, and women are freakin’ complicated. “We now know there are three different nerves, each of which can by itself activate an orgasm in women,” he says. “We also know that the more nerves that are stimulated, the more complex and intense the orgasm becomes. Clitoral seems more external and localized, and vaginal or cervical feels deeper and incorporates the whole body. In other words, they’re additive.” The final step was to chart the stimulated parts of the brain with brain scan imagery, a technique that became available only five years ago. The orgasm centres turned out to be the nucleus accumbens (which also plays a role in laughter, addiction and fear), the amygdala (which tells the adrenal gland to produce adrenaline), the insular cortex (which translates sensations into emotions such as happiness and disgust) and the hypothalamic region (which plays an important role in childbirth and produces the mysterious hormone ocytocin). Again, all the evidence confirmed folk wisdom: At the level of brain chemistry, women really do feel a connection between love and sex. The implications go beyond science to metaphysics.
Why do pain and pleasure light up the same part of the brain? Why are the same facial expressions and sounds associated with pain and pleasure? Are the same neurons firing in different ways? Can we learn to harness them? In some distant future could we learn to write the neural code of pleasure and edit the language of pain? These are the questions that drive Komisaruk to the lab every morning. And because researchers find that the study of abnormalities sheds the brightest light on the normal, he has turned to subjects who are hyperorgasmic – the superstars of sexual response. Now it’s time to measure Traci’s response to physical stimulation, the better to compare and contrast with her thinking orgasms. “Start clitoral tapping,” Komisaruk says. For 25 seconds, Traci’s hand moves under the blankets. The countdown is the responsibility of the PhD. candidate, Nan Wise. “Five, four, three, two, one…” “Rest,” Komisaruk says into
the mic. The rests are part of the routine, enabling the researchers to compare Traci’s brain activity at rest with the data during stimulation. They call this the “boxcar” because that’s how it looks on a graph: flat lines alternating with spikes and plateaus. “Start clitoral tapping,” Komisaruk says. After a few passes it’s clear the clitoral tapping does nothing for Traci. They move on to G-spot stimulation, which requires a curved glass implement and some K-Y jelly. When she’s ready, Komisaruk leans into the microphone. “Okay, the first 30 seconds is rest.” Slowly the 30 seconds of the rest period tick off. “Start G-spot tapping,” Komisaruk says. This time 24 seconds go by.
“Orgasm!” Then things start happening fast. Traci starts again, and Wise calls off the countdown. Almost instantly Wise calls out, “Up!” Traci’s hand stays up until Komisaruk calls rest. “She came for the whole 30 seconds,” Wise says. “So much for the impossibility of vaginal orgasm,” Komisaruk says. Four seconds after the next stimulation period starts, Traci’s hand goes up again.
“She’s coming.” It stays up until rest. An incredulous expression crosses Komisaruk’s face. “So she stops having an orgasm every time I tell her to rest?” “I guess so,” Wise says. “She’s on cue.” “This is incredible. We’re going to have great data!” If you were to glance at Traci on the street, you’d never suspect how easily her brain lights up. Thirty years old, she’s pretty in a quiet way that suggests libraries and camping trips. She has long straight hair and is wearing wire- rimmed glasses and a colourful Indian dress with hand embroidery. She works in children’s media. She has a master’s degree in cognitive studies, so she had her brain wired up for neuroscience once before, but it still took a couple of weeks for her to make up her mind to volunteer for this study. She felt shy, she says. She was afraid it would be embarrassing. But she knew she had something unusual to offer, and she can pinpoint the exact moment she discovered it: 19 July 2004. That was the night the frustration of her deteriorating marriage boiled over into a midnight confession on her password-protected blog: “I am hornier than I ever thought possible. I think if someone touched my arm right now, I would come.”
An hour later a male friend responded. “Well, I have an AdultCheck ID if you want some of the most mediocre non-free porn on the web.” “That’s tempting,” she responded, “but right now I just really crave real human beings and human contact.” For the next few minutes, as her friend began to describe some of the forms that human contact might take, she felt the urge to touch herself. But she was still married and cybersex would feel too much like cheating. Then she announced a startling development. “Holy fuck! I don’t even have to touch myself. I am honestly coming just from reading your words.” That was at 02:11am. Her friend offered some more encouragement, and two minutes later Traci responded again: “OH. MY. GOD.”
Ten minutes later her friend asked how many times she had come.
“The question is, ‘How long have I been coming?’ Like 20 minutes straight at least. Since the 02:11am time stamp above.” A minute later she added, “I’m still convulsing. I can’t stop.” Shortly after that discovery, Traci’s marriage fell apart for good and she began having orgasms in more standard ways, so she didn’t explore her unusual ability much at the time – or even give it much thought. “I know I usually have the stamina to keep going after I’m with somebody and they’re finished. If I let myself keep thinking about it, I can – I guess they call them aftershocks – keep going like that for a while.” Komisaruk and Whipple published their first paper on the thinking
orgasm in 1992. Although the existing literature suggested it was very rare – Alfred Kinsey found only two percent of women could do it – they easily found 10 volunteers and hooked them up to the biometric tools available at the time. When he began using brain scans a decade later Komisaruk spent the first few years mapping the activity in the brain during physically stimulated orgasms. Then he realised sensory input from hand movement might compromise his data, and the idea bulb turned on. If a subject could climax without touching herself or even moving her hands, the orgasm itself could be completely isolated and the event could be examined in its purest form.
The next step will be “think G-spot,” Komisaruk says, reminding Traci to keep her head still.
Wise begins the countdown: “Five, four, three, two, one…”
“Think G-spot stimulation,” Komisaruk says.
Again things start happening so fast the researchers have a hard time keeping track. Traci is not moving at all, but her orgasms go off like a string of firecrackers, not stopping until the doctor says “rest.” That’s the last boxcar. Now it’s time for freestyle: a full-steam session of go-for-an-orgasm masturbation without any pauses or annoying interruptions. Usually they do this because it’s so hard for the subjects to get a full orgasm during the boxcar sessions. In Traci’s case, it’s pure scientific curiosity. “Which do you prefer, clitoral or vaginal?” asks Komisaruk.
“Uh, clitoral, I guess.”
“If you like, Nan can bring you the G-spot stimulator.”
“Okay, that would probably be good.” Wise gives the countdown. When Komisaruk says “Start clitoral stimulation,” Traci’s hand goes up – and stays up until the next rest period. Komisaruk marvels. “If her head is still, we may be able to make a movie – Orgasm: The Movie.” Up at three minutes, 52 seconds; down at three minutes, 30 seconds; up at two minutes, 54 seconds; down at two minutes, 30 seconds. This has gone from the land of the unusual to the empire of the stunningly unexpected.
“Oh man, this is great,” Komisaruk gushes. “Traci, how are you doing? You’re really terrific. Did your orgasms really stop when I told you to rest?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You’re fantastic.” He pauses for a quick consult with his team, then gets on the microphone. “Traci, you’re so terrific, really, that we’re wondering if… Could you just do that again?”
No problem, she says. The countdown begins. Five, four, three, two, one…
“Incredible,” Komisaruk says as Traci’s hand shoots up. “I’ve never seen a woman like this!”
And so it continues, over and over, punctuated by a few “wows” from the audience. “I feel we should buy her dinner afterward,” Wise jokes. “She’s resting now.” “She should rest.” When Traci finally gets out of the MRI and comes into the observation room, Komisaruk says, “What a trouper! You went for extra innings! Let’s hear it for Traci. We may make a movie of your brain activity,” he says. “Damn,” she say
“You have a very nice-looking brain.” Later, back at home, Traci gives her boyfriend a modest report: “They were very pleased with the data I gave them.” Two weeks later Komisaruk gathers his team in a small computer lab at Rutgers to begin analyzing Traci’s data. A sombre physicist named Wen-Ching Liu adjusts the computer until he sees orange spots festooned across her brain like Christmas lights. Komisaruk leans in close. “So what are we looking at?” Liu asks. “We’re looking at ‘think finger tap,’ ” says Komisaruk.
“Is she thinking about her right hand or left hand?”
“We just told her to think finger tap.” There’s activity in the supplementary motor area, Komisaruk says. That’s interesting. But wait – there’s also activity in the thalamus! They’ve seen this before, but they weren’t sure if they could believe it. According to her brain scan, finger tap was occurring even though it was not. Neuroscientists have seen ots of evidence they call “centrifugal control of sensory input,” which means the brain can instruct the body to respond to a stimulation that’s not really there. For example, one study showed that schizophrenics who heard voices also showed brain response to those voices under MRI, meaning the auditory input was indistinguishable from a real voice. Maybe the old line about “seeing is believing” has it backward: For someone like Traci, maybe believing is seeing. Excited, they move on to “think nipple.” “This is really weird,” Komisaruk says. Traci’s thinking about stimulating her nipple, and the part of the brain that represents both her hand and her nipple lights up. “She’s just thinking about it.” And here she is doing clit think; the orange lights glow in her brain’s clitoral area and hand area. She must have been thinking of touching her clitoris with her hand. Same with think G-spot. “This is so strong,” Liu says, surprised. “She was having orgasms.”
“Oh, no wonder. That explains it.” Traci’s astonishing orgasmic abilities pose tantalizing questions about the connections between the mind and body. Like the spine- damaged women who helped Komisaruk map orgasm’s pathway of nerves, Traci’s brain may offer clues that will help scientists solve the greatest neuro-metaphysical mystery of all: “If we can see our brain activity directly, will that help us control it?” asks Komisaruk. “Will it give us a handle on controlling our feelings?” Two weeks later a volunteer named Kathryn arrives at the lab. She’s 30, with red hair and glasses, a software designer with a degree from Columbia University. She gets onto the MRI platform and slides under the magnet, and soon Komisaruk goes back to work. “Okay, Kathy, I want you to think of touching your left nipple.”
The work of Team O continues.
by John H Richardson
Published in Playboy South Africa November 2012