There's a somewhat cliche saying that the brain is our biggest, most important sexual organ. But would it ever be possible to turn the brain into our only sexual organ?
There are some ultra forward-looking people in the transhumanist movement who think that maybe one day we'll more or less leave our bodies behind, and, with them, our penises, vaginas, and other erogenous zones (in this hypothetical future, we're reproducing with cloning or some other alternative mechanism). But, presumably, whatever becomes of humans would still want to feel sexual pleasure. So maybe we'll need to rely solely on our brains to give it to us.
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Earlier this year, I interviewed Sergio Canavero, the Italian scientist who wants to perform the world's first human head transplant. I asked Canavero whether he thought that one day we would transplant our heads onto robotic bodies, and what that might mean for the human race. Rather than shy away from the question, Canavero said it was something he'd already thought lots about.
"I propose enhancing the brain by providing it with hyper hedonistic features—an orgasm-producing device," Canavero said. "I propose to enhance humans and, I don't know how we'd define this creature, but it would be like, maybe a new species."
By now you can probably tell that we're getting into pretty deep sci-fi sounding territory. But Canavero's comment did make me wonder how good we are at triggering orgasms in the brainalready. Turns out, there's actually been some research into nongenital orgasms in humans, and, indeed, some research into triggering orgasms solely in the brain.
"The perception and feelings of orgasm occur in the brain, so really the least of the problems [with building a cyborg sex machine] is trying to get orgasms isolated in the head," Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers neurologist who is seen as the world's foremost expert on nongenital orgasms, told me. "I work with people who have complete spinal cord injuries who have orgasms in their dreams—it's plausible for people to have orgasms in the brain, that's where they occur."
Though there is not an orgasm pill, there have been isolated incidents in which people have had spontaneous orgasms attributed to the use of a drug. Last year, doctors in Pakistan reported that one of their patients was having up to five spontaneous orgasms daily after she went on a drug called rasagiline to treat early-onset Parkinson's disease.
In her case, this was an unwanted reaction, and after she stopped taking the pills, she stopped having the orgasms. Komisaruk believes that the rasagiline triggered a massive release of dopamine in the woman's brain, which triggered an orgasm. Unfortunately, Komisaruk's frequent collaborator, Beverly Whipple, was on a cruise and wasn't able to talk with me.
In another instance, pain doctor Stuart Meloy implanted a device into the spine of one of his patients. It turns out that the signals helped the patient manage her pain, but also appeared to trigger orgasms. Meloy patented this "orgasmatron" but found that no one was willing to fund the mass production of the device, which would have cost $25,000 at the time they were developed.
So, can it be done cheaper? Or in a different way?
Komisaruk has had people masturbate while inside an fMRI machine, which measures blood flow to specific regions of the brain. "When we see orgasms, basically the entire brain gets activated," he said. "There's basically just a massive overload."
But Jim Pfaus, a sex psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal says it's not necessarily that simple.
"Due to differences in methodology (both in terms of what the participants are viewing and having done to them, in addition to the temporal dynamics of when the readings are taken), the brain responses show a high degree of variability," he told me in an email. "Some may be more sedating than pleasurable, whereas others have the opposite effect. Subjectively, there are many 'orgasms' which reflect different brain processing of what you feel."
Komisaruk says that, despite these differences, there is little difference, neurologically, between male and female orgasms. He said that if you were to look at his fMRI videos of male and female orgasms, you wouldn't be able to tell which was which.
Both Komisaruk and Pfaus say that it should be possible to create a pill or a brain interface that triggers orgasms. That, of course, leads us to the question of why we'd want to do it. Pfaus says that any purely brain-focused orgasm trigger would, paradoxically, probably be both disappointing and abused.
"The motor responses of what we are doing at the time orgasm comes and the sensory feelings we have as it approaches and ensues would be missing from a pill," he said. "But if the pill itself induces an orgasm-like state, it could very well end up like heroin—something that gets abused … [it would be] distinct from orgasm because it doesn't require motor and sensory responses."
Komisaruk put it a little more simply: "Personally, I think it's like trying to develop a filet mignon pill. I'd rather have a filet mignon than a filet mignon pill."
Jacked In is a series about brains and technology. Follow along here.