Your Brain on Sex and Love – Can You Get Satisfaction?

Le plaisir, il n’y a que moi qui sache me le donner.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Le Mur

A satisfactory sexual life is an important component of an individual´s overall mental and physical health. However simple this may sound, it appears to be very hard to attain.

Sexuality is a complex issue that involves many aspects of the human experience, from reproduction to physical appearance and fitness to self-image, performance, genre differences, and a whole variety of emotions.

In Western cultures, as popular belief has it, women and men experience sexuality in completely different ways; women are more emotional, while men are more physical and detached. Self-help type books like “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” have gone on to shape this popular culture and extend those beliefs.

From a scientific point of view, things are nowhere near so straightforward. On the one hand, research about what goes on in the brain during intercourse and orgasm in males and females and about the intrinsic differences between the female and the male brain has been extensive. However, none of it has been as conclusive as popular culture would have us believe.

In his influential book Male, Female, the evolution of human sex differences, David C. Geary discusses brain and cognitive differences from an evolutionary perspective. Identifying basic empirically observed differences between the sexes, both in humans and other species, Geary finds the sexual selection pressures that are responsible for these differences.

When it comes to male-male competition, which plays a key role in the choice of sexual partners across many species, Geary points to modern man´s efforts to secure a high-paying job as a clear example of the same sexually-driven competition amongst males.

Interestingly enough, a 2008 paper by Pollet and Nettle observed a correlation between men’s wealth and reported female orgasm, indicating that in a sample of Chinese women, those engaged in sexual relationships with wealthier men reported a higher degree of sexual satisfaction, and a higher number of orgasms achieved, in particular.

One way to analyze these results would be that, as we have been aware since Darwin (and Geary), females attach a lot of importance to the safety and well-being of their offspring, when choosing a sexual partner. In the case of these modern Chinese women, perhaps it is just the feeling of security that brings about a state of relaxation that is much more conducive to orgasm than a state of uncertainty about things like “how are we going to survive?” or “how are we going to feed and educate our children?”

The age-old questions still remain:

What do women want?

What do men want?

As popular Western culture would have it, women want a home and kids, and men want orgasms and variety in sexual partners.

Many scientists (including Geary) have observed that sexual roles are largely learnt and determined by genetics to a smaller degree than it was once thought. In today´s world, as the reproductive function is becoming more and more detached from sexuality, the roles of women have evolved and social sex differences have diminished; sexual roles are also evolving and changing rapidly.

Love and Sex

An MRI neuroimaging study of recently rejected lovers who still reported to be in love with their former partner found some neural correlations between this state and what was observed in the brain during cocaine craving.

One of the authors of the study is Dr. Helen Fisher, one of the world´s leading researchers in the neuroscience of love. Dr. Fisher is also responsible for some other interesting findings, such as the common patterns in neural responses from people who are in long-term relationships and reportedly “still in love.”

Just like Geary, Fisher studies love and sex from an evolutionary perspective, which is based on Darwin´s ideas that evolution responds to two main objectives: to “fight individuals of the same sex to win mating opportunities” or to “simply be attractive to the opposite sex.”

Fisher’s research has focused on the different neural responses to romantic attraction, which she found to be largely differentiated from those associated with sheer sex drive. According to her findings, the brain system associated with passionate romantic love  involves greater dopamine and norepinephrine activity and low levels of serotonin. The hormones at play vary when we are talking about lust, attraction, and attachment — the three stages identified in Fisher’s work.

Though culture and learning influence who we will find attractive etc, concludes Fisher, the nature of our emotional responses to the different moments in a relationship are “generated by brain-body phisiology,” and they “have evolved long ago.”

Love and the Orgasm

In his book The intimate history of orgasm, Jonathan Margolis says, “the mechanical orgasm acquired in women by masturbation is widely acknowledged to be more intense than anything achieved through intercourse alone.” It would thus seem that when it comes to women and their need for a lover or sexual partner, the orgasm is not at the top of the list.

The orgasm is the highest dopamine rush experienced by humans. In fact, a neural scan of the moment of orgasm is similar to one taken during a heroin rush. Just like with drugs, the dopamine surge is followed by withdrawal symptoms, which are immediate in the male, but delayed in the woman.

The evolutionary need to find a partner and perpetuate the species in women seems to dictate a lot of their behavior, as the elusive dopamine high is something that shows no distinct physical signs, such as the male ejaculation; and women have sustained long-term relationships for thousands of years, where orgasms were nowhere to be found.

In fact, Margolis talks about the evolutionary paradox of orgasm, stating that the fact that the peak of male pleasure is connected to the highest chance of procreation while the clitoral orgasm is not, poses an evolutionary dilemma; in the sense that the female orgasm would be largely disconnected from the reproduction drive.

This simple little fact may be at the heart of many of the different emotional responses to and assumptions about love and sex, and it may have a greater influence on how men and women view and react to relationships, since our goals in pure sexual satisfaction are so diametrically opposed. In fact, this is a rich field for studying sexual roles and the implications of sex and love for mind and body, and it features many largely unexplored areas.

Loving Your Thoughts

From a Cognitive Behavioral perspective, our emotions are largely constructed and nurtured by the thoughts we choose to dwell on in our minds. When it comes to romantic love, the age-old question of why we fall in love with one person and not another can be answered referring to a combination of cultural and learned social behavior patterns, inherited brain-body physiology and, ultimately, to a set of individual behavior patterns that we tend to repeat by choosing to think certain thoughts and focus our attention on a certain person, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

As enlightening as certain of the findings mentioned here may seem, in spite of all the research and all of our attempts to dissect human emotions; there are some mysteries in love that our dire science shall never penetrate, hard as it may try; mysteries that can only be unravelled by music not neuroscience and poetry not psychology; and that is something to be thankful for.


Geary, D.C. (1998). Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

POLLET, T., & NETTLE, D. (2009). Partner wealth predicts self-reported orgasm frequency in a sample of Chinese women Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (2), 146-151 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.11.002

Aceveda, B., Aron, A., Fisher, H.&Brown, L. Neural correlates of long-term pair-bonding in a sample of intensely in-love humans. Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Poster Session#297, (2008).

Fisher, H., Brown, L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love Journal of Neurophysiology, 104 (1), 51-60 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00784.2009

Helen Fisher’s conference at the Swartz Foundation, March 27th, 2006.

Fisher, Helen. The Nature of Romantic Love. The Journal of NIH Research, April 1994: 59-64, Washington, D.C.

Johnathan Margolis. O: The intimate history of the orgasm. Grove Press, London: 2003

  • Great article! Very enlightening to say the least. I had not read some of the studies you reference and I found the idea that money/security increases orgasm in women to be amazing! Who would have ever thought? Certainly not me, but it makes sense now that I understand the security angle. I think women are potentially more afraid to get pregnant when there is financial uncertainty and that could be very distracting during the sex encounter.

    I have come to realize with some of my work, that some of the ‘love’ response is based in biochemistry to the degree that if a man learns how to stimulate endorphin rush repeatedly it is directly related to attachment behavior. I teach men a touch technique I have developed that does just that. More and more I realize how much ’emotions’ can be directly related to chemisty, and I don’t mean love chemistry but brain chemistry.

    The Blissologist

    • Charlie Whitcomb

      Everyone nowadays speaks of dopamine and love/emotion. Are there other systems too at play?

      • Charlie,

        As I mentioned, the endorphin system often results in attachment behavior. That is why people get addicted to drugs, sugar, etc. Anything that causes an endorphin rush can cause additions. The touch technique that I developed and teach causes a major surge of endorphins. So if a guy uses the technique repeatedly, the woman feels the endorphin pleasure rush, sees him and begins linking the two. In her mind,…. ‘ohhh so wonderful, ohhhh, Sam…. ohhhh Sam makes me feel wonderful.’

        After repeated application, a man can merely reach over and start the technique and her brain will respond immediately to the stimulus and manufacture the endorphins much like the study by Pavlov.

        Many blissings,
        The Blissologist

  • Thank you for your interesting comments.
    Your techniques sound extremely interesting.


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  • Sue

    I disliked how it was concluded. Where did that assumption come from? It was an abrupt wrap up that shows no relation to the previous information presented. Where earlier there was an attempt to present scientific observations, the conclusion overrides all of it based on no grounds presented.

  • Some more materials…

    …to consider:

    (observation from animals that less dominant males ejaculate sooner, due to fear of the more dominant males interfering or attacking; hence longer intercourse time with dominants without fear + overall heightened CNS response due to dominant, high-Testosterone, and other similar bio-chem. health, and immune-system-match markers = female Orgasm, either at all, or stronger.)

    It is about dominance and overall chemistry a lot more than socio-economics, though on average better earning males have tended to be more on the dominant side than not. E.g. CEOs tending to have statistically significant height advantage, which itself is a marker for high-HGH, high-T, and overall health.

  • Anonymous

    […] there are some mysteries in love that our dire science shall never penetrate, hard as it may try […]
    I disagree. What a limiting statement that is.

  • vijaya shanbhag

    I would like to know when a MAN AND WOMAN are in relationship for more than 6 months — do they LOVE each other.
    And when they have SEX continuously for 2 years do they have intentions of settling permanently with each other as they get along very well( I mean unka achha jamta hai thoughts etc)
    AND TWO PERSONS continuously talk to each other everyday for more than 10 years — do they LOVE each other?

  • is a great one. It also has live chat so you can chat to other people online. Good luck.

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life

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