Despite the fact that sex is a basic instinct and a near-universal experience, we know remarkably little about it. And so, this week, we’re teaming up with our friends at Futurism, oracles of all things science, technology and medicine, to look at the past, present and future of pleasure from a completely scientific perspective.
When Dick Spencer, 26, is all alone, he thinks about a specific argument he had with an ex-girlfriend. He was sitting next to her on the couch and feeling bummed about their bickering. Out of nowhere, she unbuttoned her white blouse, played with her nipples and gave him a seductive stare. “It’s always stuck with me,” he says. “It made me feel wanted.”
This memory is a crucial piece of Spencer’s “spank bank,” a mental cache of erotic moments he recalls while wanking (all of us have one, even you). But where in your brain does your spank bank live? Is there some heart-shaped structure where your cerebral porn collection is stored?
Well, not exactly. According to neuroscientist Nan Wise, author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier and More Purpose-Filled Life, there’s not a singular sector or structure that houses all your horny memories in your brain. Instead, summoning sexual imagery for your afternoon fap involves multiple networks of brain regions that “participate in sensory processing, integrate visual and body sensations, store information and retrieve remembered erotic experiences or fantasized visual memories.” For example, the hippocampus (which plays a major role in memory), the amygdala (your emotional control center) and the nucleus accumbens (a hotbed for dopamine) each have a finger in the proverbial creampie, and cranking one out to the memory of a top-tier beej requires a coordinated effort.
However, in order for the flashbacks to truly stir your loins, Wise says the genital sensory cortex — the “ground zero of all genital sensations” — will undoubtedly play a role. Part of the brain’s primary somatosensory cortex, it’s located near the cap of your coconut, and it makes sense of sensations that come from your naughty areas, including your nipples. While regions like the hippocampus, the amygdala and the hypothalamus (which modulates arousal) collaborate to develop fantasies in your spank bank, the genital sensory cortex is where those memories become pleasurable sensations.
Interestingly, you don’t even need to touch yourself to stimulate the genital sensory cortex. In her research, Wise found that “just thinking about erotic stimuli (i.e., when a female participant imagined being pleasurably penetrated by a dildo) lit up the brain like a Christmas tree, quite similarly to what actual, physical genital stimulation and orgasm does.” (As her analysis shows, cumming arouses sensory, motor, reward, frontal cortical and brainstem regions from all over the inside of your skull.)
In fact, Wise says, “The frontal regions are more active when people have to imagine the stimulation or remember the images than when they’re actually experiencing the stimulation or seeing the images.” That’s likely because those zones are responsible for functions like memory and emotions, which would mean they’re firing on all cylinders whenever Spencer ravenously recalls the time a different ex-girlfriend chewed his ear while they were listening to “Charlotte’s Thong” by Connan Mockasin.
Keep in mind that there’s certainly even more happening in the brain when you tap into your spank bank, but we still have more neural exploring to do. In fact, it’s been said that we only understand about 10 percent of how our melon functions, so the true structure of the spank bank is yet to be seen.
It’s no wonder, though, that your spank bank requires so much brain power. Real sex is already a mental feat, relying on a constant stream of sensory and emotional feedback. To accurately replicate all those sounds, smells, tastes, sights and feelings is a whole other ball gag. Or as Wise puts it, “Any stored image in the spank bank is going to be encoded across a number of sensation-processing and integration regions of the cortex, especially those that put together visual, tactile and visceral information.”
Wow. Thanks, brain. Now can I get something to fap to?