What Really Goes On In Your Brain When You're Turned On, According To Science

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We often hear that men and women have different needs when it comes to sex and arousal. For instance, there's a common misconception that men are visual creatures and that for them, attraction and arousal is all based on what they see. But what's just gender stereotyping or the impact of socialization, and what's backed by research? According to a recent study published in The Journal of Sex Medicine, researchers found that men and women don't activate the same parts of the brain when they're aroused, and women may actually use more brain activity during sex than men.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal conducted a study of 20 male and 20 female volunteers, all of whom identified as heterosexual, and were between the ages of 19 and 30-years-old. They wanted to see how brain activity differed between men and women when they were exposed to sexual stimuli. Keep in mind, this study was limited to just 40 participants in total, so their sample size was very small.

As part of the study, participants were shown different sets of video clips, while researchers functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to capture their brain activity. Video clips were both erotic (porn) and humorous (from ABC's Modern Family), so researchers could compare erotic stimuli to something else in the brain. Because it was a sex study, participants also had thermal imaging cameras placed near their genitals so "visible signs of increased sexual stimulation" could also be observed. Throughout the clip viewings, participants were told to self-evaluate and indicate whenever they had a change in sexual arousal. Here's what the study found:


Genital Arousal In Women Was More Strongly Linked To Changes In Brain Activity

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While men's brains did light up with some activity when they were given porn to watch, when women were sexually aroused, more areas in the brain lit up. These areas include the anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (which deals with emotions), the right cerebellum (which is responsible for motor control), the insula (which helps facilitate self-awareness), the frontal operculum (which deals with speech and language), and the paracingulate gyrus (which regulates emotions). According to researchers, what happened in the women's brains was a lot more extensive than what happens in a man's brain.


Women May Get More Turned On By Visual Stimuli Than Physical Sensation

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

Researchers also discovered a stronger genital response in women when presented with sexual stimuli than men. In fact, as The Independent reports, researchers wrote in the study, "there were no brain regions in men with stronger brain-genital correlations than in women." This led researchers to conclude that for the female participants, visual stimuli was more important than physical sensations, and it played a a stronger role in arousal than it did in male arousal.

This isn't the first study to reach the conclusion that women get more turned on by visual stimuli more than men do. In a 2014 study published in the journal Psychophysiology, Nicole Prause, Ph.D., founder of sexual biotechnology company Liberos, found a positive relationship between self-reported mental sexual arousal and brain activity was higher in women. According to Prause, this new study, like most, is a "mixed bag."

But What Does Genital Temperature Really Tell Us?

Prause's biggest issue with the study is the fact that genital temperature is not an equalizer of men and women, which the study used to form their conclusions on arousal. "I do not agree that this was comparable across gender, and it could lead to apparent 'brain' differences that are just due to different levels of sexual arousal," Prause tells Bustle. "If they had participants reach orgasm, they could have argued that they had the full range of temperature possible, which they didn't do. This study tried to add a control with genital temperature, but needed to have their subjects reach orgasm to make the argument that these are actual differences in 'gender' and not just sex drive/arousal."

When it comes to sex studies in general, there are a lot of limitations — and it's important to remember this was a small study, too. As Prause says some studies have shown differences in brain response by gender were just due to differences in sex drive levels than anything else. So while this new study and her's do find a big difference between how men and women's brains work during sex, there's still a lot more to be discovered.