This transition was caught on camera when men and women in
the Netherlands were placed in brain scanners and then stimulated
to orgasm. The scans showed that sexual climax was associated with
decreased activation throughout the prefrontal cortex, a dopaminer-
gic part of the brain responsible for placing deliberate restrictions on
behavior. The relaxation of control allowed the activation of H&N cir-
cuits necessary for sexual climax. It didn’t matter whether the person
being tested was a man or a woman. With few exceptions the brain’s
response to orgasm was the same: dopamine off, H&N on.
That’s how it’s supposed to be. But just as some people have dif-
ficulty moving from passionate love to companionate love, it can be
also be difficult for dopamine-driven people to let the H&Ns take over
during sex. That is, highly driven women and men sometimes find it a
significant challenge to turn off their thoughts and just experience the
sensations of intimacy—to think less and feel more.
While H&N neurotransmitters let us experience reality—and reality
during sex is intense—dopamine floats above reality. It is always able to
conjure up something better. To add to its seduction, it puts us in control
of that alternate reality. That these imagined worlds may be impossible
doesn’t matter. Dopamine can always send us chasing phantoms.
Sexual encounters, especially those within ongoing relationships,
fall prey to these dopamine phantoms all the time. A survey of 141
women found that 65 percent of them daydreamed during intercourse
about being with another person or even doing something completely
different. Other studies have put the figure as high as 92 percent. Men
daydream during sex about as much as women, and the more sex both
men and women have, the more likely they are to daydream.
It is ironic that brain circuits that give us the energy and motivation
we need to get ourselves into bed with a desirable partner subsequently
get in the way of our enjoying the fun. Part of it may involve the inten-
sity of the experience. Sex for the first time is more intense than sex
for the hundredth time—especially sex for the hundredth time with
the same partner. But the climax of the experience, orgasm, is almost
always intense enough to move even the most detached dreamer into
the immediate world of H&N.