During sexual activity, your brain can elicit various responses depending on the triggering factors. The next time you engage in sexual activity, observe the transformations that occur and try to identify these five discernible stages.
Phase 1 – Getting in the Mood
As soon as a man encounters a stimulating image or experiences a sensual touch, their brain's pleasure center, the amygdala, activates, releasing pleasurable endorphins and triggering a surge of testosterone. This chemical reaction sends signals throughout the body, inducing arousal and a sense of sexual vitality. The heart rate accelerates, and blood flow begins to redirect toward the erogenous zones.
"Sex is a celebration of life. By prioritizing and embracing it, we can better tackle the challenges that come our way in other aspects of our lives." - Dr. Stanley Siegel
For many women, adequate foreplay ranging from ten to forty-five minutes is necessary to prepare for sexual activity. Uttering her name softly in her ear and following it with passionate kisses stimulates the release of dopamine from the nucleus accumbens, flooding her brain with pleasurable neurotransmitters. Gentle caresses on her face, neck, shoulders, arms, and other areas enhance blood circulation, heightening sensitivity throughout her body. The combination of her estrogen and testosterone intensifies their sexual desire.
Phase 2 – Building Excitement
Engaging in intense sexual stimulation can elevate foreplay to a whole new level, especially when you understand its impact on both the mind and body. I like to refer to it as "Love Play," as it fosters a playful atmosphere and serves as a prelude to making love. This phase encompasses activities such as passionate kissing, caressing, embracing, humping, or gentle stroking, all of which involve physical and psychological interactions that heighten sexual excitement.
Whether male sexual excitement arises from physical or mental stimulation, the outcome is the same. Blood flow to the genitals increases, causing the penis to become erect. The release of adrenaline activates the sympathetic nervous system, accelerating heart rate, pulse, and respiration. The ventral tegmental area (VTA) releases dopamine, giving him a sense of empowerment and pleasure.
Female sexual excitement affects the entire body, triggering increased heart rate, pulse, and respiration. Breasts swell and nipples become erect during this stage. The vagina becomes lubricated, facilitating penetration. Similar to a man's erect penis, a woman's clitoris also enlarges, sometimes tripling in size. Specific areas of the brain associated with dopamine and norepinephrine production light up, intensifying feelings of pleasure and excitement.
Phase 3 – Reaching Plateau
Engaging in oral sex can be one of the most intensely erotic, intimate, and gratifying sexual activities, leading to the Plateau phase if you're not yet ready for intercourse. Like any other sexual act, it all begins with mental stimulation, so it's essential to communicate your desires and preferences to your partner, as they cannot read your mind.
During this phase, the head of the penis becomes engorged with blood, causing it to swell. For uncircumcised men, the penis head may emerge from the foreskin. Some men may also experience the release of pre-ejaculatory fluid, commonly known as "pre-come," which can contain semen. To practice safer sex and protect against STDs and pregnancy, it is important to use condoms and take necessary precautions. The release of vasopressin, a hormone similar to oxytocin, enhances the bonding experience with the partner.
As sexual arousal intensifies, a woman's body undergoes various changes, which may explain the reddening of the face and chest known as the "sex flush." Increased blood flow to the genitals causes the inner vaginal lips to take on a deep red hue. The clitoris retracts under the clitoral hood, and the uterus moves upward into the abdomen, creating more space within the vaginal canal for comfortable penetration. The pituitary gland releases beta-endorphins, which studies have shown can reduce physical pain, including headaches.
Phase 4 – Climaxing to Orgasm
Many women report experiencing their most intense orgasms through oral sex, manual stimulation of the clitoris, or using a vibrator while engaging in penetration. Achieving simultaneous orgasms requires synchronization of mind and body with your partner before engaging in intercourse.
Keep in mind that orgasm originates in the brain, so attentively observing your partner's erotic cues can help both of you reach a heightened state of arousal together and possibly experience simultaneous orgasms.
As a man approaches orgasm, his blood pressure rises, and muscle tension reaches its peak. The testicles draw closer to the penis, and the prostate gland fills with fluid. The cerebellum, responsible for muscle control, triggers involuntary contractions. Once the pelvic muscles begin contracting, ejaculation becomes inevitable, and sperm is expelled through the urethral opening. During orgasm, a man's body movements are entirely unconscious, as revealed by brain scans.
In the female orgasmic cycle, involuntary contractions occur in the uterus, anus, leg muscles, face, and hands. Dr. Masters and Virginia Johnson referred to these muscle spasms as "myotonia," activated by the vaginal muscles. Strong contractions within the vagina occur at intervals of 0.8 seconds, breathing accelerates to around forty breaths per minute, and the heart rate can reach up to 180 beats per minute. Within the brain, the release of phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical also found in chocolate, provides a sense of physical and emotional satisfaction.
During a woman's orgasm, brain activity decreases in the amygdala and hippocampus, regions associated with fear and anxiety. This enables relaxation and enjoyment of the orgasmic experience. Typically, a woman's orgasm lasts longer than a man's, with an additional duration of at least 10 seconds. Scientific imaging shows that female orgasm engages 80 different regions of the brain!
During intercourse, the adrenal glands release increased amounts of adrenaline, which enhances the circulatory system with each heartbeat.
Phase 5 – Resolution
After orgasm, the body gradually returns to its pre-arousal state. Muscles relax, the penis becomes flaccid, and the testicles descend to their normal position. Heart rate and breathing slow down, and many men experience a deep sense of relaxation, sometimes leading to a desire to sleep.
Post orgasm, men release a combination of chemicals, including prolactin, a hormone associated with feelings of sexual satisfaction, which often results in a content smile. Additionally, a surge of oxytocin is released, inducing a sense of sleepiness.
For women, the "cooling down" period is determined by how long it takes for the pulse rate to return to normal and the pelvic blood flow to subside. Blood pressure and pulse gradually return to pre-arousal levels. Swelling in the genital area and other regions diminishes. The labia minora regain their normal color, and the clitoris reemerges from under the clitoral hood, returning to its usual size within approximately ten minutes. Muscles relax, and organs and tissues resume their original positions.
Cuddling after sex is important for women as it triggers the release of oxytocin, fostering feelings of intimacy toward their partner. For men, the benefits of cuddling can enhance sexual satisfaction, so if you feel inclined to fall asleep, do so with your arms wrapped around each other.