SCIENCE has looked into some strange things over the centuries — reports of gargantuan sea monsters, purported images of Jesus, sightings of alien spaceships and so on. When I first heard of spontaneous orgasm, while researching a book on yoga, including its libidinal cousin, tantra, I figured it was more allegory than reality and in any event would prove beyond the reach of even the boldest investigators.
Well, I was wrong. It turns out science has tiptoed around the subject for more than a century and of late has made considerable progress in determining not only the neurophysiological basis of the phenomenon but also its prevalence. Men are mentioned occasionally. But sex researchers have found that the novel type of autoerotism shows up mainly in women.
Ground zero for the research is Rutgers University, where scientists have repeatedly had female volunteers put their heads into giant machines and focus their attention on erotic fantasies — the scans reveal that the pleasure centers of their brains light up in ways indistinguishable from everyday orgasms. The lab atmosphere is no-nonsense, with plenty of lights and white coats and computer monitors.
Subjects often thrash about so forcefully that obtaining clear images of their brains can be difficult.
“Head movement is a huge issue,” Nan Wise, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers who helps run the project, said in an interview. “It’s hard to get a decent signal.”
She said a volunteer’s moving her head more than two millimeters — less than a 10th of an inch — can make for a bad day in the lab.
It is easy to dismiss this as a new kind of narcissism in search of scientific respectability, a kinky pleasure coming out of the shadows. Many YouTube videos now purport to show people using controlled breathing and erotic introspection to achieve what they describe as “thinking off” and “energy orgasms.”
But the research is also illuminating a plausible neurological basis for the long intermingling of sexuality and mysticism and, in particular, the teachings of tantra, which arose in medieval India as a path to spiritual ecstasy. Perhaps most important, it illustrates how little we really know of human physiology. Scientists have long debated the purpose of the female orgasm, which plays no direct role in procreation. The emerging reality of spontaneous orgasm seems to do nothing but deepen the mystery.
The investigations began more than a century ago as physicians described what some called psychic coitus.
On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at the Metropolitan Dispensary and Hospital for Women and Children, the chief physician, T. J. McGillicuddy, issued a warning in “Functional Disorders of the Nervous System in Women,” published in 1896. He said “involuntary orgasms” from erotic thoughts could lower a woman’s vital energies and “cause melancholia and mental weakness.”
As a cure, he recommended hard mattresses and cold sponge baths.
The stigma associated with spontaneous orgasm fell away as sex investigators began to see autoerotism as a normal part of human experience.
Havelock Ellis, the pioneering British physician, described the contemplative state in his landmark six-volume study of sexual behavior, published between 1897 and 1910. He said that concentrating on sexual images, among other stimuli, could lead to “spontaneous orgasm in either sex, even in perfectly normal persons.”
Surveys revealed that the phenomenon, while rare, nonetheless seemed to occur with some regularity. In 1948, Alfred C. Kinsey of Indiana University and his colleagues published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” That groundbreaking study looked at thousands of cases but noted only two in which men “could reach climax by deliberate concentration of thought on erotic situations.”
But the team’s follow-up report on women, published in 1953, surveyed 2,727 women, and the researchers found that 2 percent of the interviewees — 54 women — reported an ability to reach orgasm by “fantasy alone.”
The finding was significant in that it challenged a common stereotype — that men achieve orgasm more readily than women. Now science was suggesting that, at least for some women, all it took was a vivid imagination.
William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson achieved fame for their rigorous study of all kinds of sexual practices, as dramatized in the new Showtime series “Masters of Sex.” But the scientists, in their 1966 book, “Human Sexual Response,” noted rather wistfully that they could find no subjects “who could fantasy to orgasm.”
Still, the pace of the science intensified as women got involved. In the late 1970s, Gina Ogden was working on her doctorate at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco when a woman demonstrated the orgasmic state for a small group of sexologists-in-training. Fascinated, she took up the topic for her doctoral research and dissertation.
In 1980 she mentioned her research while giving a talk at a conference on women’s issues and was astonished when half the audience came up afterward to volunteer. “There was a stampede,” Dr. Ogden recalled. Of the 50 women she interviewed, 32 — or 64 percent — reported that they could reach orgasm by imagination alone.
Dr. Ogden later teamed up with Barry R. Komisaruk, a biologist on the Newark campus of Rutgers, who specializes in orgasm research. They studied 10 women who, despite the laboratory setting, reached sexual climax not only by stimulating themselves manually but also by indulging in erotic imagery.
The scientists found that both states resulted in significant rises in blood pressure, heart rate and tolerance for pain — a signature of orgasm. The findings, the team wrote in a 1992 paper, called for “a reassessment of the nature of orgasm.”
The idea began to go public. A 1996 book, “Sexational Secrets,” described a workshop on spontaneous orgasm and featured a how-to guide.
At Rutgers, Dr. Komisaruk expanded his research to brain scans. In 2003, the first images confirmed the earlier study. Pleasure centers lit up more or less identically whether the women reached sexual highs by hand stimulation or by erotic thoughts.
Dr. Komisaruk had difficulty finding enough volunteers for a thorough study until he met Ms. Wise, the Rutgers doctoral student. A sex therapist, she turned out to have the right contacts as well as her own autoerotic skills. “It’s the least sexy thing in the world,” she said of having her brain scanned. “But I do it for science.” By early 2010, Ms. Wise and Dr. Komisaruk had succeeded in scanning a dozen volunteers.
Late that year, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest group for brain research, the Rutgers team presented a surprise finding that suggested that the scientists were zeroing in on the phenomenon’s origins.
Women who simply thought about the stimulation of their breasts and genitals, the scans revealed, lit up the brain’s corresponding sensory areas.
“That’s not the traditional view of the sensory cortex,” Ms. Wise said recently, alluding to how sense organs are usually seen as responsible for the cortical responses.
Dr. Ogden, from her home in Cambridge, Mass., praised the research as likely to expand the accepted definition of female sexuality.
“Sex research for a long time shortchanged women by asking the wrong questions, or asking very limited questions,” she said. “If we just notice what’s around — notice what people are doing and saying and feeling — we can do a better job.”
Original article William J. Broad is a science reporter for The New York Times and the author of “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.”