Orgasms activate a powerful type of unconscious learning

The experience of an orgasm can act as a Pavlovian reward that influences our future behavior, according to a review article published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology.

The review examined the current research about brain changes during orgasm. It concluded that basic neural pathways involved in the experience of an orgasm could influence men and women’s preferences regarding romantic partners.

PsyPost interviewed Genaro Alfonso Coria Avila of Universidad Veracruzana about his research. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Social preferences are extremely interesting and it is important to understand why we prefer what we prefer, is it innate? Is it learned? Both?

When we become adults we choose a partner, we display courtship behaviors, and if that partner chooses us in return we may have sex. Then two things can happen, either we leave and never come back, or we stay and form a couple, either short- or long-lasting, perhaps based on a rational decision, but most likely based on an unconscious powerful emotion.

What should the average person take away from your study?

“Casual sex” is unlikely to be casual unless you don’t see that person ever again. Every sexual encounter automatically triggers brain mechanisms of high attention, expectation and a powerful type of unconscious learning referred to as Pavlovian.

Therefore, repetitive sex outside of a romantic relationship without commitment and without emotional attachment is likely to trigger those brain mechanisms unconsciously. That means people may not realize when and how they became emotionally attached to partner they had sex with. Humans and animals use this type of learning to shape partner preferences and pair bonds in an assortative manner.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There are many questions that need to be addressed. For instance, why don’t all the romantic sexual encounters in humans result in pair bonds? Or how many sexual encounters are required for a strong pair bond to develop and/or be maintained?

Studies on laboratory animals indicate that certain areas in the brain of monogamous rodents are better equipped with receptors for some chemicals such as oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine, as compared to promiscuous rodents that express less of those receptors in the same brain areas. Therefore, post-orgasmic Pavlovian learning towards the partner occurs easily in monogamous rodents, but not that easily in promiscuous ones who may require many more rewarding sexual encounters to develop a partner preference or a pair bond.

The thing is, we don’t know what type we are (monogamous or promiscuous) or how likely we are to get attached to someone (post-orgasmic learning) until we try. Maybe we can use this knowledge to make our lives more harmonious or get in less trouble.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Love functions as a signal that help us take automatic decisions (feelings) regarding how much time we want to spend with someone, how much care we take of them, how defensive we become in the presence of others, and how much we are willing to risk to be together. Those feelings can develop slowly by spending time with someone, perhaps we learn to love someone at work after several months of seeing each other. However, those feelings can develop very rapidly as a result of sex, especially after orgasm.

An orgasm is a powerful catalyst that results in enhanced brain dynamics and learning. It would be too naive for a committed person to get involved in repetitive extra-pair sex and believe that nothing is going to happen. Pavlovian learning occurs unconsciously and automatically. Indeed, sooner or later, repetitive casual sex may change into emotional sex. Accordingly, the lover becomes the beloved one, and the story starts again.

In addition to Coria-Avila, the study “The role of orgasm in the development and shaping of partner preferences” was co-authored by Deissy Herrera-Covarrubias, Nafissa Ismail, and James G. Pfaus.