As a psychologist, I see people in my practice all the time who complain that the thrill of sex dies down after awhile. It gets, well, routine. Same-old, same-old. Going through the motions. Sometimes, they get around to asking what they can do to spice things up.
“Yes, there is,” I say.
Their eyes get a little wider, their hearts jump a bit.
They’re not always thrilled when I tell them they need to change their brain structure. And sometimes even less thrilled when I tell them one of the best ways to change their brain for better sex, is mindfulness meditation.
A key factor in having better sex is actually being there when you’re having it. Being there not just physically — being fully present, in thought, word and deed. (Not exactly what the Boy Scouts had in mind with that catchphrase.) It isn’t about adding props or toys or costumes — it’s about really showing up and tuning in, to the moment, yourself and your partner.
To do this it’s essential to have a better flow of information between what your body is sensing, on up to the lower parts of the brain where those sensations are sorted out a bit, and then further up into the higher parts of your brain, where it registers in your awareness, and understood as an emotion. If you could improve that flow of information, you could be:
- less defensive, and better able to hear and respond to what’s actually going on in the moment instead of reacting out of old habits
- more receptive to genuine connection (emotional and physical), and better able to foster it
- more physically present, which makes for a better physical connection, leading to a better sexual connection
- more emotionally present, which makes for a better emotional connection, leading (again) to a better sexual connection.1
So what you want is for that flow of information between you body, brain, and mind to become like the mighty Mississippi.
Take a look at the following list of some of the things going on between your body, brain, and mind when it comes to sex:
Let’s say that your mind isn’t tuned in to your body, to your partner, and to the moment. Just to pick a few common examples, maybe you’re worried about your performance, or whether your body looks good enough, or if this relationship is working, if the sex is going downhill.
Or let’s just say that you pick up on the fact that your partner seems to be kinda checked out — going through the motions. The fight-flight-fear button in your limbic brain (that lower, deep-in-the-brain area that’s largely responsible for the fight-flight-freeze response) gets busy sounding the alarms.
And guess what? When those alarms sound, your body gets the message to constrict blood vessels, reducing blood flow everywhere except for the body parts you need to fight or run. As you might guess, your genitals are not part of that package. Erections, vaginal engorgement… bye-bye.
If, on the other hand, you’ve got it going on when it comes to being here, now — you’re aware of your body, present and accounted for in your mind, and attuned to your partner. That means that the activity in another part of your brain, the anterior insula, is increased.
The Anterior What?
Your insula, a radically underappreciated part of the brain, has been called by Daniel Siegel, MD the “the information superhighway” that runs up and down between higher, cortical brain areas; lower, limbic areas; and the body. Experiments in which brain images are taken while the brain is emotionally “in action” have shown that the insula has an important role in the perception of bodily experiences, but also in the experience of a number of emotions.
How does the insula seem to help thee? Let me count the ways:
- Having a bigger, juicier, busier insula can help you be better able to experience all of the fantastic bodily sensations and changes that are part of the real deal in sex, in ways that can seem magnified compared to the way you’ve been feeling them if you’ve been underutilizing your insula.
- When your insula is more active, you’re better at expressing your feelings through your body, as well as perceiving the emotions of your partner through his or her body.
- If your mind and your body are both paying attention to what’s going on here and now (something for which the insula is key), you’re also better able to be attuned to your partner’s state of mind, making you a better lover.
- Note also that if your partner perceives that you’re better attuned, he or she will be more attuned and present, as well, adding to the fabulousness.
- And, last but not least, there is a study out of Dartmouth that found a correlation between activation of the insula and the quality of orgasm in women.
Okay, then! The insula seems like an excellent place to focus on trying to get things to go better in regulating your body’s power (or abuse thereof) in driving your feelings and reactions during sex.
How do you re-wire your insula for good sex?
I’m glad you asked.
Mindfulness Meditation and the Insula
As regular readers of my blog know, the more we experience or practice something, the more our brain commits resources to creating new neural connections and even new neurons in response to that experience.
Now, consider this: In 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues at Harvard looked at the brains of mindfulness meditators and compared them to the brains of people who did not meditate. The biggest difference between the groups was that brains of the meditators had anterior insula which were significantly thicker than in those who did not meditate.
Another study done in 2007 used different brain-measurement techniques to look at the brains of experienced mindfulness meditation practitioners, comparing them to non-meditators. That study also found that the meditators’ brains had thicker anterior insula.
The brains of the meditators, through their repeated practice, had developed richer, thicker pathways and connections in their insula.
The insula was then in a better connected, plumper position to be able to send the information to the higher-level brain – a much less “knee-jerk” way of figuring out what your response should be than just letting your limbic brain run the show. Then, the better-considered decision of how to respond to the outer world can flow back down, the limbic brain gets soothed, the stress chemicals stop flowing, and all of your resources are more available for connecting and enjoying (instead of fighting or fleeing).
So, bigger is better when it comes to sex – a bigger insula, that is.
Makes you kinda wanna… y’know, meditate.
1Of course, if you have significant issues that have led you to feel unsafe with your partner, those need to be dealt with before you’re going to be able to convince your amygdala to stop pressing the alarm button. Similarly, if you have a history which leaves you feeling unsafe in sexual situations, you may want to seek professional help before you’ll feel safe enough to have greater emotional connection with a sexual partner.