Dr. Stephen Petteruti explains the brain science behind the emotional downside of the male refractory period.
What is it that turns desire into ambivalence, an erotic touch into discomfort, the thrill of pursuit into the desire for escape? Sometimes referred to as “post orgasm regret”, the technical term for it is the “refractory period” and it occurs to every man immediately after intercourse.
Why does it occur, what’s happening in your brain, and why do such feelings exist?
Think of your brain as being split into two basic parts; the frontal lobe and the primitive brain (also known as the limbic system). The frontal lobe is where philosophy, religion, ethics and all the higher orders of human living exist. Poetry, engineering, even activities such as writing this article flow from this highly developed center of intellect. While such lofty pursuits are essential to develop the higher order of human living that we have come to appreciate, it does little to propagate the species. At some point, we have to put down the pen, and let desire flourish.
Enter the primitive brain.
The primitive brain takes care of all of our basic needs. The hunt for food. The energy needed to defend ourselves, and perhaps most importantly, the desire for sex.
As passion builds, the primitive brain is capable of putting a chokehold on the frontal lobe, eliminating reason and concern over consequence from your mind. The primitive brain doesn’t want any contemplative thoughts to get between it and its desired goal. Pain fibers become blunted. Inhibitions become suspended. Our desire cycles upward and drives us into the pursuit of satisfaction.
At its peak, we can easily confuse momentary desire with a durable intent. (All those chapels in Las Vegas are a monument to this phenomenon).
A mixture of hormones and neurotransmitters combine to facilitate this pre-orgasmic state of being. Dopamine, norepinephrine and ultimately oxytocin – the feel-good hormone all merged together into a potent mix.
An average desire becomes a burning passion, a passing thought becomes an overwhelming objective, men and woman are brought together magnetically, at times almost against their will until the final orgasmic event breaks the spell and all of our hormones quickly change. The primitive brain goes into a cycle of recovery and restoration, thus releasing its chokehold on the frontal lobe.
Now comes that time of thoughtful reflection.
This is technically known as the refractory phase. For a period of time anywhere from half an hour, in some cases up to 24 hours, men are simply incapable of becoming sexually aroused or achieving an erection. While women typically are capable of recovering their sexual interest more quickly, they also experience a change in hormones that alter their perceptions immediately after orgasm.
The pinch that was a turn-on now becomes painful. The touch that got the blood flowing now creates an uncomfortable tickle sensation. That hot lingerie that you couldn’t take your eyes off of now becomes laundry.
Your highly developed frontal lobe surveys the aftermath. In the setting of a committed and loving relationship, the afterglow of satisfaction embraces you. In some cases, the frontal lobe screams, “What have you done!” And a powerful regret may greet you in the morning.
Regardless of the circumstance you find yourself in, remember that you’re only human. Often behavior defines rational explanation. Whether we need self-forgiveness, or self-directed humility, our intellectual nature is prepared to handle either and direct us toward a pathway of better living. That is, until the sleeping primitive brain awakens and takes command of our actions once more. It’s not an accident that there are nine billion of us on the planet, and the population is growing.
Somehow, this strange and unique dualism of brain function has served us well as a species, even if it has accounted for a few fitful Saturday nights.
To your best health,
Dr. Stephen Petteruti
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