Ask a Neuroscientist: Altered States of Consciousness in BDSM

by Hermes Solenzol

One of the most fascinating aspects of BDSM is its ability to induce altered states of consciousness. Unfortunately it has also generated a series of pseudoscience myths and dubious techniques to induce endorphin release and attain that coveted sub-space.

In this article I want to use my experience as both a BDSM practitioner and a scientist doing research on pain neurophysiology to shed some light on all this confusion. I must start with a warning: there is practically no scientific research on the neurochemical phenomena that occur in sadomasochistic scenes. Moreover, there are reasons to think that these phenomena are quite different from ordinary pain responses, so much of what I am about to say here is speculative.

However, although at the moment we are not ready to talk about what happens in the brain during a scene, we still can use scientific evidence to debunk some of the existing myths and set the foundation for some serious research.

WHAT ARE ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS?

Consciousness is the fact of being aware of everything that happens, both in the outside world and inside our mind. Our consciousness flows like a river of experiences that forms the story of our lives. From our subjective point of view, our consciousness is everything. Of course, objectively there is an external reality unaffected by what we make of it.

What I’m pointing at is that our state of consciousness shapes and colours the events of our everyday lives. The reality that we perceive is altered by the filter of our consciousness: it disappears when we sleep and takes an exceptional intensity in situations of danger in which our brain becomes more alert to our surroundings.

The quality of our consciousness determines to a great extent our capacity to be happy. This is because our consciousness is shaped by our emotional state, which is able to make our world look like hell or heavens. Since the dawn of our species, we humans have tried to alter our consciousness by consuming certain drugs or by undergoing certain extreme experiences. BDSM is an example of the second. Of course, not every BDSM activity is going to produce an altered state of consciousness, but those which do will likely leave us with an unforgettable memory.

Here I want to propose a classification of altered states of consciousness that can be reached in a BDSM scene. This classification is based on my own experience, on discussions with other people that practice BDSM and on my knowledge of neuroscience.

BDSM AND ALTERED STATES

Endorphin release

Endorphins are a family of almost 40 different neuropeptides that are able to activate the same receptors as morphine and other opiates. There are four opioid receptors, three named with the Greek letters mu, delta and kappa, which decrease pain, and the fourth called the nociceptin / orphanin receptor, which actually increases pain.

Apart from their analgesic effect (pain inhibition), mu and delta receptors induce a sensation of well-being or euphoria. In contrast, kappa receptors produce a state of emotional distress called dysphoria.

Endorphins are released into the bloodstream from the pituitary gland, but this does not produce analgesia or an altered state of consciousness because endorphins in the blood cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to have an effect on the brain. The only endorphins that can induce an altered state of consciousness are those that are released by neurons inside the brain.

In addition, it should be noted that endorphins are independently released in different brain areas, so we cannot speak of a generalized state of “endorphin release” but of multiple states, depending on where they are released.

In any case, we can safely say that endorphin release during a BDSM scene decreases pain and induces a feeling of calm, relaxation and even sleepiness. The submissive turns his or her attention inward, disconnecting with the surrounding environment and entering a fantasy world.

Endorphin release can be triggered by gradually increasing pain intensity in an environment of emotional support in which the submissive can absorb the sensations without having to give a response. Endorphin release can be monitored as a decrease in heart-beat.

Nor-adrenaline release

Nor-adrenaline or nor-epinephrine is a neurotransmitter that, like the endorphins, is released by pain-controlling neural pathways and produces analgesia. I suspect that many states of decreased pain sensitivity in sadomasochist scenes that are attributed to endorphins are, in fact, generated by nor-adrenaline.

As in the case of the endorphins, we shouldn’t confuse the release of adrenaline in the blood with the release of nor-adrenaline by some specific neuronal pathways in the brain, although both things often happen at the same time.

Nor-adrenaline is released when pain is coupled to fear in a situation that demands a response from the submissive. There are inhibitory connections between endorphin and nor-adrenaline pain-controlling pathways, which ensure that endorphin and nor-adrenaline release do not happen simultaneously.

Although both states produce analgesia, in other things they are very dissimilar. Nor-adrenaline release produces a state of increased awareness to external stimuli, which appear more intense. The submissive cries, moves, reacts. Her heart-beat increases. Nevertheless, this state can be as euphoric and pleasant as that produced by endorphin release.

Sub-space

The term “sub-space” is often used indistinctively to refer to any of the altered states of consciousness described above. However, I would like to propose that ‘sub-space’ should be used only to refer to Dominance/submission scenes and not to sadomasochistic scenes (that is, to states generated by pain).

I would define sub-space as a mental state in which the attention of the submissive is completely focused on the Dominant and the feelings of surrender and obedience that She or He evokes.

From the point of view of neuroscience, it seems likely that sub-space is related to the release of oxytocin, a “social hormone” that induces trust and bonding. It may also involve dopamine release in the so-called “pleasure pathway” linking the ventral tegmental area of the striatum with the nucleus accumbens. The accumbens is the site of action of most drugs that produce addiction, like the opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter of complex actions due to its multiplicity of receptors, could also be related to this state of calm surrender.

In contrast to endorphin and nor-adrenaline release, sub-space is much more than a simple reflex response. Instead, it seems to be an emotional state in which one enters largely at will, and that is subject to many variants and levels.

Achieving a deep sub-space may require a period of training, building of trust and bonding between the submissive and the Dominant.

Top-space

Top-space or Dom-space is not mentioned as often as sub-space, but there is little doubt that it exists and is as important for the Top as sub-space is for the submissive.

One of the things that make a good Top is to be able to read the physical reactions of the bottom and deduce from that his or her mental state. Both the Top in a sadomasochist scene and the Dominant in a D/s relationship have to focus all their attention on the person they are playing with, feeling empathy and establishing a tight bond with the bottom.

Therefore, Top-space probably shares many physiological features with sub-space. Perhaps in it oxytocin release is accompanied by the release of vasopressin, another social hormone that induces feelings of possession and territoriality in males. In sadomasochist scenes in which the Top inflicts a lot of pain to the bottom, a substantial release of nor-adrenaline may occur in the Top because of empathy, which probably strengthens His or Her focus and control on the scene.

Sub-drop

Many submissives and bottoms complain of entering a period of low energy, apathy and dysphoria after an intense BDSM scene. This may be due to a withdrawal effect from the release of euphoric neurotransmitters during the scene.

However, sub-drop may have more complex causes, because on a closer examination it seems to be different states that vary from person to person. Some people never experience it, while it is quite strong in others.

Also, there seem to be at least two types of sub-drop, one that happens immediately after the scene and that can be addressed with aftercare, and another that happens two or three days after the scene and can last several days.

It is important, I think, that we do not accept sub-drop as something normal and unavoidable. Perhaps the scene has stirred some deeply buried emotions from the past that the submissive should examine. Using the information that I gave above, the submissive should consider whether the scene has involved endorphin release, nor-adrenaline release or sub-space, and how sub-drop relates to each of this mental states. Perhaps this way we can start building up information on how sub-drop relates to the different altered states of consciousness.

LEARNING AND GROWING THROUGH THE ALTERED STATES OF BDSM

We should not treat the altered states of consciousness that we reach in a BDSM scene in a frivolous fashion, like BDSM was just one more drug. After all, if all we want is to get high perhaps we should just take drugs, instead of going through the painstaking process of doing a scene.

I think that altered states of consciousness in BDSM are valuable because of their context, that of a profound personal relationship between the people involved in the scene.

It is not so much a question of whether we release this or that neurotransmitter, but of the meaning that the scene has brought to our lives… maybe a catharsis, maybe the surfacing of psychological issues buried in our minds for a long time that were released by the scene. Maybe we have encountered a part of ourselves that we didn’t know before.

This kind of mindfulness can help more and more people understand BDSM as a process of self-discovery and personal transformation that enriches our lives and contributes to make us happier and self-fulfilled.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

HermesSolenzolBased in Los Angeles, California, Hermes Solenzol is a neuroscientist, and has been doing research on pain for several decades. In particular, he has been investigating endorphin release in rats. He has been a sadist for as long as he can remember and active in the scene for several decades.

Much of his writing is published in Spanish at Sexo, ciencia y espíritu, but there’s a great collection of articles on his English site, Sex, science and spirit. Along with a lot of BDSM wisdom, you’ll find thoughts on polyamory, communication, psychology and love.

He’s currently translating his first erotic novel from Spanish to English.

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