BDSM

You’ve Got Chemistry: BDSM On The Brain

Spend time around other kinksters long enough, and you’ll eventually hear something about a sensation called “sub space” or “subspace”.

Subspace is most often described as “a space that is wholly contained in another space, or whose points or elements are all in another space” – that is, if you’re applying the technical mathematical definition. It’s not that far off in BDSM, however. Most seasoned submissives will tell you that it’s better than an orgasm.

Its counterpart is not so fun – “sub drop”.

Though not everyone has or will experience subspace, everyone who has experienced it will tell you something different. It has been described as a floaty feeling, as if you’ve just gone through rigorous exercise. Dr. Brad Sagarin, founder of the Science of BDSM research team and a professor of social and evolutionary psychology at Northern Illinois University, has compared it to runner’s high.

Experts ran a study in randomly-assigned switches (BDSM practitioners who sometimes take on the Top role and sometimes take on the bottom role) to be the Top or the bottom in a scene. The results revealed that both bottoms and Tops entered altered states of consciousness, but they entered different altered states. Bottoms entered an altered state called “transient hypofrontality” (Dietrich, 2003), which is associated with reductions in pain, feelings of floating, feelings of peacefulness, feelings of living in the here and now and time distortions (i.e. subspace). Tops, in contrast, entered the altered state known as “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991) which is associated with focused attention, a loss of self-consciousness, and optimal performance (i.e. Topspace). The changes in executive functioning in bottoms were as a result of the brain redirecting blood flow from higher-order functions to lower-order functions. Most players interpret these changes to be evidence of subspace, an altered state of consciousness. Considering all of these fantastic feelings, is it any wonder why people partake?

The limbic system controls your emotions, instincts, learning, drive, and memory. It also has the most access to the strongest forms of arousal – anger, pleasure, and fear.

Your brain is releasing dopamine in response to either pleasure or pain. We know, from different experiments, that protracted physical pain and protracted emotional pain (resulting from social rejection or emotional trauma) can cause the release of endorphins. These endorphins can activate dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area, within your limbic system.

The end result is that there is a tangible connection to both pleasurable and painful experience in those who are particularly receptive to this sort of thing. Some people think that this is also why “sub drop” and “Top drop” happen. It’s a particular period after the scene in which you feel not-so-good, but others associate this with a largely emotional response, which we will examine at another time.

Surveys reveal that only 5 percent to 10 percent of people enjoy receiving pain in a sexual context, as conducted by the Kinsey Institute. This study is a bit archaic, but we still don’t have a lot of research in this field. There are a variety of dopamine-receptor genes that impaired the experience of pleasure and increase risk taking and novelty-seeking behavior.

Dr. Sagarin discovered that cortisol levels increase in subs and decrease in doms over the course of a scene.

“We interpret these cortisol results to mean that when people engage in BDSM play (as the receiver of sensations) or extreme rituals, their bodies release a hormone usually associated with stress. However, we’ve also found that people subjectively report their psychological stress decreasing, so there is a disconnect between what the body is experiencing, and what the individual is perceiving,” Science of BDSM researcher, Kathryn Klement, told the press.

“In the context of humiliation and pet play, classical and operant conditioning play a huge role in how these types of fetishes play out. Classical conditioning, made famous by Pavlov’s dog experiment, involves placing a signal before a reflex,” explains Maitresse Madeline Marlowe, professional performer and director for Kink.com. “Let’s think of it in a scenario where the Domme and sub are enjoying puppy play. The Domme may present a signal of a click of her boot, which will lead to the privilege of puppy licking the boot clean. The click of the boot is a neutral stimulus paired with an unconditioned stimulus of licking the boot clean. It is a learned response.”

Over the long term, participants experienced and shared the excitement that these acts provided for their partners, eventually finding pleasure in the acts as they related to themselves.

This is why these partnerships work for those who do not participate in “vanilla” sexual endeavors. We do not need to find “the one”. Sexual fulfillment does not require a partner whose kinks correspond perfectly to our own. Rather, fulfillment requires a willingness to disclose, a willingness to hear disclosure, and a willingness to provide to our partner what he or she needs to be fulfilled.

Dan Savage, author of the popular sex advice column Savage Love, calls this being GGG: good, giving, and game. (Though Dan Savage is a contested source, this rhetoric is easy to apply to this situation.)

In retrospect, one might even compare all of this and find similarities with how New Mexicans feel about their green chile. I can tell you from my experience in college with Anthropology that culture and biology are astonishing on their own but they are entirely unstoppable in union. I can remember reading about how humans will reject spicy food until they are about 5 years old. Rats, in comparison, would never adjust. Why is it that humans seem to predisposed to these sorts of connections?

We’re only just starting to figure it out, but what we already know is that each experience is potentially important and thereby deserving of attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *