|A great book about consciousness|
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.
• 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 that 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 heartbeat.
• 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 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 heartbeat 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 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 them 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 to the release of euphoric neurotransmitters during the scene. However, sub-drop may have more complex causes, because on a closer examination it seem to be different states that vary from person to person. Some people never experience it, while 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.
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. Hence, 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 and that had been released by the scene. Maybe we have encountered a part of ourselves that we didn’t know before. 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.