Skin tight leather-clad outfits, whips, and chains are all part of what is considered to be the subtle yet pervasive bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism (BDSM) culture. The act of sexually enjoying giving and receiving pain — sadomasochism (S&M) — once thought to be a pathological practice is now viewed as some type of meditation. According to a recent study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas, the practice of S&M alters blood flow in the brain, which leads to an altered state of consciousness similar to a “runner's high” or yoga.

Currently, consensual sexual behaviors like BDSM, are listed as a paraphilia, or unusual sexual fixation, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, kinky sex is only considered to be a paraphilic disorder if it deliberately causes harm to the person committing the act or others. “A paraphilia is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for having a paraphilic disorder, and a paraphilia by itself does not necessarily justify or require clinical intervention,” according to the DSM-5. The shift of being viewed as a mental illness, to an unusual sexual interest, has promoted researchers to delve into what exactly makes partners engage in these painful sexual behaviors.

The practice of S&M and other erotic practices may actually reap benefits for partners that are that similar to meditation. James Amber, graduate student in psychology at Northern Illinois University, conducted a small study to evaluate how S&M can lead to feelings of peacefulness and living “in the here and now” that mimic those felt during a meditative experience. Fourteen participants, both male and female, were recruited for the study to test whether pain from sexual experiences may cause blood flow to alter the region of the brain responsible for control and working memory.

The researchers first randomly assigned the participants to either “receiving pain” or “giving pain” by the roll of a dice. In addition, they had to complete a cognitive test called the Strook task, which matches words and colors, and questionnaires before and after the sexual tests to examine their brain function.

The findings revealed the “receiving pain” participants performed badly in the brain region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, said Amber, the Daily Mail reported. This area of the brain is associated with directed attention, temporal integration, and working memory. When there is a deficit in a person’s working memory, they have less abstract thinking, access to memory, self-reflective conscious, and cognitive function, which leads to an altered state of consciousness. In S&M, this altered state transcends to one of focus and enjoyment.

This feeling is compared to that of a runner’s high due to endorphins — endogenous opioid neurotransmitters that bind to the same receptors bound to drugs like heroin and morphine — in the central nervous system, and modulate pain perception. The changes in the central opioid receptor are mainly seen in the prefrontal and limbic/paralimbic pain regions. In other words, this area activated with a runner’s high is also activated during S&M. The researchers of the study say the tranquility felt is due to a high that is caused by the lack of blood flow to the area. Moreover, the participants reported to be less anxious compared to others.

In a similar study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found people who practice BDSM are psychologically healthier than those who are not, scoring higher on certain indicators of mental health. Those that practiced kinky sex were less neurotic, more secure in their relationships, and had better overall well-being. The researchers concluded: “BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes.”

The S&M push-and-pull effect may help treat anxiety and even allow partners to reach nirvana without pulling out the yoga mat.

 

Source: Van Assen ALM M, Wismeijer AJ A. Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2013.