The Science Behind BDSM
Understanding Is the Key To a Good Scene
by Sir Real
The purpose of this article is to describe in detail how neurochemicals effect BDSM scenes, subspace, aftercare, and subdrop, and then
to relate that information to practical ways to enhance our BDSM experiences. To
that end, this article describes how to use this science to create better BDSM scenes leading to subspace
as well as techniques to handle aftercare.
To be clear,
I am a layman with no medical training. My understanding of how
neurochemicals relate to BDSM is based on my ability to use Google effectively for research as well as having over
a decade of real world scening experience
in BDSM. My experience in BDSM strongly validates what I've learned about the scientific understanding of neurochemicals and their effects on our brain, so I'm simply passing along my findings
and my views of how I believe they relate to BDSM. That said, I'd be very interested in hearing from those of you with medical
and/or scientific training who have a deeper understanding of the subject matter at hand. There is precious little to be found about how these neurochemicals relate to BDSM play, so it is my fervent hope that this article opens up a dialog where we as a community can share our experiences and scientific knowledge with one another.
At the least, it should allow you to scene more effectively.
Why do practitioners of BDSM, most of whom are normal everyday people, like something as outrageous as giving
and/or receiving pain? To understand the attraction of BDSM, it helps to understand what's going on physiologically within the body during a BDSM scene.
First of all, as you're likely to hear over and over from others in the BDSM community, it's not about the pain, it's about the endorphins. But endorphins are just a part of it. There are a complex series of neurochemical interactions going on during a BDSM scene that ultimately come together to produce the pleasurable euphoric
analgesia we experience (aka "flying") as a result of a scene done well. In addition to endorphins,
other neurochemicals such as enkephalins, dopamine, prolactin, cortisol, and oxytocin all play a role in our scenes. They also come into play during aftercare and are
a primary cause of subdrop that often occurs days afterward.
Chemical painkillers known as endorphins and enkephalins are produced naturally by the body. These two groups of compounds comprise the basis for the body's own pain fighting mechanisms. They are very close in structure to morphine, so it's not surprising that they produce the effect that they do. It is because our bodies are designed to be receptive to endorphins and enkephalins that morphine can do what it does.
The endorphins are primarily located within the brain itself. These are polypeptides able to bind to the neuro-receptors in the brain to give relief from pain. Enkephalins are found in the brain as well
as many other areas of the body. This internal pain management system is responsible for the so called runner's high, the temporary loss of pain when severe injury occurs, the ability for women to go through natural child birth, and the analgesic effects that playing in a dungeon offers a bottom during a BDSM scene. It's also believed that it's responsible for the placebo effect and can even be controlled with hypnosis.
Four groups of endorphins, alpha, beta, gamma, and sigma, have so far been identified, but the beta-endorphins seem to be the most important for pain regulation. Enkephalins are pentapeptides, the smallest of the molecules with pain killing or opiate activity. Enkephalins are found in the thalamus of the brain and in parts of the spinal cord that transmit pain impulses. The checks and balances system of endorphins and enkephalins physically consists of chains of amino acids, which make up the chemical messengers known as neuropeptides.
The transmission of pain and/or pleasure feelings exist within the brain due to nerve impulses. These impulses are relayed via neurotransmitter chemicals thus causing the release of neuromodulator chemicals, such as endorphins. These messengers differ from neurotransmitters in the fact that they modulate feelings of pain and pleasure, rather than convey the actual feelings. In order to change the feelings of pleasure and blockage of pain, the endorphins must reduce activity in the thalamus and cerebral cortex. This occurs by the neuromodulators effecting the dopamine pathway by binding to a specific opiate receptor site. Endorphins "shut off" the nerves in the frontal lobe, inhibiting feelings of pain, and allows this area to flood with dopamine, hence the feelings of euphoria. Not surprisingly, a rise in blood levels of endorphins is measurable after exercise and sexual activity.
Dopamine is the neurochemical that activates your reward center. When dopamine floods the brain, either in response to
endorphins, or from climax during sex, the euphoria associated with the dopamine begins to taper off as the dopamine levels drop. As the dopamine drops off, another neurochemical called prolactin rises in an inverse relationship. Prolactin performs many functions, and it also appears to play a prominent role in regulating sex and keeping dopamine in check (we can't be happy forever can we?).
As dopamine drops after orgasm, prolactin immediately rises in both men and women, acting as a sexual satiation mechanism. Research shows that prolactin surges immediately after orgasm in both men and women. In addition, many see a rise in
oxytocin after orgasm (more on that later), but prolactin is a much better indicator for orgasm. Men may experience this prolactin surge as the "roll over and snore" phenomenon. In women, the effects may be delayed for days. Like dopamine, prolactin profoundly affects our moods and behavior. Prolactin appears to be a stress hormone, associated with feelings of depression and alienation. In addition, cortisol levels gradually begins to increase, and this
hormone is also associated with depression. This depression cocktail usually becomes most noticeable over the next few days as what we call subdrop.
What's the Science Behind Lust, Attraction, and Love?
You guessed it --neurochemicals! Lust is primarily driven by the sex hormones
testosterone and oestrogen. Lustful attraction is heavily influenced by pheromones
(sexually stimulating smells) we
send to one another, and is driven by a group of neuro-transmitters
called monoamines that includes dopamine (no surprise here), norepinephrine (aka adrenalin), and
serotonin. Norepinephrine and serotonin excite us, while dopamine
makes us feel happy. These neurochemicals are controlled by a substance
which is also found in chocolate and in strawberries, called PEA or
phenylethylamine. It is PEA which controls the transition from
attraction to love and attachment.
This brings us to the neurochemical, oxytocin, aka the "love hormone". This is an interesting neurochemical with many functions. One of the most significant is its ability to bond us with each other when it is released in the limbic system. Oxytocin is behind deep love, parent/child bonds, friendships, even love we feel for our pets. In fact, we could not fall in love without it. Oxytocin is not about lust though. It is behind the selfless desire to nurture and be close to others. Oxytocin is responsible for our feelings of intimacy, caring, comfort, and emotional attachment. It is an anti-stress hormone that comforts and has a calming effect. It's also been linked to
monogamous relationships. Interestingly, it counters the effect of prolactin and cortisol, and best of all, there's no drop in effectiveness as we promote it.
So how do we promote this love drug called oxytocin? Well neurochemicals and behavior tend to be circular. That is, a change in behavior induces changes in neurochemistry, and vice versa. Close, trusted companionship promotes the production of oxytocin. The more oxytocin we produce, the more receptive we are to it, and the more "loved" we feel. Oxytocin receptors do not down-regulate as dopamine receptors do. This means we do not need an ever-increasing level to get the same feeling of being in love. We can cause the brain to release oxytocin through caring touch, especially stroking, and selfless giving or nurturing each other, as a parent would a child. This isn't about sex, but sex can be included in the process, and oxytocin can be released during sex, assuming you have a relationship that allows for those feelings to be present. One night stands with strangers are an example of where oxytocin is not likely to occur during sex. This is because oxytocin is more about intimacy than the lust of sex. This is why sex with someone you care about is so much better. The more you give, the more you
receive in return, and the better you both feel as your oxytocin levels rise in unison.
From the Top's perspective, I'm often asked what I get out of doing a scene. Well a big piece of this for me is the oxytocin mixed with
adrenalin and of course, the dopamine hits. I may not be as fuzzy brained
as the bottom, but I'm definitely riding on my own high. That said, a scene with someone I'm
in love with is much better than a scene with someone I barely know. The dopamine
hit associated with a "new conquest" is there of course, but the oxytocin effect
is minimal. This is why many in the BDSM community rarely play with someone
they don't feel a connection with.
Using Neurochemicals In Your Scene
In the context of neurochemicals, your scenes can become much more powerful.
It's obvious now why the gentle caress of the Top's hand alternating with the pain of whatever is being used can be so powerful. Not only is there a cognitive dissonance of the pleasure and pain, but there is also the building of oxytocin within
both the Top and the bottom from the touching. If genital stimulation leading to orgasm
is a part of the scene, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin are all released as well. In addition, the orgasms are very powerful since there is a giving up of control in the process. As
the Top and bottom climb together in the scene, the release of the oxytocin brings
them closer together, and at the end, the intense emotions they feel for one another create a very strong bond.
In my experience, if you want to have your bottom enjoy the "flying effect" (as opposed to the simple sadistic pleasure of making the bottom scream in pain), you have to understand and work with the bottom's system of neurochemicals.
It doesn't take much to get an initial endorphin flush to pain. Typically, I
like to start off with some gradually escalating nipple stimulation at the start of a scene. Simply
pinching the nipples for 30-60 seconds with increasing pressure is enough to get that first endorphin hit. As I'm doing this, I'm reassuring her with a backward countdown
from 20. This lets her know that this is a temporary condition that's about to stop. When done,
I praise her for being a good girl and let her know how much she's pleased me by taking the nipple torture gracefully.
At that point, with soothing rhythmic music playing in the background, I may start with some light flogging. Because it takes five to ten minutes for the bottom's endorphin pump to recharge itself, my goal for now is to allow the bottom to relax into the scene. Massage, light flogging, light touching, the sound of my voice reassuring and praising her -- coaxing her into relaxing, into listening to the music, into accepting and not fighting the sensations that she's experiencing. During all of this, I'm building her oxytocin levels as she settles into her first light endorphin hit.
After five or ten minutes, her endorphin pump is ready again, and it's time to take her to the next level. This is done by administering hard direct pain. At stage two, I find that a hard hand spanking for about a minute is enough to release the second
endorphin hit. When I'm done, I return to giving her gentle touching, reassurances, and praise
to soothe her back into a relaxed state of mind. Again, I spend another five to ten minutes with flogging mixed with hand spanking, and maybe some light paddling. I am always watching her body language to sense when she's feeling that I'm being too intense. If her shoulders tense
up or she pulls away from me, I go immediately into "touching mode" with massage and gentle reassurances. My goal is for her to completely relax
and to accept rather than pull away from whatever I'm doing. The rhythmic percussion of the toys in time to the soothing music mixed with the endorphins and my voice create a deep relaxation
in the bottom similar to what you might experience in hypnosis.
Once the relaxation period is over, I once again administer hard direct pain for a moment so that she may get her third endorphin hit. At this point, she's starting to get a good buzz going on, and you'll notice that she's a lot more tolerant to pain. The
level of paddling
that she may have pulled away from earlier now gets little reaction. From time to time, I reinforce her good behavior with
rewards of genital touching that induce orgasms (under my control of course). Pain, pleasure, my voice, hypnotic relaxation, loving touch,
and orgasmic bliss -- she's on her way to outer space, and I'm the mission commander for her flight.
This process is repeated over and over as the she goes through each stage and
deeper into subspace. As you play, you'll want to escalate your levels of intensity of play
since she's feeling less and less of what you're doing. Light flogging becomes hard flogging. Likewise with spanking, paddling, and caning.
This allows you to open up your more sadistic side with her not only able to
take it, but to take it and fly.
How far you take her is up is for the two of you to decide. My experience
is that if you take her past level three, she's probably not going to be much good
for sex afterwards (nice to know if you have plans). Of course this is
different for everyone, so if you have someone that takes more or less,
that's not unusual. As always, you have to tailor your expectations to the individual. Keep an eye on circulation issues in extremities if you're using cuffs or ropes to bind the bottom because
as she goes deeper into subspace, she's unlikely to know or tell you about
problems she may be having. Once you get to level five or so, she's usually going to be
pretty incoherent and may be incapable of calling out a safeword or telling you if there's
a problem. My general rule is that when she can't respond to, "How are you doing?", it's time to stop the scene and
to take her into aftercare.
Neurochemicals and Aftercare
Aftercare at the end of a scene typically includes holding, stroking, and nurturing behavior, so it's not surprising that we're continuing to promote the release of oxytocin in the bottom as we hold them. At this point, they have the endorphins and enkephalins acting as powerful analgesics, the dopamine giving them a euphoric high, and the oxytocin making them feel loved and cared for. Is it any wonder that bottoms can fly when all of this is going on
inside their brains?
And as we hold them in our arms, caring, nurturing, loving, do we as Tops not feel a true sense of connection
with our bottoms? Gives me chills just thinking about it.
In the course of aftercare, it's good to recognize that as the bottom comes down from their
endorphin induced analgesia, they may feel chilled and start shivering, even in a hot room. If you've ever had general anesthesia for an operation, you may remember having a similar chilled feeling as you woke up. For this reason, it's good to have a blanket available for aftercare. It's
especially nice for the
bottom when you wrap a blanket around them since they feel enveloped in your
care for them. In addition, a drink with a straw (they won't be holding their own cup for a while) is recommended since this experience tends to dry their mouths out. In fact, stopping the scene periodically to check on the bottom and to give them a sip
of water is a good practice. Since during a scene, I like to give
g-spot orgasms as rewards (these very powerful orgasms usually result in
a good release of endorphins as well as female ejaculation), this can also lead to dehydration.
Dealing with Subdrop
As an aspect of aftercare, we should also note that a phenomenon known as
subdrop often occurs after a good scene. This can occur quickly or may
not appear until several days later.
Subdrop is a state of depression and moodiness that often occurs after a
heavy scene or where the submissive is away from their dominant for an
extended period of time. It is the result of increased prolactin and
cortisol levels. Aftercare isn't something done only immediately
after a BDSM scene, it should be something the Top should do in follow up
with the bottom for several days afterward. This should especially
include phone calls to check on the bottom when personal contact can't be
For methods of countering the effect of subdrop, please visit
Ten Ways to Fight Subdrop.
BDSM scening can lead to some very profound changes in the neurochemistry of
both the Top controlling the scene and the bottom experiencing the scene.
By better understanding the physiological aspects of what is going on within
our brains, we are able to create better experiences from our BDSM
Here are some excellent links for further reading and the sources from where much of this information was compiled:
Endorphins and Analgesia
Nature's Own: The Feel Good Hormone
Low Dopamine Can Cause Anhedonia
Cortisol and Stress: How to Stay Healthy
PROLACTIN - a patient's guide
Sex and Addiction
Sex and the Brain
I Get A Kick Out of You
The Science of Love
Science of Love - Cupid's Chemistry
Human Pheromones: Integrating Neuroendocrinology and Ethology
Androstenol as a Pheromone Promoting Pillow Talk
What Is Emotion?
Copyright © 2007 SirReal.
All Rights Reserved.