Saturday, February 22, 2014

Is S&M the new yoga?

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 i.e. sadomasochism (S&M). This was once thought to be a pathological practice but 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). A shift from mental illness to an unusual sexual interest, has promoted researchers to explore what exactly makes partners engage in painful sexual behaviors. According to researchers S&M and other erotic practices may actually have benefits which lead to feelings of peacefulness and living “in the here and now” similar to those felt during a meditative experience. James Amber, graduate student in psychology at Northern Illinois University, conducted a small study to evaluate the effects of S&M. Fourteen participants, both male and female, were recruited for the study to test whether pain from sexual experiences caused blood flow to alter the region of the brain responsible for control and working memory. Researchers randomly assigned 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. 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 i.e. 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.

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

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