Lovemaking and Altered States of Consciousness

By Shawn Radcliffe

img lovemaking

People have tried many ways to alter their consciousness — meditation, psychedelic mushrooms, LSD, rituals and dance. Now a new paper adds sex to that list.

The paper’s author, Adam Safron, a neuroscientist and Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, proposes that sexual activity is capable of shifting our perceptions of reality through a combination of sexual pleasure, a trancelike state and the syncing of our nervous system to the rhythmic movements of sexual activity.

The experience of orgasm can be explained as an “intensification of sexual pleasure” and a deepening of “altered states of consciousness,” writes Safron in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.

According to Safron, rhythmic stimulation during sex can cause the neurons in the brain to fire at a similar frequency — a process known as neural entrainment. Sexual signals come in many forms — tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory and taste. Having a greater variety of sensory input increases the chance that entrainment will occur.

If the rhythmic stimulation is strong enough and occurs for a long enough time, these oscillations may spread across the brain. That’s because a neuron is more likely to fire if the inputs arrive at roughly the same time — this pushes the neuron past its firing threshold. Erratic rhythms, though, can be disruptive - but so can predictable or monotonous sexual rhythms.
When the brain syncs with the rhythms of sex, a person may experience increased attention and focus, the same kind of effects that you gain from meditation. When this happens, a person enters a state of sensory absorption or trance. As they focus on the sexual activity, less attention is left for other activities.

To explain this, Safron gives the example of a spotlight. When you shine a spotlight in one direction, that area is illuminated while everything else is dark. It’s the same way with our brains. For the vast majority of us, multitasking isn’t possible. What feels like multitasking is actually our attention flitting from one thing to the next.

At any given moment, we are only aware of a small fraction of the sensory information coming into our brain. To compensate for this, we shift more of our conscious “processing speed” to certain mental activities — like watching the other cars on the road while we are driving. This comes at the expense of other activities, like hearing what your passenger is saying while you are merging onto the highway.

Sexual synchrony leads to enhanced attention and focus. In turn, writes Safron, this enables us to increase the “brightness, focus, or width of this spotlight.”

As we focus on our immediate sensations — the breath, heartbeat or sexual stimuli — our spotlight shifts to those, leaving less mental capacity for other activities. This includes the self-narratives — our internal stories — that most of us have running in our mind throughout the day.

Sexual synchrony also involves positive feedback. As a person’s attention and focus increases, the sexual experience becomes more enjoyable. This deepens the sexual experience, and it also increases the likelihood that entrainment will occur.

So sexual activity can lead to increased focus, which reduces our conscious thinking and allows us to become absorbed in the sensory experience. This is the trancelike state, an experience that also occurs during meditation, when the mind is focused on the breath, candlelight or other object.

You can, of course, enter a trance state by yourself, while meditating, painting, washing dishes or exercising. But when you are with a sexual partner, your nervous systems sync up not only with the rhythmic activity of sex, but also with each other. This increases your sense of connection with your partner, and weakens the boundaries between “self” and “other” as the me-you duality fades away.

Safron also said that this approach has implications for evolution and the selection of sexual partners. Keeping a steady rhythm is not an easy task, nor is switching rhythms to avoid monotony. It requires precise coordination of the muscles and nervous system. This is even more challenging when the parts of the body you are trying to stimulate are constantly moving during sex.

So a man’s ability to produce rhythmic stimulation during sex may be a sign of evolutionary fitness — indicating that he is a good potential partner. If this is the case, then women might choose sex partners based upon that trait. This is similar to how animals choose partners based upon courtship dances, another rhythmic activity.

During sex a man also has to be “in tune” with his partner’s rhythms. This attentiveness can be seen as a sign of whether a man will invest time and energy in a relationship, not just at that moment, but also in the long run. Given the resources required to raise children, women lean toward choosing men who are more likely to stick around.

Of course, sexual rhythms are just one factor involved in mate selection, but when a couple is able to get in sync during sex — especially if they enter a true trance state — this may be a strong drive for keeping them together.


The current of creation is right here,
Coursing through subtle channels,
Animating this very form. Follow the gentle touch of life,
Soft as the footprint of an ant, As tiny sensations open to vastness.

Power sings as it flows,
Electrifies the organs of sensing,
Becomes liquid light, Nourishes your entire being.
Celebrate the boundary Where streams join the sea,
Where body meets infinity.

~ Lorin Roche (The Radiance Sutras)
 

Continue reading

Related Content