Understanding the different sub-spaces and their neurological basis.


BDSM stands for Bondage, Dominance-Submission, and Sado-Masochism, which are alternative sexual practices also called kinkBondage consists in tying people up in exposed or provocative positions. Dominance-submission occurs when one partner becomes subservient to the other in a sexual or romantic way. Sadomasochism means using pain and humiliation as a source of pleasure and joy. There is considerable overlap between these three practices. Many people use them all to a certain degree, but there are also people who practice just one of them.

One of the most fascinating aspects of BDSM is its ability to induce altered states of consciousness. In the kinky community, there is a lot of talk about sub-space as a desirable mental space to be achieved by the submissive or bottom in a BDSM scene — a session of play or lovemaking. Unfortunately, it has also generated a series of myths and dubious techniques to induce endorphin release and attain that coveted sub-space. In this article, I want to use my experience as both a BDSM practitioner and a scientist doing research on the neurophysiology of pain to shed some light on this confusion.

I must start with a warning: there is practically no scientific research on the neurochemical phenomena that occur in sadomasochistic scenes. Moreover, there are reasons to think that these phenomena are quite different from ordinary pain responses, so much of what I am about to say here is speculative. However, although at the moment we are not ready to talk with certainty about what happens in the brain during a BDSM scene, we still can use scientific evidence to debunk some existing myths and set the foundation for some future research.

What are altered states of consciousness?

Consciousness is the fact of being aware of everything that happens, both in the outside world and inside our mind. Our consciousness flows like a river of experiences that forms the story of our lives. From our subjective point of view, our consciousness is everything.

Of course, there is an external reality unaffected by what we make of it. However, our state of consciousness shapes and colors the events of our everyday lives. The reality that we perceive is altered by the filter of our consciousness: it disappears when we sleep and takes an exceptional intensity in situations of danger in which our brain becomes more alert to our surroundings. The quality of our consciousness determines to a great extent our capacity to be happy. This is because our consciousness is shaped by our emotional state, and this is able to make our world heaven or hell.

Since the dawn of our species, humans have tried to alter our consciousness by consuming drugs or by undergoing certain rituals and practices. BDSM is an example of the second case. Not every BDSM activity is going to produce an altered state of consciousness, but those which do will likely leave us with an unforgettable memory.

Here I 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

Morphine and other opioids like codeine, heroin and fentanyl are the most powerful pain-inhibiting (analgesic) drugs known until now. They also produce states of well-being (euphoria) that lead to their abuse. As everybody knows, opioids are highly addictive.

Opioids produce analgesia and euphoria by acting on four opioid receptors, which are proteins embedded in the membrane of certain neurons in the brain, the spinal cord and the gut. There are also opioid receptors in immune cells and other non-neuronal cells. Three opioid receptors were named with the Greek letters mu, delta and kappa. All three decrease pain. Apart from their analgesic effect, the mu and delta opioid receptors induce euphoria. Kappa opioid receptors also produce analgesia but induce dysphoria (a state of emotional distress) instead of euphoria. A fourth opioid receptor was discovered in two different labs, which named it the nociceptin or the orphanin receptor, respectively. Unlike the other three receptors, it increases pain.

The four opioid receptors didn’t evolve so we can take morphine to alleviate pain. They are activated by small proteins, called peptides, that are produced by the body and bind to the same site as morphine. These peptides were called “endorphins” — “endogenous morphine”. There are about 40 of these peptides, belonging to three different families: the endorphins, the enkephalins and the dynorphins. However, the term endorphin is commonly used to refer to all of them. These peptides are produced by three different genes. Since these genes are induced separately, different types of neurons release different endorphins. A fourth gene encodes for nociceptin/orphanin, the peptide that activates the fourth opioid receptor.

Endorphins are released into the bloodstream from the pituitary gland, but this does not produce analgesia or euphoria 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 inside the brain. In the blood, endorphins regulate the immune system and gut motility, among other things. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that the presence of endorphins in the blood doesn’t mean anything in terms of our mental state.

The other myth about the endorphin release is what I call the “endorphin soup”: the belief that endorphins are released all over the brain leading to a generalized state of endorphin release. The reality is far more complicated. Endorphins are independently released in different brain areas, leading to multiple states depending on where in the brain they are released. For example, endorphin release in the spinal cord produces analgesia but not euphoria, whereas their release in the amygdala decreases fear and stress. Endorphin release in the nucleus accumbens (the “pleasure pathway”) induces euphoria, inhibition of motivation and addiction.

In view of all that, does endorphin release happen during a BDSM scene? I believe so. Pain induces endorphin release, so it is likely that it occurs in sadomasochistic play involving pain. Opioids are downers, so endorphin release would also induce feelings of calm, relaxation and dreaminess. The submissive turns his or her attention inward, disconnecting with the surrounding environment and entering a fantasy world.

The optimal way to induce endorphin release would be to gradually increase 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 detected by a decrease in heartbeat.

Noradrenaline release

Noradrenaline or norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter similar to the hormone adrenaline, which is released in the blood by activation of the sympathetic system in fight-or-flight situations. The difference is that noradrenaline is released by neurons in specific brain areas. As in the case of the endorphins, we shouldn’t confuse the release of adrenaline in the blood with the release of noradrenaline in the brain, although both things often happen at the same time.

Noradrenaline activates several receptors named alpha and beta adrenergic receptors. In particular, alpha-2 adrenergic receptors in the spinal cord produce analgesia. Like the endorphins, noradrenaline is released by pain-controlling neural pathways to induce analgesia. Noradrenaline can induce euphoria, but it also induces fear and stress. But often this is a good kind of stress, called “eustress” (bad stress is called “distress”) — think of the feel-good fear that we seek in horror movies and roller-coasters.

There are inhibitory connections between endorphin and noradrenaline pain-controlling pathways that ensure that endorphin and noradrenaline release do not happen simultaneously. Although both states entail analgesia, they are different in other things. If endorphins are downers, noradrenaline is an upper. Noradrenaline release produces a state of increased awareness to external stimuli, which appear more intense. The noradrenergic response evolved to inhibit pain in fight-or-flight situations, whereas the endorphin response may be related to freezing behavior.

I suspect that many states of decreased pain sensitivity in sadomasochist scenes that are attributed to endorphins are in fact generated by nor-adrenaline. A submissive in a noradrenergic state cries, moves and reacts. Her heartbeat increases. Nevertheless, this state can be as euphoric and pleasant as that produced by endorphin release. If we want to release noradrenaline, we should couple pain with fear in a situation that demands a response from the submissive.

Sub-space in Dominance-submission

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 many of receptors (up to 16), could be related to an state of calm surrender in Dominance-submission.

In contrast to endorphin and noradrenaline release, the sub-space in Dominance-submission is much more than a 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

Top-space or Dom-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 Dominant-submissions relationship have to focus all their attention on the person they are playing with, feeling empathy and establishing a tight bond with them.

Top-space may shares some physiological features with sub-space. Perhaps in it oxytocin release is accompanied by the release of vasopressin, a social hormone important in males that induces feelings of possession and territoriality. 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 with the bottom. This would strengthen his focus on the scene.

Sub-drop

Many submissives 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. 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.

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 one or two days afterward and can last one or more days.

It is important that we do not accept sub-drop as something 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, noradrenaline release or sub-space, and how sub-drop relates to each of these mental states. Perhaps this way we can start building up information on how sub-drop relates to these different altered states of consciousness.


We should not treat altered states of consciousness in BDSM in a frivolous fashion, as if BDSM was just another more drug. After all, if all we want is to get high 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 participants 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 brings to our lives. This could be a catharsis, or maybe the surfacing of psychological issues buried in our minds for a long time that are released by the scene. Maybe we discover 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.

All pictures by The Shackler – Click here to visit his archive

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.