Many people feel that they “lose control” in the climax of a sexual encounter, and research shows this is a very apt description of what’s going on in the brain.
In a paper in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology last month, Northwestern University neuroscientist Adam Safron proposes that the rhythmic nature of sexual activity gives rise to a trance state involving total sensory absorption and a loss of self-awareness.
He compares the process to “pushing someone on a swing,” because the rhythmic nature of sexual stimulation can cause neurons in the brain to oscillate at the same frequency. This is known as “neural entrainment.” If the stimulation is intense and sustained enough, then synchronized activity can spread throughout the brain.
Such synchronization can create a state of focused attention that silences normal self-awareness, allowing us to “lose ourselves” in the moment. We access a state of sensory absorption during a sexual trance, which can build up an intensity of experience that helps trigger climax.
From a neuroscientific perspective, sex may be an altered state of consciousness and perhaps even a form of meditative practice, according to Safron, who studies the neurological basis of sexual preference.
“This way of viewing sexual experience is very different from, but consistent with, conceptualizing sex solely in terms of desire, pleasure, and arousal,” he told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “I suspect that viewing sexuality as a kind of altered state of consciousness could help people to see sex as something extraordinary, potentially helping them to have a greater appreciation for their partners, and possibly even helping to prevent sex from losing its fascination.”
This fits with what we know about orgasms. They usually result from rhythmic stimulation of body parts that are high in sensory receptors. And some studies of sexual climax have shown that brain regions involved in higher-order cognition and executive function deactivate, suggesting a temporary “loss of control.”
In this way, sexual activity can be compared to music and dance ― all involve the ability to lose oneself in a rhythm and to potentially access an altered state of consciousness. In several early cultures, anthropologists have found evidence of rhythmic drumming, singing, chanting and dancing being used to access trance states.
The takeaway? Paying more attention to rhythm could be a powerful way to improve your sex life.
“The ability to maintain and adjust rhythms precisely, and with variety, helps to make someone both a good dancer and a good lover,” Safron said. “Focusing on the rhythmic aspects of sexuality could both help people to enjoy sex more and to be more of the kinds of lovers that they want to be.”