Brain science, touch and some questions on BDSM

I’m about 5 weeks behind in reading New Scientist articles, having just finished the 28 February edition. One article in particular in that edition struck me as interesting from the point of view of understanding BDSM in a neurological or physiological way.

The article is about how social touching works amongst humans, and how different types of nerve fibres function differently. It describes A fibres, which operate at full speed and alert to pricks, stings and burns; and C fibres that operate more slowly (it cites a signal speed of 7km/h and that a C fibre signal can take a whole second to travel from your ankle to your brain), and convey throbs and aches. The main purpose of the article is to discuss the role of CT-fibres (“C-Tactile”) and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I am sure there are BDSMers who have studied these topics in more detail, and could give a better perspective than mine; I would, however, love to see research into masochists’ (and other bottoms who accept pain play) preferences for pain types, and how those relate to A versus C fibre responses. For instance, does my aversion to cutting and needle play relate to those being clearly more A than C type responses? What about some people’s preference for “stingy” or “thuddy” impact play? Given the “transforming” type of processing pain into pleasure, described by some of Staci Newmahr’s respondents in her research on BDSM (see her book, “Playing On The Edge”), is it possible that the slower signals arrive and provide the pleasurable element of the pain stimulus, thus enabling that conversion? I would love to find out more about such aspects of the physiological side of how our bodies and minds create these forms of pleasure.

The CT fibres are found, the New Scientist report explains, only in areas of the skin where hair grows – “almost everywhere except the lips, palms of the hands and soles of the feet”, and are attuned to social touching: “they also plug into areas like the insular cortex, which is linked to emotions” – and the brain regions that seem active when thinking about other people, and making sense of their intentions. They respond most strongly, the report continues, to “low force, low velocity, stroking movements”. And this triggers endorphin release as a reward mechanism.

Again, when I read these passages, my thoughts went straight to the question of how such findings relate to the bonding that goes on between a top and a bottom in BDSM. I thought about whether the sites of maximal CT fibre contacts related at all to erogenous zones (the article says they are concentrated “on the top of the head, upper torso, arms and thighs” and I am certain that arousing touches happen in many of these areas). I thought about whether BDSMers have differences in the way the different fibres are connected to the brain (more on which in a minute). I thought about ways in which BDSM touching might mimic the sorts of touch that trigger CT fibres.

Bondage, it seems to me, often has as an incidental effect a slow stroking effect of the bondage materials on the skin. In fact, that kind of sensual touch is one of the attractive parts of bondage play in some sessions and styles of play. The way it tends to produce more aching pain than immediate pain might also relate to the pleasurable side of such torment, since those are presumably more C than A fibres.

In SM play, there’s a technique of alternating slower, more sensual strokes and harder, heavier, quicker ones: is this a way of producing both the CT-fibre reward and another kind of reward, or does the slower stroking somehow prime the nerves to respond to heavier and heavier impacts?

However I twist it, I can’t quite find a way to square masochism with the description of ‘nilla pain response. However, the article makes another suggestion, based on the role that the CT-fibre touching seems to play in building social awareness. I’m not comfortable with the way it’s presented, but I found it curious:

McGlone also thinks that these ideas could give new insights into autism, a developmental condition that can affect people’s sensitivity to sensory input. Several recent studies have suggested that some people with autism process touch differently. Pelphrey has evidence that children with autism struggle to process the social significance of touch, for example.

It’s worth noting that I am probably somewhere on the Aspergers-autism spectrum; and that when earlier in the article they described social touch with examples such as, “Salespeople use it to build trust, waiters use it to boost their tips,” I recalled feeling creeped out by just that sort of touching. I reflected that the difference between that, and pleasant touching, is that the touch is incongruent with the perceived social connection and therefore I interpret it as “wrong”. (See also: Touch, Flirting when Stone-ish, and the earlier, Am I Stone?).

Anyway, that put the idea into my head that maybe (some, and those who identify as as “orientational”) BDSMers also are wired differently with respect to their CT fibres, or how they function, or maybe other fibres (e.g. from the A or C category) are also wired into the insular cortex. What if heavier, more rapid, rhythmic or heavy stimuli can also trigger the same feelings of connection that in ‘nilla folks are produced only by the CT fibre responses?

It seems to me that there are many different causes for different types of BDSM identity and enjoyment so to fixate on one neurological/physiological explanation would be a mistake. There are, as I said, no doubt many better-qualified people to write about these topics, and maybe they have. But the questions fascinate me.

Advertisements

About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Body, Kink, Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s