Study finds sadomasochism evokes spiritual experiences

Religious devotees endure torturous scenarios for the warm embrace of human connection. Some kneel and stand repeatedly to please their priest and fellow congregants. Others fast and chant for days on end to fulfill their guru’s program of enlightenment. At the extreme edge of the ritual spectrum, aspirants turn to self-flagellation, scarification, and even ultra-violent Philippine reenactments of the crucifixion, with real nails and the scars to prove it. It’s along these gruesome lines that the spirituality of BDSM (bondage-domination/discipline-submission/sadomasochism) emerges. A new study suggests that ritualized masochistic practices may induce an altered state of consciousness.

The researchers hail from a three institutions: Northern Illinois University, University of Texas at Dallas, and Georgia State University. The team was led by psychology student Ellen M. Lee, and included Brad J. Sagarin, the head of Northern Illinois University’s Department of Psychology, whose work focuses on social influences, evolutionary psychology, and human sexuality. The study’s participants were recruited at the “Dance of Souls,” a body suspension event held at the Southwest Leather Conference in Phoenix, AZ. The team set out to measure the emotional impact, stress levels, flow states, sexual arousal, and feelings of intimacy induced by an extreme ritual, and to do so in a naturalistic setting. The tests were administered to a total 83 participants, 47 of whom were being pierced and 36 of whom participated as either piercers, drummers, or some other capacity. The variety of subjects would allow the team to compare reactions from different levels of involvement.

Organizers founded “Dance of Souls” as a spiritual event, drawing inspiration from the ecstatic Native American O-kee-pa ceremony and the Hindu Thaipusam festival. The goal is to induce pain as a community – through ritualized body modification – to experience pleasure. While it may be difficult to access exotic (or extinct) traditions in order to gather physiological data, the Southwest Leather Conference may be a reasonable stand-in. Given BDSM’s rise in popularity, the “Dance of Souls” is of interest for the light it sheds upon Western extreme ritualism.

The research team made four predictions about the effect of the ritual. Participants would experience cognitive impairment, which would result from “transient hypofrontality.” The theory behind transient hypofrontality holds that by reducing the activity of the prefrontal cortex, sadomasochism helps the participant break on through to the other side via time distortions, a lack of social inhibition, reductions in pain, and pleasant feelings of tranquility. Participants were also expected to experience flow state, characterized by complete absorption and optimized performance. The researchers also expected participants to experience increased physiological stress – measured by cortisol levels – feelings of intimacy with other participants, sexual arousal, and spiritual fulfillment.

The notion of BDSM having a spiritual element may raise some eyebrows, but the authors reassure us,

[E]xtreme rituals can be perceived from outside the cultural context in which they take place as dangerous and unhealthy. These perceptions have the potential to lead to problematic assumptions about the individuals who engage in these behaviors such as attributions of pathology and a need for intervention.

The methodology itself is the most troubling aspect of this experiment. As I imagine it, the scene opens with participants having their backs pierced by large steel hooks until their torsos look like Al Jourgensen’s opiate-numbed face. As the lights dim, the air is filled with rhythmic drumming and the smell of sweat and leather. Those who are pierced pull against the hooks, stretching the flesh and evoking an intoxicating cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters. Drums are pounded and ambient lights flash across the dance floor. It’s unclear whether the moans are from agony or ecstasy.

Suddenly, in the middle of all this masochistic revelry, a gang of academics appears with iPads and mouth swabs. Executive functioning is measured by Stroop tests, administered on glowing touchscreens, in which subjects are asked to distinguish between written words and actual colors, e.g. what hue is the word “yellow” printed in red letters? Cortisol levels will be tested from participants’ saliva. In addition to these ostensibly objective measures, self-report surveys were also completed to measure postive and negative affect, flow state, connection with others, sexual arousal, and feelings of intimacy and spirituality.

According to the researchers, their results suggest that participating in an extreme masochistic ritual reduces negative emotions, elevates stress levels, suppresses executive cognition, induces sexual arousal, and intensifies a sense of intimacy with other participants. While all participants showed similar results, those who were pierced had higher cortisol levels. Self-reports also indicated that the “Dance of Souls” evoked a sense of heightened spirituality in those present. Therefore, it would appear that through the experience of consensual injury-infliction, people can forge social bonds and develop a sense of spiritual community, in part due to reduced rationality.

Sounds like my teen years.

While the possibility of uncovering hard biological data is tantalizing, the study’s methodology highlights the difficulty of obtaining reliable data about the mental, emotional, and physiological effects of religion in action. The authors are wise to defend against potential accusations that reduced performance on a Stroop test might have something to do with the distraction of puncturing flesh with steel hooks, or hanging from said hooks by the skin of your back. It’s one thing to infer cognitive effects by analyzing the numinous language of a sacred text, and quite another to get inside a worshipper’s head while she’s reading it.

The team concludes, “[T]his study demonstrates that extreme rituals are associated with subjectively pleasant altered states of consciousness.”

Okay, but so is shooting heroin or chanting “Hare Krishna.” So what?

While the team’s physiological findings may be reliable – one expects self-injury to result in stress and community activities to feel intimate – the proper interpretation of those results are in no way clear, and their significance is questionable. After all, a trip to the dentist office is likely to increase cortisol levels, and people experience flow states playing tetherball. The intimate and sexual feelings reported by “Dance of Souls” attendees would be expected from a game of Twister. Considering the preliminary reports that participants approach piercing as a spiritual act, it’s no surprise that they experienced what they were primed to experience. The conclusion that poor performance on a Stroop test indicates “transient hypofrontality” during play piercing is strained at best.

But given the team’s goal of gathering hard data in a naturalistic setting, what else were they supposed to do? Inject the revelers with radioactive dye and rush them into an fMRI machine? Probe participants with invisible nanobots?

The challenges inherent in the scientific study of religion are extraordinary, as this study illustrates. While the team’s conclusions may be up for skepticism, their effort is a push in the right direction. The important thing is that at the end of the day, no one got hurt – at least, no one who didn’t want it.

For more, read “Altered States of Consciousness during an Extreme Ritual“ in PLOS ONE.

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