This is part 2 of 2 in the series on sub-space and top-space as altered states of consciousness. Part One of this 2-part series provided an overview of terms used and described common experiences in these altered states of consciousness. This post is Part Two, which will dive into the how and why from a more technical standpoint.
Causes & Triggers
All of the factors that can be linked to achieving altered states experienced in top & sub-space are not completely known, but ongoing research is continually shedding more light into the functions within our bodies and within the brain. For example, similar compounds may be found in the brain when in sub or top spaces, but it’s often a matter of how we interpret these experiences as well as the combinations of neurochemicals which impact us. Since we are speaking in terms of generalities, since each individual’s experience is likely to be unique in some way, let’s take a look at the two major types of phenomena.
Achieving the altered state of sub-space may have several paths, but the psychophysiological (mind-body) connection remains largely unchanged for dissociative states. Depending on one’s prior experiences, the trigger for inducing sub-space may range from a simple flogging to more extreme ends such as piercing hook suspension. The trigger may not be even physical, but more psychological, such as being locked in a cage with the lights off. It depends on your level of experience, trauma exposure, and coping mechanisms. In any case, evoking a response through physioneurosis (inescapable shock) will typically produce a numbing effect with catatonia elements, or a “stress-induced analgesia” due to (A) catecholamine depletion within the central nervous system (produces sleepiness) while (B) increasing endogenous opioids and cannabinoids (produces analgesia).
In what may seem to some as counter-intuitive, re-exposure to trauma may produce a sense of calm and control due to endogenous opioid release. This is because absence from traumatic stimulation is likely to be followed by symptoms of opioid withdrawal and physiological hyper-reactivity (coming down). This resulting hyper reactivity is largely due to the adrenal system providing additional energy to enhance mental processing and physical response as part of the fight/flight response. However, once that energy is depleted, the impact is mental and physical slumps or “crashes” from changes in blood sugar levels and blood pressure. To combat the withdrawal, re-exposure to trauma can modify the response and explains the draw to voluntary trauma.
Similar to sub-space, achieving the altered state of top-space can have several paths, but are typically marked by similar psychological interactions. The difference from sub-space is the hyper-aware focus one achieves, versus detachedness common to sub-space. This is largely due to the same compounds engaged, albeit in different proportions or even its active suppression. However this state is not achieved through forced effort, but rather a relaxed or focused freedom. It has been described as a state of relaxed highly controlled awareness – or as Taoists may say “wu wei”, Doing (act) without Doing (effort).
Flow theory assumes three conditions need to be met to achieve a flow-like state: (1) One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals/outcomes and observe progress, which provides direction and structure to the task; (2) The task must have clear and immediate feedback, which helps the person navigate complications, negotiate changing conditions or requirements, and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow-state; and (3) One must have confidence in the ability to complete the task with skill or competence. There are other possible conditions, but those are considered the prevailing needs to be met for Flow.
Flow as an experience works through activities in neurobiology which is producing significant changes in brain function. These changes are often reducing certain higher brain functions (reflective cognition), reducing barriers to the waking and dream-state (hypnogogic), and providing us with a sense of connection, empowerment, and satisfaction. This is typically characterized in three ways.
Transient Hypofrontality – the flow-state is caused in part by the temporary inhibition of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This region of our brain contains most higher cognitive functions, the inhibition of which allows for greater creativity by silencing the inner critic and reflective thinking. As a result we’re far less critical and more courageous, allowing us the freedom to imagine new possibilities and commit ourselves to act with less analysis and hesitation.
Hypnogogic Gap – the flow-state can be clearly observed in brainwave patterns which shift from faster beta waves found in normal waking consciousness to the far slower borderline between alpha and theta waves. Theta waves typically shows up during REM sleep (or just before we fall asleep), as such the space between alpha and theta waves are where ideas combine and create new ways offering innovative realizations and new sometimes radical perspectives. This is what is commonly referred to as “lucid dreaming” where the recombinatory nature of imagination freely mixes patterns of information and thoughts to create new ideas.
Neurochemicals – a flow-state is in part caused by, and further induces, a significant production of neurochemicals in our system creating changes to consciousness, sensory processing, and creating feelings of reward, awareness, confidence, and peace (mental silence).
The mechanisms involved in both top and sub spaces are psychophysiological, involving various compounds released throughout the body and within the brain. While this is still a developing area of research, the below outlines typical components of these altered states of consciousness as we understand them at the time of this writing:
Adrenaline: Energy – more correctly known as Epinephrine, and its companion Norepinephrine, these compounds are part of the catecholamine family, which readies us for swift response and action and is critical in its role in the fight or flight. The release of epinephrine is exhilarating and creates a surge in energy, resulting in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and dilating arteries and blood vessels increasing blood flow to the body and brain.
Anandamide: Bliss – Anandamides are messenger molecules responsible for providing a state of bliss and plays a role in processing pain, appetite, depression, memory, and fertility. These are found to act as keys to receiving other feel good compounds such as endocannabinoids and endorphins, and help explain its presence contributes to an overall sense of satisfaction and calm. Anandamides are experienced in the peripheral and central nervous system, and thus can be enjoyed through ingestion as evident in the pleasure found in consuming high quality dark chocolate and black truffles.
Dopamine: Reward – Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and modulator largely responsible for reward-driven behavior, pleasure seeking, arousal and sexual gratification, lactation, and others. Dopamine is synthesized in the brain and kidneys of animals, but is also synthesized in plants. Just about every type of reward seeking behavior studied has been shown to increase the level of dopamine in the brain. It also effects motor control, acts as a vasodilator, reduces insulin production, and reduces activity of lympocytes.
DMT: Spirituality – DMT (or N-Dimethyltryptamine) is a neurotransmitter and neuro-modulator which can produce mystical experiences, euphoria, hallucinations, and spiritual connection. Produced by mammals in the pineal gland, it is a structural analog of serotonin and melatonin and a functional analog of other psychedelic tryptamines, but does pass the blood-brain barrier and is therefore a highly effective hallucinogenic when delivered externally (inhalation, injection, oral, etc).
Endocannabinoids: Exhilaration– The Endocannabinoid System (ECS) are a class of many self-produced cannabis compounds which alters perceptions and states of consciousness including appetite, pain-processing, mood, memory, and cognition. Endocannabinoids are believed to be the cause for runner’s high and other states of exhilaration or mood elevation.
Endorphins: Analgesic/Euphoric – Endorphins are a whole class of compounds which resemble opiates in their chemical structure. Possessing analgesic properties, endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus to reduce pain and also provide a sense of euphoria through physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm.
GABA: Serenity – GABA is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness or serenity. GABA has roles in the functions of other organs such as pancreas, stomach, intestines, kidney, reproductive organs, and more. It has been found that one can increase GABA naturally by practicing meditation, yoga, and forms of deep prayer. GABA is produced in the brain as it does not penetrate the blood-brain barrier.
Oxytocin: Bonding – Oxytocin is a hormone and neuropeptide linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty. In some studies, high levels of oxytocin have been correlated with romantic attachment. Oxytocin is released into the bloodstream as a hormone in response to labor and breastfeeding, sexual arousal, emotional bonding (such as during after- care), and community belonging. Oxytocin is largely produced in the hypothalamus.
Serotonin: Security – Serotonin plays many different roles in our systems. There is a link between higher serotonin levels and a reduced fear of rejection or vulnerability which allows people to put themselves in situations that can bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness, and create a sense of belonging. Serotonin plays significant roles in appetite, sexual desire, sleep, learning, and memory. It is estimated that 80-90% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Due to the altered states of consciousness found in sub-space and top-space, we can say that there are profound mental changes invoked through BDSM activities. As a result, there is a wide degree of truth that we are not “in our right minds” while impacted by these altered states resulting from neurochemicals and changes in cognition. Essentially we are with purpose and intent internally creating the same effects and leveraging similar compounds found in pot, opium, alcohol, and others.
It would be natural to then ask the question whether critical decision-making are truly “Reason-able” while in these altered-states . While perhaps not the answer people want to hear, I would suggest that when one is in an altered state of consciousness, flooded with drugs produced by your own body, making decisions mid-scene should be strongly avoided. For example, good practices of negotiation & consent requires that all of those involved are risk aware and have reached a consensual agreement after considering potential consequences, needs, limits, and desires. However, when cognizance itself is altered or cut off, how can one truly be aware of risk, consequence, need, and the like?
As previously indicated, the various endo-cannabinoids and opioids produce analgesic (numbing) and feel-good effects which can be considerably addictive. Things feel great – hell, they feel AMAZING!! Everything is fine – but is it truly…? The phenomena of sub- and top-space can easily create complications by facilitating or inducing unrealistic thoughts and emotions. The hardest thing to remember while high and tripping is that you are high and tripping. The altered states of consciousness are no different – the experience of these neurochemicals flooding your system include, but are not limited to:
- Excessive risk taking
- Distorted decision-making
- Illusions of invulnerability
- States of frenzy or uncontrollable desire
- Unawareness of physical state of health
Aside from distorted cognition are very physical impacts. Contrary to the position of beliefs many may hold, the physiology of mind-body interactions is a dynamic system routinely impacting each other. In general, there seems to be an under appreciation for the time or duration of intense play and the level of trauma to which one is exposed. Intense play, whether or not top & sub-space is experienced to, is very capable of creating these physical consequences:
- Blood pressure changes (low or high) causing dizziness, nausea, blurry vision, fuzzy thinking, fainting, etc
- Blood sugar level drop causing exhaustion, muscle weakness, chills, and imbalance
- Feeling cold or chilled due to lower circulation, especially in the extremities
- Temporary loss of balance, eye focus, muffled hearing, slurred speech, etc
- Intrusive memories or PTSD flashbacks, including prior unknown/compartmentalized experiences
- Feeling emotionally overwhelmed, especially by floods of unexplained but intense feelings
Many of the above are also signs of shock as a result of trauma. This should not be surprising since many BDSM activities are essentially a consensual agreement to participate in measured activities which produce trauma responses for their benefits (top & sub space). There is always risk, and we must understand that those risks cannot be eliminated while in pursuit of the benefits. There are obvious risks directly related to our activities, but also longer reaching potentials which can be far more subtle. This is why careful negotiation, consent, mindful execution, and thorough aftercare are strongly repeated themes in BDSM.
It also should bring to mind that through BDSM scening activities we are creating high-impact experiences upon body, brain, and state of mind. We are purposefully taking ourselves well outside our baseline experience. As such, conventional or casual decision-making needs to step up from our daily process into a highly mindful and deliberate approach to fully account for the effects of play on our physiological, psychological, and cognitive states of being.
Like any kind of high, sub-space and top-space offer participants of BDSM an enjoyable experience through an altered state of consciousness. Such experiences are often found to be highly peaceful, profoundly spiritual, deeply emotional, and provide significant joy. Both of these states involve a common body of neurochemistry leveraging our body’s built-in survival mechanisms to produce the desired effects. That said, some people may have difficulty achieving such experiences, or even never have them. It’s important to remember why you are doing this; is it to reach a specific experience as your goal, or to enjoy the connection and activity with your partner(s)? The less you focus on the end-result, and the more you open yourself to the journey of the various experiences the more likely you will find it rewarding and fulfilling.
It is important to remember that either of these states are a distortion from your normal cognitive baseline. Your awareness and critical thinking will be impacted in these altered states. Furthermore, it’s also a mistake to assume that just because there aren’t any other ingredients involved (alcohol, marijuana, or other psychoactives) that the internally produced neurochemicals are somehow less effective at changing our judgment and awareness – they’re not. Be open to the experience, enjoy the time with your chosen partner(s), and remember that if you do experience sub-space or top-space, you are presently in an altered state of consciousness and will need time to come back down to baseline.
The time provided in a “reset” period is why aftercare is so critical: it allows all those involved to process their experiences, normalize and return to baseline, and share via open communication.
Copyright 2017 Limits Unleashed
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