By now, everyone’s got an opinion about 50 Shades of Grey: It’s trash—it’s fun fantasy-fodder—it’s misogynist—it’s empowering for women—it’s silly.  While the 50 Shades media saturation has grown tiresome, one must admit that it’s compelled a societal discussion of sexual practices involving bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) that are otherwise not broadly considered.  Leaders of the BDSM community are quick to point out that 50 Shades is not an accurate representation of BDSM sexual practice where “safe, sane and consensual” are the watchwords and that the term “BDSM” is broad, like the term “sports.”  It includes people with highly divergent sexual desires and personae—just because you like to be flogged, doesn’t mean that you necessarily like to be humiliated as well.

For those outside of this group, a failure to understand the appeal of BDSM practice usually comes down to this: How can one experience pain, either the physical pain of a smack on the tush or the emotional pain of humiliation, as pleasurable?  Aren’t pain and pleasure diametrically opposed?

You don’t have to be a masochistic sexenthusiast to know that pleasure and pain can be felt simultaneously: think of the pleasures of a delicious meal laden with spicy chili peppers or the blissful ache following a long-distance run. In the lexicon of cognitive neuroscience, both pleasure and pain indicate salience, that is, experience that is potentially important and thereby deserving of attention. Emotion is the currency of salience, and both positive emotions like euphoria and love and negative emotions like fear and disgust signal events that we must not ignore.

How is salience built into neural pathways?  We have an evolutionarily ancient and and highly interconnected pleasure circuit in our brains.  When neurons in a brain region called the ventral tegmental area become electrically active, thereby triggering the release of dopamine in a structure called the nucleus accumbens, this evokes the feeling of pleasure from both our vices (eating food when hungry, having an orgasm, drinking alcohol) and our virtues (meditation, learning, giving to charity).

 

Read the full article:

The Neurobiology of BDSM Sexual Practice by David J. Linden, Ph.D.

March 20, 2015