The Superhuman Mind

Cases of extraordinary mental ability

The Other Dimension of Sex

An intense state of physical and psychological arousal may not equal great sex

What makes good sex good? And what makes great sex better than good sex? Is it the overall amount of pleasure? The overall amount of excitement? The emotional connection with the other person? The intensity of the orgasm? The profoundness of the experience?

There is in all likelihood no unique answer to these questions. However, in a recent study Nielsen and her colleagues found that sex may be less satisfying for people who experience very intense sexual arousal. The team examined several parameters of sexual experience in people with an extraordinary sensory condition, known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is an unusual binding of experiences or mental images. For example, music-color synesthetes hear musical notes as colored and lexical-gustatory synesthetes see or hear words as having particular tastes.

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About two percent of the population experience colors and flavors or other sensory qualities during orgasm and sexual arousal. The experienced colors and flavors are seemingly unrelated to the sexual act. That is, they are not sensory qualities of bodily fluids, bright clothing or the bedroom background music but are experienced as a kind of extra vision or mental imagery triggered by touching, caressing, petting or climax.

Sexual synesthesia can lead to a sexual trance, an altered state of consciousness. The descriptions of it resemble reports from people who experience synesthesia while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and magic mushrooms. One form of altered consciousness during drug intoxication is an experience of rapidly changing colors, shapes and textures in response to music.

A sexual trance may be experienced as an extremely intense physical and psychological state of arousal, involving total absorption. An extreme state of arousal, however, does not necessarily make sex feel maximally satisfying. Donald Mosher, a researcher at the University of Connecticut, has proposed that two other factors are equally important for great sex. One is role enactment. Role enactment may be thought of as a kind of sexual identity that is acted upon during the sexual act. Role enactment is present when you act out your inner fantasies, for example, your inner dominatrix or your inner Medusa. The other factor is engagement with the sexual partner, including the sexual partner's responses to what you do and to your sexual arousal and the ability to have a shared experience. Maximum sexual satisfaction is an equilibrium of all three factors: sexual trance, role enactment and partner engagement.

In their study of sexual experiences in synesthetes, Nielsen and her colleagues found that synesthetes experienced the most intense forms of sexual trance and therefore had very profound physical and psychological experiences during sex. But surprisingly perhaps, these extreme states of arousal did not make the synesthetes rate their experiences as more satisfying than ordinary folks. On average, synesthetes were significantly less satisfied after sex than people without the condition.

The researchers suggest that the decreased satisfaction in synesthetes may be due to the fact that they are unable to fully share their sexual experiences with partners who have more earthly sexual experiences. This, in turn, may lead to a lack of engagement with the partner and a feeling of isolation. These findings emphasize the importance of partner involvement for everyone, regardless of the nature of their sensory experiences. A sexual trance may be a goal worth pursuing but maximum sexual satisfaction cannot be achieved without role enactment and partner engagement.

Berit Brogaard is a Professor of Philosophy with joint appointments in Philosophy, Psychology and the Center for Neurodynamics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She directs the St. Louis Synesthesia Lab. more...

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