Altered states of consciousness are extreme states of absorption. These states are characterized by a loss of the usual sense of self, time, and space as a result of intense attentional focus on what is happening right now, combined with feelings of euphoria. Humans have always sought out these experiences. Excesses of Friday night visits to the pub or trance-like club dancing under the influence of sometimes illicit drugs are testimony of the human desire let go of the ordinary self.
Drugs are illicit and can be dangerous. Legal drugs such as alcohol have severe side effects – we often painfully realize that the next morning. Meditation is an extremely powerful way to lose the sense of self as I have written before in this blog and it is related to happiness, physical and mental health, as many scientific studies have shown. But in order to reach such levels of altered states of consciousness during meditation long-lasting self-discipline is needed, one might have to meditate regularly for years.
There is one way to reach altered states of consciousness that is related to the heights of spiritual love. It is healthy for body and mind by all means and can be shared with a partner. I am writing about sex. Sexual desire and fulfilment can induce such an absorbed state and lead to extremely joyful altered states of consciousness. During sex with a beloved partner one is so focused on her or him that ultimately the sense self, time, and space is lost. That is the unio mystica felt in love, being one with the other.
Rui Miguel Costa is a clinical psychologist from the William James Center for Research at the Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, Portugal. His research interests lie in psychological and medical aspects of sexual behavior. He recently conducted a study, which was published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, to investigate how the intensity of absorption during sex is related to sexual pleasure. We worked together because I had developed subjective scales to assess the sense of self, time and space in various states of consciousness such as in meditation. Costa and his team then asked 116 heterosexual Portuguese women and men to remember their last sexual encounter and to rate how intensely they had felt their body, time and surrounding space. In addition, we asked how much desire and satisfaction people had felt, and whether an orgasm happened.
Results show that men and women do not differ in the intensity of absorption during sex. However, there are some clear sex differences: absorption is more closely connected to female desire, satisfaction and orgasm than is the case for men. For women, greater satisfaction is related to more attention to the body and to an almost complete loss of the sense of time. In men, satisfaction, desire, and orgasm are less connected to absorption. For men, absorbed states do enhance the pleasure in men, but they are not as important for male orgasm as they are for women. A second part of the study was published in the International Journal of Impotence Research. The title of the journal is indicative of the importance of this type of research for clinical aspects. What Rui Miguel Costa and his team found out was that women, but not men, who are more sensitive to tactile pressure, as measured in the lab with a test of finger sensitivity, also reported more body awareness during the last sex. Herein might lie a potential for enhancing sexual experience. In everyday life, one can learn to become more sensitive of bodily feelings, through a hot bath, a massage and mindful awareness of the physical self.
Costa, R. M., Pestana, J., Costa, D., & Wittmann, M. (2016). Altered states of consciousness are related to higher sexual responsiveness. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 135-141.
Costa, R. M., Pestana, J., Costa, D., & Wittmann, M. (2017). Women’s finger pressure sensitivity at rest and recalled body awareness during partnered sexual activity. International Journal of Impotence Research, 29, 157-159.
Pfeifer, E., Sarikaya, A., Wittmann, M. (2016). Changes in states of consciousness during a period of silence after a session of depth relaxation music therapy (DRMT). Music and Medicin, 8, 180-186.