For years, neuroscientists generally stayed away from studying bliss. Orgasm and its sidekicks like pleasure and bonding mesh better with mystics than academics, and let’s get real – using the scientific method to illuminate that which is mysterious risks taking away the very thing that makes them so…mysterious. Rapture felt in the moment just isn’t the same when electrodes are hooked up to your head and your hooch recording every neural blip.
That has changed. Now we know that neuroscience is a very sexy line of work. It’s demonstrating that spiritual and sexual encounters light up the brain in explicit ways, with lots left to be discovered about how we respond to euphoria (which means there’s job security for brain researchers and as much conjecture about our brains on sex and religion going on as there is whoopee being made).
Science aside for the moment, intuition alone tells us that the two are linked. Sex and religious experiences can both lead to trance-like joy. I’m not alone in that thinking. In an article called, “If religion is a side effect of sex, does that mean God doesn’t exist?” (that title question alone is worth a whole other essay) in Scientific American, the author wrote:
“Just as sex involves a rhythmic activity, so do religious practices such as chanting, dancing and repetition of a mantra. Like orgasms, religious experiences produce sensations of bliss, self-transcendence and unity.” He goes on to point out that this may be why, “mystics describe their raptures with romantic or even sexual language.”
Knowing in the Biblical Sense
I knew exactly what he meant when I read that quote. One of my favorite books, Love Poems From God by Daniel Ladinsky (Penguin Compass, 2002), contains volumes written by such religious sages such as Thomas Aquinas, Hafiz and Rumi, and let me assure you that their writing is heady stuff, filled with language to yield thoughts of romance and ecstasy of the corporal kind. They may have been celibate, but not without knowing sensuality in the biblical sense.
Back to the science of the matter; the neurobiology of bliss is bringing attention to how the brain responds to sexual and spiritual experiences in similar and dissimilar ways. Nadia Webb’s article earlier this year asserts that what links both forms of bliss – the profane and sacred – is a change in our perception.
She writes: “Orgasm and meditation dissolve the sense of physical boundary. Unlike meditation, orgasm seems a heightened sense of being within one’s body rather than the sense of being outside of it.”
Who’s on Left? Who’s on Right?
What’s interesting is that they seem to do so, at least in part, on different hemispheres. According to Webb, “in studies that observe the brain in action, the right hemisphere lights up during orgasm—so much so that, in one study, much of the cortex went dark, leaving the right prefrontal cortex as a bright island.” She goes on to say that research on the right hemisphere suggests it is hyperactive in those who are ‘hypersexual’ (which she describes as, “a result of brain injury loosely defined as groping, propositioning or masturbating in public without shame”).
Here’s the twist: the left hemisphere has classically been thought of as the source of pleasure, not the right side. It’s more active when recalling happy memories, meditating on love for another, and during the expansiveness of grandiosity or mania, writes Webb. She also explains that our left-brain registers the absence of pain, a loss of a sense of identity and bodily limits, essential components in the brain-bliss biz.
Meditation, that touchy feely feature of spirituality, also quiets the static via left-brain activity. Whether you are a monk or a mommy stressed out by life’s demands, meditation is a real bliss tool that boosts happiness in regions of the brain involved in passing judgment, making comparisons, planning and self-scrutiny, according to Webb’s article.
She explains: “The reported depth of meditation also corresponds to activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, such as left forebrain bundle, anterior insula and precentral gyrus. This overt pleasure is accompanied by a shift in emotional self-regulation; meditators are more aware of thoughts and feelings conceptually, but less emotionally disrupted by them.”
Putting It All Together…Sort Of
What we know for sure is that pleasure is multifaceted. It all depends on what aspect of pleasure one is measuring. Both sexual and religious bliss share “the diminution of self-awareness,” but while orgasm is registered in the right hemisphere, both sides of the brain are active during other pleasurable experiences to keep our egos in check while the rest of us chills out.
Confused yet? If so, meditate or masturbate (pick your pleasure) for a bit and remember this: It is our self-awareness that keeps us tied up, and if the science is accurate, the bliss of sex and religion that frees us. If that doesn’t work, you can always sing the adult version of an old ditty: “turn your left brain off, turn your right brain on, do the hokey pokey and turn yourself around.”