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What is subspace?


January 23rd, 2023

The science behind why and how many people experience a blissed out dreamstate.

Subspace is the word given to the pleasurable altered headspace that the submissive partner experiences during a BDSM scene. For many subs, entering this space can be the ultimate goal in BDSM, with some even giving it higher importance than achieving orgasm. As a state of mind, it can be transcendent; as a science, it has some fascinating bodily effects. 

What does it feel like?

Subspace differs from individual to individual. People have described subspace as entering a blissed out dreamstate, while others have compared it to being in a trance. Other common accounts describe it as feeling floaty, foggy, euphoric, or like an out-of-body experience. Subs in subspace may have a higher pain tolerance, have difficulty speaking, and lose all sense of time. 

Likewise, getting to subspace is different for every submissive. For some people, it might be triggered simply by slipping into a role play scenario, donning a collar or particular outfit, or being called a certain nickname. More often, subspace takes a bit more effort to attain. Some subs only reach subspace through activities that require them to relinquish a sense of control, such as bondage, sensory deprivation, or simply obeying orders. For subs who are also masochists, the pain from a flogging can lead to the release of endorphins that help them get to that dreamlike state. 

What happens to the brain during subspace?

This is a question that the team at The Science of BDSM, a research team led by Professor of Social Psychology Brad Sagarin, sought to answer in a 2016 study. In a study published in the Psychology of Consciousness, scientists observed knowledgeable practitioners before and after engaging in BDSM scenes. Participants answered surveys to measure self-reported stress and sexual arousal. Saliva samples were taken to measure levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and testosterone (a hormone associated with aggression and dominance). Participants also completed a Stroop test, commonly used to assess cognitive flexibility. 

When comparing pre- and post-scene results, the bottoms in the scenes achieved a decrease in stress, an increase in sexual arousal, and absolutely tanked the Stroop test. According to the study, this aligns with Dr Arne Dietrich’s transient hypofrontality hypothesis. The hypothesis is based on the premise that the brain possesses limited resources. Activities that increase demand on the sensory part of the brain (such as long-distance running, meditation, or being on the receiving end of a flogging) end up reducing blood flow to the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for decision making, speech, and short-term memory. 

Can doms experience subspace? 

Many dominants report feeling their own version of altered consciousness, though it manifests differently than subspace. Generally, doms report feeling high from the sense of heightened power and control over their sub in a scene.

The study conducted by the team at The Science of BDSM also measured the responses in tops before and after participating in a BDSM scene. They found that tops (who, for the purposes of this study, took up the dominant role) entered a state of flow as conceptualized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is characterized by nine dimensions, including challenge-skill balance, concentration on task, sense of control, and loss of self-consciousness. Domspace functions as a complement to subspace: as one partner relishes the lack of control, the other takes pleasure in retaining it.  

What is sub drop?

If subspace is like being drunk on giddy feelings, sub drop is the hangover that follows. Sub drop can be felt after an extreme BDSM scene, once the surge of hormones (including endorphins and adrenaline) has subsided. Every sub undergoes sub drop differently, and it can manifest itself differently every time: it can last for a couple of minutes to several days, depending on the intensity of the scene. Aftercare, open communication with your scene partner, and being kind to yourself are all ways to mitigate sub drop.

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