One of the main questions in life is: Why is sex so good? According to a new review paper, it’s because sex — like dance, yoga, and other body-based pleasures — is rhythmic, and that rhythm has a way of uniting and heightening the senses.
Authored by Northwestern University researcher Adam Safron and published in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology, the paper argues that intercourse can be such a magical experience because of “entrainment,” which is a fancy way of saying that it gets your brain, sensory, and bodily systems all rowing in the same sexy direction. What happens in the run-up to orgasm, he argues, is what goes on in most ecstatic experiences (consider how a “beat drops” in your favorite new disco anthem). Rhythmic perception and action lead you to attend more to the stimuli that’s turning you on, leading to greater enjoyment, and greater attendance, making for “further enhancing entrainment, thus creating a positive feedback cycle of deepening sexual absorption,” he writes.
It’s not enough to call this increased arousal or pleasure: A better way to understand the way people can lose their sense of selves during the act of sex is with trance, the same way that you might feel a sense of absorption on a particularly good night of dancing, a particularly strenuous yoga session, a particularly deep meditation, or a particularly satisfying run. “Intensely focusing on immediate sensations — such as those produced by rhythmic stimulation — is likely to reduce the amount of mental capacity available for other things,” Safron writes, like ruminative self-narratives, wondering about what could have been, or generally having your mind someplace other than where you currently are. “Such an experience of sensate focusing and altered self-processing may be most appropriately referred to as a kind of trance state,” he writes. “If this trance occurs in the context of another individual who is similarly absorbed, then it could potentially contribute to feelings of connectedness along with the expansion of self-other boundaries.”
In a follow-up email, Safron said that the most surprising finding from this research is how much sex is like other transcendent pursuits, like dance or music. “Sexual trance is probably similar to meditation and yoga in focusing on the rhythmic sensations of breath in body, and sometimes on the often rhythmic motions of the body,” he says. “A vinyasa flow has a certain tempo and cadence to it. And of course rhythm is everything in dance.” The trance has an evolutionary aspect too, he argues: The positive-feedback loop of absorptive entrainment is a way of nature telling you to continue having sex with someone, since someone who can attend to you in a way that’s sexually awesome likely means that they’ll be attentive in a relationship more broadly, and with raising kids, too. Like another sex researcher told Science of Us, the best (and only) way to get better at sex is to learn what your partner likes, and attend to that.
As of now, rhythmic entrainment is a model, a way of understanding what makes sex work (or not work). It needs lots of empirical investigation before it can be enshrined as an absolute truth. But in a relative sense, it sure does seem pragmatic. To Safran, the model suggests that you’d do well do focus more on the experience of rhythm during sex and the quality of rhythms you’re giving your partner — since doing the same thing over and over again is going to get old.
“The model of sexual experience as trance state suggests that people need to feel comfortable letting go in order to really enjoy sex,” he writes. “This is consistent with much of what many sex therapists tell their clients. Although I think I’m suggesting something a little more radical here. I argue that neuroscience supports relating to our sexual experiences as altered states of consciousness. I think viewing sexuality in these ways could both help people to avoid taking sex (and each other) for granted, and it may actually help them to enter the trance states they desire.”