Monday, 28 October 2013

When orgasm triggers a light show - The first ever study of synaesthetic sex

For people with synaesthesia, stimulation of one sense - or in some cases just thinking of a particular concept - triggers another kind of sensory experience. The most common form of the condition is for letters to trigger colour perceptions, but there are some truly strange variants, such as people for whom various swimming strokes trigger colours, and others who experience emotional sensations at the touch of different fabrics.

Although there are first-hand accounts in sex research that sound a lot like synaesthesia (e.g. a woman interviewed for a 1970 paper said that orgasm was accompanied by "fuzzy blackness with red and white muted bursts"), before now psychology has failed to investigate the possibility that, for some people, sexual feelings might be the trigger for synaesthetic sensations, and to ask what the implications are for their sex lives.

For a new study, a team led by Janina Nielsen surveyed 19 synaesthetes (2 men) who claimed to have sexual forms of the condition. Their answers were compared to 36 age-matched controls. The researchers also interviewed seven of the sexual synaesthetes. The average age of the participants was mid to late thirties.

The sexual synaesthetes described different perceptual sensations for different stages of sexual activity from arousal to climax. Initial fantasy and desire triggered the colour orange for one woman. As excitement built for another participant, this went together with colours of increasing intensity. With excitement plateauing, one person described fog transformed into a wall. Orgasm was then described as the wall bursting, "ringlike structures ... in bluish-violet tones." The final so-called resolution phase was accompanied for another participant with pink and yellow.

There's no objective way of verifying the truth of these descriptions - perhaps the synaesthetic participants were being poetic rather than literal. However, many of them experience more common forms of synaesthesia (e.g. letters to colours), which showed consistency over time when tested - usually taken as mark of authenticity.

The survey results showed that the sexual synaesthetes scored higher than control participants for sexual desire and for altered states of consciousness during sex, including "oceanic boundlessness" (feelings of derealisation and ecstasy) and "visionary restructuaralisation" (hallucinations). Surprisingly perhaps, the synaesthetes also reported less sexual satisfaction than the controls. Their interview answers suggested this is because their synaesthetic experiences enrich their own sexual sensations but leave them feeling disconnected from their partner. It's all very well if sex triggers your own personal light show, but if you can't share it, well ... it must be kind of isolating.

Nielsen and her team said these results should be treated with caution. This is "a pilot project" they said, "providing clues for further investigation."


Nielsen J, Kruger TH, Hartmann U, Passie T, Fehr T, and Zedler M (2013). Synaesthesia and sexuality: the influence of synaesthetic perceptions on sexual experience. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 24137152

--Further reading--
From The Psychologist magazine: Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer and Beverly Whipple view the subject of orgasms as an experience that is an integration of body, nervous system and the mind.

More on synaesthesia from the Digest archive.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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