Pain and Kinbaku

… or how I stopped worrying about the hurt started to love the high. This is a text about brains neurotransmitters how they affect us when practicing Kinbaku (Japanese rope bondage) or any kind of BDSM for that matter. The text will on a high level cover the inter-working between dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and adrenalin. The text will also suggest how we can adapt our technique to better utilize the body’s built in biochemical mechanisms to handle pain, give reward and create trust.

Imagine yourself at an technically advanced and high creative suspension workshop, you are together with your favorite partner trying to learn a tie over and over again but it never really works; there is always something pinching, some nerve tingling or something else. The same evening in a play scene with poor light, loud music and a handful of people watching, you do the same suspension completely effortlessly, while you are feeling bigger than the world and placing your partner in heaven. Why is this? To understand this, one must first understand some of the biochemical mechanisms in the body.

Neurotransmitters at Play

Neurotransmitters are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell across a synapse (from Wikipedia). Endogenous chemicals mean chemicals produced by the body itself. A synapse is the communication path that attaches to a target receptor cell which than connects to the rest of the body via the spine. So it’s the brain telling the body to do something and the something depends on the chemical. Most of the neurotransmitters has multiple effects on the body and they also enhance or cancel each other, so the coming explanations is a simplification focusing on the effect related to pain and kinbaku.

Oxytocin – Oxytocin is called the mothering or love hormone. It causes us to feel safe and loved, and it also causes to want to love, protect and care for others – mothering them. Oxytocin is also released when feeling safe and loved. It acts like a positively escalating circle, as the release of oxytocin causes more oxytocin to be released. We easily tune into the oxytocin level of people around us, making us more loving towards them. Oxytocin is canceled by stress and testosterone. Oxytocin can stay in the body for several days.

Adrenaline – Epinephrine is its medical name and is called the fight or flight hormone. It causes us to prepare for a threat. It makes us super alert, pain tolerant and it raises our heart rate and oxygen intake, making us stronger and more endurant. Adrenaline is released by stress when feeling threatened or aggressive. Adrenaline only last for 10-30 minutes.

Endorphins – Endogenous opioid peptides is its medical name and can be described as ”Endogenous Morphine” or morphine created by the body. It acts a pain killer and pacifier. It makes us feel good, or even fantastic, and very pain tolerant. It is also highly addictive and therefore makes us surrender and very obedient. Endorphins are canceled by adrenaline, because it’s impractical for the survival instinct to be passificed when in a fight or flight situation. Endorphins can stay in the body several days.

Dopamine – Dopamine is one of the most complex neurotransmitters. It is related to reward, basically any kind of reward, like sexual accomplishment, success at work, climbing a mountain and so on. Dopamine makes us feel good, even better than endorphins, and it makes us want repeat whatever caused the release of dopamine. It is also highly addictive and can stay in the body for several days.

So how is this related to Kinbaku? and the technically advanced and high creative suspension? Well from a biochemical perspective, I would like to describe a rope session as; use oxytocin to trigger endorphins instead of adrenaline and be rewarded by dopamine. Another way of saying it is that it will be easier for the model to handle the strain on their body when affected by endorphins. Actually many models I know are endorphin addicts, or “pain sluts” as its more commonly called in the BDSM community. Being slightly dogmatic its easy to see a handful of Kinbaku session archetypes or themes and what neurotransmitters they trigger.

Connective Floorwork – Oxytocin.
Semenawa – Endophines.
Futo-momo Suspension – Adrenaline and endorphins, depending on how long one can stand it.
Club Show – Dopamine from being a star. Adrenaline and endorphins from the ropes.

Crossroad of Endorphin or Adrenaline

It is the movement just before take off into a suspension, in a few seconds the strain on the body will increase massively, the body will react and the neurotransmitters will kick in to support. The body is at the crossroad of endorphins and adrenaline. Either the body can take the path of flight or fight, or the path of surrender and obedience, and it is determined if the body feels safe. Is the situation a threat or just pain that needs to be processed; this is heavily influenced by oxytocin. So by increasing the mothering and the love before reaching the crossroad, the body will be more likely to take the path of endorphin.

The path of adrenaline is not necessarily bad, as many people love the rush of adrenaline and the endorphins will still be there after the adrenaline is burnt away in 10-30 minutes. But it is easier to surrender to the pain by avoiding adrenaline.

Note that that usually both endorphins and adrenaline is released, but the effect of the adrenaline will be dominating.

Endorphins Release Patterns

The body is always prepared with a small storage of endorphins be used in moments of pain. When needed the entire storage is released, the body starts to refill the storage and will not release again until the small storage is completely replenished. This process usually takes 10-15 minutes. So from a purely endorphins perspective there is no reason for administering more pain directly after a release and it takes time to build up high level of endorphins.

I’ve found several different non-scientific models of describing the endorphin levels; and the scientific information I’ve found has more been related to the effects of endorphin in various amounts. So the model below is purely my way of structuring information.

Level 1 – Slightly higher pain tolerance, no impact behavior or communication, feeling slightly euphoric.

Level 2 – Much higher pain tolerance, obedient behavior, no active communication but still responding, feeling euphoric.

Level 3 – Stops reacting to pain, completely obedient, no communication, feeling very euphoric.

Level 4 – Like level 3 except strong reactions to any sensation, shaking/shivering at soft touch.

Level 5 – Fight for survival, will respond with violence, no communication (I’ve personally never seen this level, but read about it and the theory makes sense to me)

First, usually it takes several (two or three) releases of endorphins to move between different levels in the model. So going from level 1 to 3 can take anywhere from 40 (4×10) to 90 (6×15) minutes, so the process is very individual.

So how is this related to Kinbaku? and the technically advanced and high creative suspension? Well obviously a person on level 2 will be able to withstand much more strain on their body and find more euphoria in it than a person without previous endorphins releases. So tying a flawless takate-kote in five minutes and then hoisting a person into a suspension will leave the body poorly prepared for the pain. Even if tying the takate-kote involved some kind of pain and endorphin release the five minutes it will not be closely enough to reach level 2. Instead it’s likely that the pain will result in an adrenalin rush. The body will still deal with the pain but without the euphoria.

My suggestion would be to spend at least 20-30 minutes before going into a suspension (or before putting heavy strain on the body) and to prepare by administering some pain during this period.

Dangers of Endorphins

The most obvious danger is that pain itself has the function; it is the body telling the brain about some potential problem, so by getting high on endorphins we will dampen this function. But pain is more complex than that, because the brain will interpret the communication based on its previous real or imagined experience of pain. For example, a never-suspended person that have seen many suspension that looked painful, their brain will probably interpret the pain more severe than a person that has experienced the suspension themselves. In ashtanga yoga there is usually a distinction between uncomfortable pain and dangerous pain, where the uncomfortable pain is only the body adjusting to a new position, and dangerous pain is something actually damaging the body. Anyhow being high on endorphins will initially dampen (level 1-2) and gradually completely remove the function of pain (level 3 and up).

The secondary danger area is communication, already at level 2 the person will stop initiating communication, that means even if the person feel the pain from a nerve pinching or the lack of blood in their hands they will probably not say anything about it unless directly asked. Hence its even more important to check with the person when reaching high levels in the model, and not expect them initiate the communication. This also amplified with the obedience, as the person will be less likely to complain, or even to give a safe word. So while endorphin is something many people are looking for it plays a big factor in making kinbaku into a edge play, or at least in suspensions.

Keeping the Endorphins

A common pattern I see in workshops are people trying the technically advanced and high creative suspension, and independently from the outcome they sit down with their partner and talk rationally to them about the experience. Where did it hurt the most? How was the tension on upper wrap? and so on. While this is nice and might bring insights, it will lower the level of endorphins in the body, as the body will go from “I’m in pain and need to cope with it” to “I’m not in pain and need to be rational” and then respond appropriately. Abandoning the person to go for a cigarette is even worse as it will be “I’m not in pain and need take care of myself”. So during a long workshop keep your partner close and keep some rope on them to simply stay in the space.

Rewarded by Dopamine

While endorphins has a tremendous impact on how experience a BDSM session, there is dopamine that has an even greater influence on our lives in general. Dopamine is a reward when we succeed. In a Kinbaku session it can be nailing a complicated suspension, seducing the love of our life, feeling the crowed attention during a performance, or earning the complete control and trust of another person. Dopamine will teach the brain to encourage the same behavior again; success teaches us how-to succeed. The brain is generally lazy, as its genetically programmed to disencourage doing new things and encourage following old pattern. There is a threshold that controls our initiative and hesitation, and it is highly dependent on the level of dopamine. More dopamine, the more likely we are to act on a impulse, idea or suggestion. We all have experienced the feeling at a play party when we get lost in time, tying person after person, just to in the middle of the night run into the kitchen to make the most awesome three course midnight snack, even when being completely exhausted. This is dopamine at play.

Dopamine will remain in the body for days, making life feel nice and easy. As an interesting side note, in the tantric teaching males are disencouraged to ejaculate during sex, to keep their “energy” high. This can also be explained by dopamine, as sex releases a lot of dopamine and to handle an overflow of dopamine the brain releases another neurotransmitter called Prolactin. This causes the body to relax, ejaculate and falling asleep. Females work more or less the same. So getting dopamine reward from doing rope can be comparable to having sex without ejaculation, and will make you will fantastic for days to come.

Dangers of Dopamine

Risk taking is the major danger of dopamine, as it will affect your threshold for acting on impulses. So things that your risk awareness might had hinted or stopped completely might now go by unnoticed. For someone that is held back by their head, a lowered risk awareness might be only beneficial. For someone else that is used to push their limits, a lowered risk awareness might be a real danger. Typical things affected in Kinbaku play can be unsafe tie-offs of suspension ropes, uneven tensions that are not re-done, and so on.

Another indirect risk of dopamine is the release of prolactin at orgasm, as prolactin will not only counteract dopamine but also endorphins. This will drastically lower the pain tolerance gained in level two and later of the endorphin release model. So magic wanding someone to a orgasm while suspended in a futo-momo might not be the nicest thing to do, as they may need to come down every quickly afterwards.

The Power of Neurotransmitters

The power of neurotransmitters has long been the basis for drugs, both for medicine and recreational drugs. Opium, morphine and heroin are all versions of endorphin produced outside the body. Cocaine and amphetamine alters the brains dopamine handling functions. And there have been studies of rats drugged with endorphin starving to death due to the obedience and lack of initiative. This is also why heroin addicts are looses weight down to the barebone, as they are satisfied with their endorphin euphoria. While cocaine addicts are trying to stop trains with their bodies, or trying jumping out of a window fully convinced to take flight, due to their god-like experience and close-to-zero level of hesitation from a dopamine high.

Commonly people in the BDSM club world say; don’t drink (alcohol) and play. But being completely high on endorphins or dopamine is completely fine, or even encouraged. Now that is irony to me.

Bottom Lines

I guess the greater message is; Use Oxytocin to take the path of Endorphins (rather than Adrenaline) and get rewarded by Dopamine. Do this by tying slower and introducing more pain in your practice. Keep your Dopamine longer by doing rope instead of fucking, or avoid ejaculation. Be aware if the impact of both Dopamine and Endorphin on the body.

As another perspective on Dopamine I would recommend Doctor King; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4P6rNmvwII

Sources and More Information

My curiosity was sparked by Nattkorpen on the Swedish BDSM community darkside.se. Most of the information compiled in this text can be found on the wikipedia pages for Neurotransmitters, Dopamine, Endorphin, Prolactin, Adrenaline and Oxytocin. To go even deeper I can recommend the book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky.