the brain science of pleasure for #sfs14

I’ve spent a full day at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit’s Friday institute, Let’s Talk about Sex: The Pleasure Principle.

It was amazing – see my twitter feed for my incessant quote tweets – and there was something I was bouncing in my seat about the whole time, just DYING to say.

I’m not a speaker and I’m just about the biggest introvert on the face of the earth, so rather than go down and talk to everyone about this exciting, important idea, I’m writing this blog post first.

Okay, so here’s what I was bouncing in my seat to say:


What the heck is “pleasure,” anyway?


The institute was seven hours of talk about why pleasure is important, how to teach about pleasure, what the barriers are to pleasure, and how we can break down those barriers. It was a powerfully wielded sledgehammer, trying to crack through to pleasure. But we didn’t talk at all about just what it is we’d find on the other side of that wall.


The nature of pleasure is something I think about a lot, and it’s one of the things I saymost often: pleasure is context dependent. Tickling is my universal example: it can feel amazing and sexy with the right person, when you’re feeling trusting and affectionate and open to it. But if you’re pissed off at the person, and they try to tickle you, you want to punch them in the face.


To create pleasure, create the right context.


So what is the context in which we can experience pleasure?


Well here is the more technical brain science explanation. But the tl;dr version of that link is: a sex positive context is safe and full of trust. When you’re feeling really peaceful and relaxed, calm, trusting – and if another person is in the room, that person is radiating a loving presence – pretty much sensation will be perceived with a positive curiosity, which can give rise to pleasure.


If you’re in a stressed out state of mind, pretty much anything – even sensations that usually give you pleasure – will be experienced as a threat or as pain.


Nina Hartley said the most important thing of the entire, fabulous seven hours. She said:


You can’t experience pleasure if you can’t breathe past your third rib.


And that’s as close to literally true as you’re gonna get.

When we’re stress, we breathe high and fast in the top parts of our lungs. You could trigger a panic attack just by locking down your thoracic diaphragm and breathing with those shallow fast breaths.

And when you’re a trauma survivor, for example, you live with chronically elevated stress levels make it all the more difficult to relax into pleasure, to allow sensation to be safe.


But wait, there’s more!

It’s not even just your state of mind that makes a difference in how you perceive a sensation as pleasurable or not. It’s also HOW YOU FEEL about your state of mind.

A study that I describe in my book measured the degree of problems experienced by people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and their level of MINDFULNESS – specifically Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ). Two of the “five factors” on the FFMQ are “Observe” – noticing your internal experience – and “Nonjudge” – not categorizing your internal experience as either good or bad.

Here’s what they found:


Frequency and intensity of symptoms WERE NOT PREDICTIVE of how much GAD interfered with people’s lives.


That all by itself is amazing, right? But here’s the amazing part:


The people who were less impacted by their symptoms were those who were more Nonjudging!


In other words, it isn’t the symptoms that predict disability from anxiety, it’s how a person feels about those symptoms.

Nonjudgment is simply the ability to notice what you’re experiencing and not categorize it as good or bad. You feel your heart rate increasing? Okay. That’s happening. You feel your genitals tingle? Okay. That’s happening.

You don’t have to ENJOY it or LOVE it or even LIKE it! All you have to do is… not be afraid of it. Not be angry with yourself. Not be ashamed.

And when you notice that you are afraid, angry, or ashamed… just notice that and let it be okay too. Okay. That’s happening.


It’s not how you feel. It’s how you feel about how you feel.




I’d like to define pleasure: pleasure is a sensation perceived in the context of curiosity and nonjudgment.


To increase pleasure in your own life, be kind and nonjudging to yourself. To increase pleasure in others’ lives, be kind and nonjudging to them.


Everything else is frosting, friends.


(And frosting is DELICIOUS.)