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You Already Hold the Secret to a Better Sex Life — In Your Brain

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So much of the great joys of our lives (ex: love, art, children, at least) can be partially linked to our sex lives — and when our minds and bodies are in tune and connected with our sexual desires? That’s where the brain and body magic can really happen.

Author, neuroanthropologist and self-proclaimed “student of peak states” Jamie Wheal’s recent panel at SXSW’s SHE Media co-lab event, the Future of Health, touches on the hidden potential of leveraging the powers of breath, movement and sexuality to heal trauma and become more connected with the world around us. Building off the practice he outlines in his book Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind, Wheal encourages cultivating an evolutionary-level understanding of human sexuality and using that knowledge to access a spiritual-level understanding and practice along the way.

The Neurochemistry of Love & Lust

“We are wired to come together passionately and powerfully to copulate, exchange genetic material to gestate and deliver a child and then evolution says ‘have another go at it.’ So typically we think of love as an amorphous, open-ended concept,” he says, noting research from Dr. Helen Fisher’s research on the neurochemistry of lust, love and everything inbetween.

First, there’s lust — which is “purely hormonal” — dealing with testosterone and estrogen, which is where we get that urge to meet and connect with potential partners. Next, is the stage of “pair bonding,” which goes beyond just attraction and instant(-ish) gratification and into the deeper levels of attraction.

“Now you’re in the heady stages of romance, losing your mind, like punch drunk, you’re into the attraction,” Wheal says. “Dopamine gets excreted during climax and pair bonds, serotonin plummets, some researchers believe it’s the closest to OCD… we become obsessive about our mate, we can’t think about anybody else. We’re doodling hearts in our notebook in class, instead of paying attention.”

And then, there’s the next progression: Long term pair bonding and attachment. Where the oxytocin and the vasopressin work to make these familial bonds that are more lasting — encouraging the brain to consider another person as a regulatory entity in their life, and are sort of the chemical backing for why so many humans favor monogamy.

But that said, there can be issues with this little love-y, lust-y chemical experiment. Like in all things, there can be too much or too little going on that can dysregulate our systems and lead to some familiar chaos: “Too much and too little, regularly overclock our processes, right? So much of that too much of the dopamine and the oxytocin, we end up in that kind of hedonist trap of almost addictive behaviors: binge eating, drug abuse, irrational behavior, adultery, jealousy, they’re ramping us up, and we can’t control their spirit,” Wheal says. “Ideally, we connect, we bond, we stay together, but evolution doesn’t care.”

That’s sort of a recurring theme in this space: Evolution has it’s goals (that whole “keep the species going” shtick) and we have ours (which may include a sustained monogamous sexual relationship or continued intimacy with our partner our of choice) and they can frequently be (or at least seem to be) at odds with one another if you keep those insights separate. That’s not to say that it’s futile or that “evolution says” humans are bound to be at the mercy of their neurochemistry — but it’s absolutely something that we can better comprehend in order to harness the full potential of ourselves as spiritual, emotional and sexual beings.

Timing is Everything

So how ’bout those hormones? Let’s go back to them. It’s no shock to anyone with a vulva that where you are in your monthly cycle can vastly alter your whole vibe. You can be feeling like your hottest, most sparkly and sexual self (mid-cycle, two weeks before your period, when you’re ovulating) or you can feel like a bog beast of aggression and exhaustion, more sensitive to pain or feel suddenly like you don’t remember what it feels like to be hot (toward the end of your cycle, when that PMS starts to hit and the estrogen production goes way down.) This can all vary depending on your individual cycle experience, the birth control you use, etc. obviously, but the point is that people with vulvas function on this 28 day (lunar) cycle with peaks and valleys throughout as opposed to the cycle of people with penises being a 24 hour (solar) model.

“It’s not that [cis]men are from Mars and [cis]women are from Venus, it’s that [cis]women are Lunar and their cycle is 28 days… but men are solar, they’re diurnal, they operate on a 24 hour cycle,” Wheal says. “And if you if you mismatch these, you won’t know what’s going on.”

That’s why he also notes that scheduling some sexual getaways or romps around that ovulation window (even if you’re not trying to conceive!) can be beneficial. If you’re looking to time for reconnecting sexually and making up for lost time, that might be the time to get your babysitter on deck and plan a little something special.

“If anybody is having sub0par sexuality over time in a long term relationship and your predominant mode or timeframe of making love is after eight or nine in the afternoon — and alcohol is ever in the mix — just know it’s going to suck.”

Jamie Wheal

But there’s also some daily windows that are more optimized than others, Wheal says. He notes that cis-dudes tend to be more clueless about this cycle, for one thing, and that if you look at a standard stable relationship that involves sharing responsibilities, a household, kids, etc. and sexual connection time is resigned to after hours when you can squeeze it in (maybe after some alcohol in the mix) it can be so easy to have disconnects crop up.

For most penis-owners, Wheal cites that there are two peak testosterone moments during their daily cycle — the first-thing in the morning one (think: morning sex, morning wood — though notably it’s not the most “relational” sex as there’s less of the oxytocin and vasopressin in the mix) and mid-afternoon (around 1pm/2pm, that “Afternoon Delight” vibe). These are the optimal times to try and plan some sex with your partner, if they have a penis, and it can also make a difference for vulva-owners who are often exhausted by the end of the day (depending on where they are in their cycle) with the sheer amount of multi-pronged responsibilities they tend to have.

“If anybody is having sub0par sexuality over time in a long term relationship and your predominant mode or timeframe of making love is after eight or nine in the afternoon — and alcohol is ever in the mix — just know it’s going to suck,” Wheal says. “Guaranteed. If you’re getting laid at all, you’re killing it. Back off those things, schedule mornings and afternoon as your world will change radically.” (See, there’s even a biological, neuroscience-backed reason to schedule sex!)

The Healing Power of a Good ‘Gasm

Speaking at SXSW, Wheal briefly cited a kind of fun evolutionary theory, Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape hypothesis,” which supposes that a human ancestor stumbling across hallucinogens might be what first triggered our all-too human cognitive function that brought us from Homo erectus to Homo sapien status. It’s a fun theory that people interested in the psilocybin revolution may love to rabbit hole down, but he brings it up only to say that he doesn’t necessarily think that a magic mushroom was the source — but maybe something a little bit closer to home and (given the prioritization of nerve endings in our erogenous zones)closer to this primal and primary motivator of getting off.

“Because when you look at it in the simplest sense, we are prefrontal cortexes connected to spinal columns, connected to erogenous zones.”

Jamie Wheal

“Finding this hugely rewarding, highly incentive, ultra-portable adjunct to the evolutionary imperative…that brought us to more complex cognition,” he suggests. “Because when you look at it in the simplest sense, we are prefrontal cortexes connected to spinal columns, connected to erogenous zones — and that capacity to understand this system, and this framework is essential to understanding how to hack it and optimize it, not just for healing, not just for wonderful peak states, but also for connection with the people we actually make our lives and raise our families with.”

That’s where the sexual and the spiritual (that urge to have meaning and connection) can merge into a space rife for healing. In wellness spaces there’s a lot of trendy talk about the parasympathetic nervous system (when you can get out of fight, flight or fawn responses to stress and into something called ventral vagal — or feeling social and safe) — and it’s accessing this space and understanding the workings of the vagus nerve that’s captured a lot of researchers interest because of how it can help our brains better metabolize the world we live in today.

“We get a boost of [the vagus nerve] right when we experience connection and compassion, but we also get a boost of it when we see terrible news reports… So it’s literally a huge element of our connectivity and caring for each other,” Wheal says, also noting how the endocannabinoid system (already in our bodies) plays a similar role with studies showing some benefits of cannabinoids in treating traumatic brain injury and assisting in processing traumatic memories and navigating a PTSD-inducing event. Which feels pretty relevant given the ways we’re all experiencing trauma and disconnection on a semi-regular basis.

“We’re all suffering from micro PTSD all the time these days.”

Jamie Wheal

“Just the stresses of the last few years, being cooped up and separate and isolated, constant notifications, psyche blown out into social media…not enough rest, not enough sunlight, not enough movement, not enough connection, tons of information,” he says. “Right? We’re all suffering from micro PTSD all the time these days.”

And, shockingly (but not really if you remember the whole point of this story), there’s ways that the neurochemistry of sexuality — particularly that post-orgasmic brain space — can help get to the best possible place to process and heal from that trauma. Referring to Rick Doblin’s research with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) on the benefits of MDMA (AKA ecstasy or Molly) on these cases and conversation they had, one of the most comparable states to this post-ecstasy brain space (with high oxytocin, vasopressin and serotonin) where the healing can happen is a post-orgasmic state.

“And I was like, ‘wait, what?’ You guys have spent 30 years, 100 million bucks, and had to navigate this crazy labyrinth of federal regulation — and you mean to tell me that the outcome is the sort of exalted state known only to research scientist as post orgasmic?”

And to bring us back to us in our bodies and our partnerships in our every-day lives — how do we use this understanding to reap those benefits? Wheal describes it as “the sliding scale of sexual fitness.”

“Level one: Just thinking of it like you would any other form of fitness — regular, practiced intentional sexual cultivation, arousal and discharge defrags my nervous system,” Wheal says. “I move into the center and I’m like, ‘Oh, once I’m in my body and on time, connected to a practiced partner, I can even go back into deeper history, into the bigger hits of my life, and I can reformat those.’ And, if we keep going, we can even enter the numinous, non-ordinary states of consciousness.” And there’s something transformative, spiritual and so very, very human in letting yourself connect to those states.

Ultimately, a bit of intention and attention can go a long way to unlocking the kind of life you want to live — and that can go double or triple for your sex life. And if you can let yourself be curious and take the steps to really make this mind, body and spirit practice your own? You may be unlocking a heightened, more embodied version of yourself that will show up in every other part of your life.

Before you go, check out the different kinds of orgasms you (possibly) didn’t know existed:


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