Groaning and Hyperventilation during Sex
Passie et al.  “On the function of groaning and hyperventilation during sexual intercourse: intensification of sexual experience by altering brain metabolism through hypocapnia”  Medical Hypotheses, 2003.

Yes, people DO really study this stuff.  I now present your Friday Weird Science, and I don’t even have to play with the title!

Now, I’m going to start by saying that I do not want to hear about YOUR groaning and hyperventilation experiences.  This is a clean blog, thank you!  Unless, of course, you have a random sampling with p<0.05.  ‘Round here, even the sex is geeky.

As some of you may be aware, hyperventilation, along with suffocation, can produce altered states of consciousness.  You can see examples of this when kids choke each other to get high (which is a HORRIBLE idea).  This is because hyperventilation and other kinds of breathing differences drastically reduce blood flow to the brain, sometimes as much as 50%, and this can produce drastic changes in mood, particularly inducing a feeling of euphoria (I believe in ‘Sex and the City’ they call it “seeing God”.  The authors here thought that changes in blood flow to the brain caused by hyperventilation might increase the sexual experience.

Sexual arousal has lots of difference symptoms:  release of many different hormones, increases in blood flow to the lips, cheeks, and genetalia, increased heart rate, and a definite inability to think clearly.  Hyperventilation and vocalizations such as groaning are considered common features of sexual response (Masters and Johnson, 1966), though interestingly the authors say that women are more likely to have this than men (I’d like to see that study, Davidson, 1980).  Many of the physiological sexual responses that we have are those that produce increased sexual responses in our mates, facilitating reproduction.  For example, flushed lips and cheeks are a sexual attractant and a sign of health, and of course pelvic thrusting can always get a response.

However, here the authors hypothesize that hyperventilation may produce increased sexual response in ourselves.  What’s the purpose of this?  Well, sex is supposed to be fun, if it weren’t, you wouldn’t do it, and then the species would die out.  So presumably physiological responses that increase our enjoyment of sex would make us more likely to do it again.  Additionally, our physiological  responses are designed so that we can’t stop halfway.  So a decrease in cortical blood flow from hyperventilating would stop us thinking very clearly, and thus keep us doin’ what we’re doin’. 

To help us with this, it appears that blood flow is down in the cortex, but not so much in the limbic regions.  An fMRI study of hyperventilation has shown that blood flow is decreased by as much as 50%, but that this decrease is largely confined to the neocortex (the frontal lobes, etc, involved in higher processing), while not occuring so much in the limbic regions.  The limbin regions are the areas responsible for our basic drives, one of which is obviously sex.  So a decrease in blood flow to the cerebrum would stop you thinking that maybe this isn’t such a good idea, while still getting blood flow to the limbic areas would keep you thinking that this is DEFINITELY a good idea.

This was published in medical hypotheses, so there’s not a study out yet, but I think the results might be…interesting.  In the meantime the takehome lessons are these:

1) Why try Viagra when you can just breathe faster?
2) Those loud people in the next apartment may be having better sex than you.
3) Take necessary precautions BEFORE the hyperventilating sets in, so you know you’re thinking somewhat clearly.

1)Masters WH, Johnson VE. “Human Sexual Response” Boston: Little Brown and Co. 1966
2)Davidson, JM. “The psychobiology of sexual experience.” in “The Psychobiology of Consciousness”. New York, Plenum Press, 1980, 271-332.
3)Posse S et al. “Regional dynamic signal changes during controlled hyperventilation assessed with blood oxygen level-dependent functional MR imaging” Am. J. Neuroradiol. 1997; 18: 1763-1770.
4)Passie, T. (2003). On the function of groaning and hyperventilation during sexual intercourse: intensification of sexual experience by altering brain metabolism through hypocapnia. Medical Hypotheses, 60(5), 660-663. DOI: 10.1016/S0306-9877(03)00010-0

15 Responses

  1. I’m breathless and gasping…I’d love to have seen the grant application for this. But, without getting too personal, isn’t gasping and groaning intrinsic to the “experience” and isn’t it obvious to any scientist partaking of such activities that all this puffing and panting going to affect O2/CO2 balance in the bloodstream. Another one for the Journal of the Bleeding Obvious, if you ask me. (Great post though!)

    • Gasping and groaning isn’t “intrinsic” to ANY “experience”…except maybe drowning. Perfectly silent sex would allow mating without attracting predators during a very vulnerable activity, so it makes sense to wonder how G&G turned out to be more helpful to reproduction than silence is for survival. Maybe shutting down the judgment areas of the brain is the explanation, but what if it’s something else, something we’ve overlooked otherwise? Serious science can’t take sex for granted any more than it can afford to take ANY subject for granted.

  2. Well it hasn’t actually been DONE, this is basically just a medical hypothesis that somebody published. Still, I’d be all for starting a Journal of the Bleeding Obvious!!

  3. The BBC seems to be the best at reporting on stuff that seems soooooo obvious, so we’d have to ask Kate Silverton to be on the Editorial Board. (Not sure my wife would be too happy though)

  4. Beyond the grant application, can you imagine what the post asking for…ahem… test subjects… would look like? “It’s going to be for a genuine study – no, really!”
    Or I could be totally wrong, but one imagines real data would be necessary to prove the obvious.

  5. IgNobel shortlist. What a great title!


  6. [...] for sticking with me through my blogging larval stages).  I got a couple of big links in over that Moaning and Sex post (thanks VERY much to the linkers, from your grateful linkee), and though I’m sure most [...]

  7. “So a decrease in cortical blood flow from hyperventilating would stop us thinking very clearly, and thus keep us doin’ what we’re doin’. ”

    So basically what you’re saying is that all this stuff happens so stop us realising what we’re doing and going ‘eww. gross. stop.’

    heh =D

  8. [...] potency” would make for some pretty unhappy sexual experiences.  And, given my previous post on hyperventilation causing decreased cortical blood flow, it seems much more likely.  And it’s good for [...]

  9. [...] a LOT of fun to be the editor of the Journal of Medical Hypotheses. First there was the one about groaning and hyperventilation decreasing blood to the cortex and enhancing the sexual experience, and now this (hat tip, my [...]

  10. I’d always thought that hyperventilation increased the percentage of Nitrous Oxide in the bloodstream thus triggering orgasm…this study has been done already, I just can’t remember the reference.

  11. [...] ~50% of Oxygen rerouted from cerebral cortex to limbic Groaning and Hyperventilation during Sex Neurotic Physiology "However, here the authors hypothesize that hyperventilation may produce increased sexual [...]

  12. I’m highly sexually addicted and try to be celibate. Like last night when I allowed myself half of an encounter toward a man-i loved it so much & have flashbacks and hyperventilate. I need a steady understanding boyfriend who can understand my plight, fulfill my needs and hug me and pat me on the head. This is a tough addiction and I’m really such a good girl, but I need it bad!!for long periods of time!

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  14. yarı manuel istif makinası

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