Friday Weird Science: Orgiastic Loss of Consciousness

This is actually a repost. But it’s still hilarious. Sci DID have something good all lined up, but then she went out for this DINNER. And it was a REALLY good dinner, and now I’m really full and it’s late and Sci is SO FULL AND SLEEPY AND (kind of inebriated…). So, repost. And next week will be a hilarious weird science that’s going to blow your mind.
I have to say, for this Weird Science Friday, it was a tough call between this one and the other paper I found about the effects of Prozac in salmon. I mean, who gives Prozac to SALMON?! Are our teleosts depressed? Inquiring minds apparently want to know.
Anyway, here we go: Weird science and Classic science.
ResearchBlogging.org Needles, W. “A note of orgiastic loss of consciousness” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 22(4) 512-8, 1953.


If you’ve taken any intro psychology course, or even if you haven’t, you probably know that Freud, the great founder of psychoanalysis (and great believer in the uses of cocaine to aid his digestion…) was a little obsessed with sex. Phallic symbols, vaginal symbols, it all boiled down to sex. If you had difficulty with men, liked older men, hated men, you must have had some underlying sexual issues with your dad. If you liked Popsicles, you really must have a phallus thing, and if you were a woman, you probably had penis envy. Apparently there was no correlate with vaginal envy. But the sexual issues went on and on, I don’t think Freud believed in issues that were not related to sex.
Well, Freud’s psychoanalysis obviously became very popular, and future psychoanalysts remained pretty well fascinated with sex (I think it must have been really fun to be a psychoanalyst…) Today’s post concerns a sexual phenomenon that apparently no psychanalyst ever really solved: the orgiastic loss of consciousness. If you ask me, I think it may all boil down to a mis-interpretation.
Psychoanalysts were very concerned (they may well still be around, so maybe they ARE still concerned) with attaining “maturity in the process of psychosexual development”, and to them this meant the attainment of full sexual potency. But there was a great deal of debate about what “full sexual potency” actually MEANT.

“One investigator prescribes a certain number of coital thrusts, another specifies a minimum and maximum duration…others take exception to these rigid limitations.”

It is impossible to be too immature with that quote. Heh…rigid limitations…heh… and how do you PRESCRIBE a certain number of coital thrusts? “All right, Mr. Smith, let’s try 10 coital thrusts tonight, and call me in the morning.” But my favorite definition of full sexual potency would be the one from Freud himself, who writes “the fleeting but unmistakable loss of consciousness, which can be observed at the climax of every intensive sexual gratification.” Say it with a Viennese accent and it only gets better.
But loss of consciousness? In this article, Dr. Needle explores what exactly that means. He states, and I agree, that an actual loss of consciousness at the moment of orgasm is probably not very healthy. And I don’t think anyone would say that it is common. In fact, the famous Kinsey report has some data on it. In one group of people studied, the orgasm culminates in

“…extreme trembling, collapse, loss of color, and sometimes fainting of the subject. Sometimes this happens only in the boy’s first experience, occasionally it occurs throughout the life of the individual, regularly in one a few (three percent) of adolescent males.”

Needles notes that this is probably pathological rather than normal. It is possible that some of those who experienced trembling, collapse, etc, during orgasm had severe narcolepsy. Narcolepsy in it’s true definition is a loss of hypocretin in the brain, and when the subject gets excited, they lose all skeletal muscle tone, resulting in collapse, though usually they don’t actually lose consciousness. Of course, this also makes it very hard for them to *ahem* achieve full sexual potency, ’cause if you can’t get excited, well. (You know they have hypocretin knockout mice who have this form of narcolepsy. Normally, mice breed like…mice. But the males are really hard to get to breed. The females breed very easily, though, I mean, it’s not like they can run away from their pursuer. There are also narcoleptic dogs. Which are AWESOME).
Aw heck. Narcoleptic dogs.

(The description is wrong, of course, the dog isn’t actually asleep, he suffered a loss of skeletal muscle tone. Since this results following excitement, and small dogs are rather excitable…well. Humans who have the condition say that they are very well aware of what is going on, even though they can’t move at the time.)
But for those who were Freud’s disciples, loss of consciousness should be a necessary part of orgasm. In fact, Kaiser says of a masochistic patient that the reason they are masochistic is because they cannot attain loss of consciousness, and so can never have a full orgasm. Apparently the loss of consciousness is necessary to achieve true relaxation.
But regardless of whether or not we are achieving “true relaxation”, it’s very obvious that most people don’t lose consciousness when they orgasm. Needles, in the end, doesn’t really solve the problem. He revises the definitions. A loss of consciousness was not passing out, blacking out, fainting, or anything else. It was more of a swoon, a loss of SELF-consciousness, the person “withdraws interest from perception of the external world” and focuses entirely on “absorbing pleasure stimuli”. Which is good, because I’m pretty sure that trying to faint during orgasm just to attain “full sexual 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 psychoanalysts too. “…the analyst who fails to have his patients achieve it in the course of analysis may, on that score at least, remain free from anxiety.”
Needles, W. (1953). A note of orgiastic loss of consciousness Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 22 (4)

8 Responses

  1. Heh. One more data point for psychoanalysis being pseudoscience.

  2. I studied Prozac’s effect on zebra fish for my animal behavior research class. It made them lazy and antisocial.
    More on topic, it’s my understanding that “a loss of hypocretin in the brain, and when the subject gets excited, they lose all skeletal muscle tone, resulting in collapse, though usually they don’t actually lose consciousness” is cataplexy, rather than narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder mostly characterized by daytime sleepiness.

  3. We gave SSRIs to beta fish in an undergraduate biology class. It made them display markedly less aggressive behavior.
    The professor pointed out that in coastal waters, pharmaceuticals ending up in the water (by way of sewage, if the drug isn’t changed by metabolism or by the treatment process, or just as garbage) is a non-ridiculous worry, especially if it changes mating-related behavior of commercially important fishes.

  4. Jeff: People with the cataplexy characterized by loss of hypocretin neurons ALSO suffer from severe excess daytime sleepiness. So it’s both, really.
    Ok, clearly I missed out on all the fun things I could have been doing to fish as an undergrad.

  5. Sci, on something of a side note about your depressed salmon. Serotonin is used in aquaculture (for shellfish and some other things too I think) to stimulate sexual behavior. Given that the sexual behavior of most shellfish is somewhat limited to squirting eggs or sperm into the general vicinity of other shellfish, this is the general consequence of increased serotonin in the water – fluoxetine was suggested as a cheaper alternative a few years ago. Also, as is the case for birth control pills, a lot of fluoxetine is flushed down toilets too, so this seems to be affecting wild species as well, although the affect here appears to be deleterious because it throws off their timing, so to speak, which doesn’t matter in aquaculture because they’re all crowded into a small space so that when they all get excited (I presume that’s not too much of an anthropomorphism) there is bound to be a grateful (anthropomorphising again) recipient nearby.

  6. FiSH: REALLY?! That’s so funny. Especially because SSRIs are known to decrease sexual function in humans. That’s really cool, actually.

  7. And as for Freud . . . Freud is always fun, if not terribly scientific, isn’t he . . . I think that you were concentrating on the wrong part of his quote; I think the most important part is “fleeting” – remember that when he was writing consciousness wasn’t terribly well defined anyway (at least not in a meaningful scientific sense, presuming that it is now of course). Here I think that he was trying to describe a particular aspect of climax, the point just as it happens that everything else is lost to your consciousness and you are completely caught up in the sensory experience, eliminating everything else from your perception, even your vision seeming to go black for just a second or so, and the only thing that exists to you then is the sensation of the climax that seems to wash over your entire body. I think that it was a mistake to concentrate on the word “consciousness” and that every Freudian who came after him misinterpreted this, just like practically everything else he said.

  8. Did anyone else notice that Freud and his disciples never studied the female orgasm? Probably because 10 coital thrusts wouldn’t cut it…

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