Humans have always strived to develop technologies that give us some control, or at least the feelings of control, over the challenges that life throws at us. Psychologists like me devote our professional lives to figuring out why people think and feel what they do, and, in cases where those thoughts or actions are undesirable, to helping people change. We conduct experiments to see whether a certain type of drug or therapy alleviates anxiety or pain. We test “nudges,” such as policies that require people to opt in or opt out of a program, to help them save for retirement or become an organ donor. We design and evaluate social and dating algorithms and platforms to help connect people who might otherwise feel isolated. We aim to satisfy people’s urgent desires for science-backed life hacks that will make them smarter, healthier, and happier.
This is all great. We’re lucky to be living at a time when the rate of discovery and the flow of information has never been quicker. But for thousands of years, humans have gone about developing tools outside of the strict scientific method. Much of what psychologists and neuroscientists have learned about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors—how to support them when they grieve, how to help them find connection and happiness—echo ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years.
You can think of tantric sex as a “connection hack,” because that’s exactly how it operates.
I firmly believe the scientific method is a wonder. It’s a framework that offers one of the best ways to test ideas about how the world works. But when it comes to thinking about how to help people through life’s travails, we scientists shouldn’t be starting from scratch. If we remove the theology—views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, most of the debates that stoke animosity between science and religion evaporate. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs, and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. To ignore that body of knowledge is to slow the progress of science itself and limit its potential benefit to humanity.
Let’s look at one of those spiritual technologies, one that satisfies some of the deepest yearnings humans experience. Yearnings for union and meaning. For many people, the word “tantra” brings to mind techniques for enhancing sexual pleasure. And if you google “tantra,” you’ll find lots of links to Cosmopolitan, Goop, and other wellness sites that present it mostly in this context. They might give a quick nod to its spiritual potential, but most of the discussion will focus on physical ecstasy.
In its original incarnation, though, tantra wasn’t about pleasure. It was a set of beliefs and techniques meant to break people out of their normal patterns of thought and ways of seeing the world. The goal was to foster a direct experience with the divine. While some tantric techniques involved taboo practices (e.g., eating meat or drinking alcohol if your religion usually forbade it, sitting on a corpse to meditate on death), others relied on direct manipulations of the body to achieve altered states. All of them were meant to help people feel a sense of communion with something greater than themselves.
When it comes to tantric techniques, the ones that leverage the body’s wiring—and an easy way to do that is via sex—use a deep feeling of connection with another person as a jumping-off point to that greater transcendent experience. And either or both these types of connection can banish the loneliness that life sometimes brings, especially as people strike out on their own.
Because they use the body to manipulate the mind, most tantric sexual techniques focus on physical elements. They share an emphasis on deep breathing and breath control, touch and massage, affirming mutual eye gazes, and synchronous movement. The goal isn’t to rush to climax; it’s to bond and connect as those taking part lose themselves in each other.
Like many spiritual technologies, the tools that make up tantric sex are well thought out: the combined implementation of the breathing, the massaging, the gazing, and the bodily syncing exerts a specific influence on the mind. You can think of it as a “connection hack,” because that’s exactly how it operates. To see why, we first need to take a brief look at how the human body is wired for connection.
Polyvagal theory (PVT) provides a perfect lens for viewing the physiology of connection. In Latin, vagus means wandering, and that’s an apt name for the body’s longest nerve. After leaving the brainstem, the vagus nerve snakes through the body, extending its fibers to a host of muscles and organs: parts of the mouth and throat, the heart, the lungs, the stomach, and the intestines, to name a few. The vagus nerve also does double duty: It delivers information from the body to the brain as it conveys orders from the brain to the body.
The vagus nerve has two branches. The more ancient one is common to most animals. Reptiles have it; so do fish. Its purpose is simple: to keep the animal from harm by activating the fight-or-flight system. It elevates heart rate and breathing so that animals can escape threats. Or, when escape is all but impossible, it makes animals play dead or faint, as most predators avoid eating carrion.
This change in the brain’s normal electrical patterns can alter how people experience the world.
Animals aren’t always being preyed on, of course. They have less stressful periods too. If you’re a turtle, lizard, or frog, there’s not that much else you need to do during much of this time except feed. Otherwise, except for a quick, nonintimate mating here and there, best to sit tight, conserve your energy, or keep looking for some food. But if you’re a mammal, and especially if you’re a human, sitting alone isn’t helpful. Many would consider it problematic. It’s through building and reinforcing social connections that most mammals improve their situation in life. It’s how we humans form the bonds necessary for our survival and well-being. And that’s why we, unlike turtles and the like, have a second, newer branch of the vagus nerve to help us thrive.
This newer branch has three primary functions. The first centers on the heart and its ties to respiration. As activity in the vagus—also known as vagal tone—increases, a person’s heart rate and respiration slow. The second function centers on the endocrine system. As vagal tone goes up, the release of stress hormones in the body goes down. Higher vagal tone works like a brake on our physiology; it calms us. The third function centers on communication. Increased vagal tone enhances emotional expression in the face, the inner ear’s ability to tune itself to the frequencies most associated with human speech, and the larynx’s ability to relax and produce tones in a more soothing range. All told, heightened vagal tone primes people to socialize, communicate, and connect.
There’s a good deal of research showing that increased vagal tone supports stronger and more empathic bonds between people. In children, for example, heightened vagal tone predicts more positive emotions, fewer problematic behaviors toward others, and increased social skills. In adults, greater vagal tone is associated with better social connectedness, enhanced well-being, and greater empathy for others. And in the case of romantic love, a couple’s vagal tone becomes regularly elevated—a calming of cardiac reactivity that works to buttress them against stress.
Religions have found ways to manipulate vagal tone in order to increase our sense of connection and empathy, perhaps most notably in the practice of tantric sex. When couples follow tantric practice, intentionally slowing and deepening their breathing, caressing each other and gazing into each other’s eyes, their heart rates decrease as their vagal tones rise. Tantric sex is less about orgasm than it is about creating a transcendent sense of connection.
Direct manipulation of vagal tone through touch, breath control, and gaze aren’t the only arrows tantric sex has in its quiver. It also changes people’s physiological states via synchronization. Psychophysiologists have known for decades that as the physical distance between people decreases, their bodily rhythms begin to mirror one another. Their breathing and heart rates become synchronized. Greater synchronization creates a stronger sense of connection. As two lovers begin to align their movements, it becomes easier for each person to predict the other’s thoughts and feelings. Synchrony helps intuition as bodily states begin to match.
Connection works the other way too. Synchrony doesn’t just make people feel closer to each other; how close they emotionally feel at the start of any encounter can also affect synchrony. For example, studies show that conversing couples’ heart rhythms, respiration rates, and vagal tones tend to synchronize, but the fidelity of the linkage—the degree to which the physiological signals move in lockstep between the partners—depends on their marital satisfaction. The happier they are with each other, the more their bodily states mirror each other. Over time, this means that as each act of tantric sex brings lovers closer, it also sets up the next encounter to provide an even stronger experience of connection.
Unlike some spiritual practices, the elements of tantric sex don’t need to be closely tied to specific theological principles. They rely more on controlling the body to influence the mind. Like meditation, tantric practice is adaptable to a variety of purposes and faiths. There’s a new breed of Christian sex coaches who teach these techniques and professors at major Christian universities who are researching their history and the role sex might have played in early Judeo-Christian thought. Removing Hindu and Buddhist religious notions doesn’t alter the way tantric techniques affect the body and mind. The practice can work without the theology. So if you’re interested in this route to connection with a partner, these tools are quite easy to incorporate.
But what about transcendence? If you’re using tantric sex to connect with more than just your partner, an altered state of consciousness has to be involved somewhere. Here’s where the rhythmic aspect of tantric sex comes in. The synchronized groove that tantric lovers attain doesn’t only produce a deep sense of bonding; it also can change conscious experience. Sustained rhythmic, physical stimulation leads to neural entrainment—an alignment of neural signals that produces an explosion in brain activity. If you think of the brain as a blob with electrical pulses running through it, neural entrainment means that the pulses don’t seem random. They seem to be occurring in time with each other, as if the whole brain is pulsing to the same rhythm. As these pulses mirror each other, they reinforce each other until the power of this signal interferes with the normal operation of the brain.
This change in the brain’s normal electrical patterns can alter how people experience the world. Your brain interprets the information that comes in from your eyes, ears, and other sense organs. So when your brain gets hijacked, so, too, do your senses. The result is that lovers will feel not only closer to each other but further from everyday reality. They might suddenly sense the divine with the same kind of clarity and immediacy with which they usually feel the normal world every day. This is the original purpose of tantra and why—despite its R-rated reputation in some quarters—it qualifies fully as a spiritual practice.
David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. He has written about his research in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and other publications. His latest book is How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion.
From How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion by David DeSteno. Copyright © 2021 by David DeSteno. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Lead image: yurakrasil / Shutterstock