William J. Broad wrote an article in the Review section of this Sunday's New York Times titled, "I'll Have What She's Thinking," about scientific studies of "spontaneous orgasm," the phenomenon of reaching sexual climax purely by means of internal imagination and fantasy. Broad points out the possible connections between this "novel type of autoeroticism" and religious experience:
"[T]he research is also illuminating a plausible neurological basis for the long intermingling of sexuality and mysticism and, in particular, the teachings of tantra, which arose in medieval India as a path to spiritual ecstasy. Perhaps most important, it illustrates how little we really know of human physiology. Scientists have long debated the purpose of the female orgasm, which plays no direct role in procreation. The emerging reality of spontaneous orgasm seems to do nothing but deepen the mystery."
Broad never mentions dreaming, which is too bad because spontaneous orgasms are a widespread feature of human dream experience, reported in cultures all over the world through history. "Wet dreams" certainly fit with the research Broad describes and further deepen the mysterious interplay of sexuality and mysticism.
Sleep laboratory researchers have known for many decades that blood flow increases during the rapid eye movement (REM) phases of our sleep cycle, leading to penile erections in men and clitoral swelling in women. This means that during REM sleep our minds and bodies are sexually primed, always ready for imagined action.
In a survey of American adults I commissioned in 2010 (2,992 total participants), 69 percent of the men and 58 percent of the women said they had experienced at least one dream in their lives with some kind of sexual feeling in it. These were not necessarily dreams involving an orgasm, but the results suggest a considerable majority of the population (especially younger people) knows what it feels like to be sexually aroused while dreaming.
It's not hard to find evidence in dream content studies for the idea that "spontaneous orgasm" and mystical experience have some kind of intrinsic relationship. The "Barb Sanders" series analyzed by G. William Domhoff in his 2003 book The Scientific Study of Dreaming includes more than 4,000 dreams from an American woman who recorded them in a diary over a period of more than 30 years. Here are two of her sexual dreams with elements that qualify as mystical:
"A surging electric sort of power comes from the mother on high. It is a blue light and it enters my body. I feel the surge and then I feel an orgasm."
"God is a vague human-shaped light that lies down on me and soaks into and through me. I feel wonderful peace and happiness and for a moment feel embarrassed that this at first appeared to be like a lover. How sacrilegious!"
And here is a dream report from a research participant with the pseudonym Bea, a young woman who kept a dream journal for several years that included these two dreams:
"I had an orgasm in my dream last night, and I'm pretty sure I had one in real life too. I was lying on a beach and some guy, I don't know who, was touching me. We weren't having sex; he was just touching me. He was kneeling over me and holding onto this sword. Whenever he pushed his sword deeper into the sand, he touched me a little deeper. The phallic imagery is pretty obvious, but we weren't actually having sex. Anyway, it kept going like this until I had an orgasm and woke up from it. My god!"
"My friend came into my room and we were fooling around a bit. Then he left for a moment (to get water, maybe?) and I had the most intense orgasm I've ever had in real life or in dreams."
There is much we could say about the symbolic and metaphorical dimensions of these dreams. For now I just want to make the more limited point that dreaming is an arena for exactly the kind of sexual/mystical interplay that Broad discusses so eloquently in his article.