Autoerotic Asphyxiation For Science

By Neuroskeptic | August 30, 2012 7:53 am

The death of an autoerotic asphyxiation fan ended up providing science with some valuable observations of what happens during choking

On Twitter recently, I’ve been highlighting some really bad ideas courtesy of the medical literature. From injecting vaseline into your own penis, to pumping compressed air up your rectum for a joke, people have tried it and they’ve ended up on PubMed as a result.

But a recent paper details an extreme case. Canadian medics Anny Sauvageau and colleagues report on the life and death of a 35 year old Hispanic man who, we’re told,

filmed several of his autoerotic asphyxia sessions. After his accidental hanging death, several films were found at the scene, including 3 filmed nonlethal ligature strangulations.

In these 3 ligature strangulations, the man is sitting on a chair. A pair of pajama pants is rolled once around his neck, with the extremities of the pants falling down on each side of his chest. The man is pulling the extremities of the pants with both hands to apply compression on his neck. After losing consciousness, he ceases to pull on the ligature, and the pants slowly loosen around the neck. A few seconds later, he regains consciousness and gets up from the chair.

The videos – which before you go and look, are not included as Supplementary Materials – are of scientific interest, because they offer a rare glimpse into what happens during human strangulation.

You might think that given that people have been strangling each other for thousands of years, it would be a well-understood phenomenon, but in fact it’s very difficult to study. Most of the available evidence comes from video recordings of execution by hanging, but there are only perhaps 10 of these records on file. Although there’s also been an interesting line of research involving judo, in which judo masters apply choke holds to willing volunteers. These include one remarkable paper in which brain activity was recorded before, during and after.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is what seems to happen during strangulation, including hanging:

  1. Loss of consciousness (10 +- 3 seconds).
  2. Convulsions: (14 +- 3 seconds).
  3. Decerebrate rigidity: (19 +- 5 seconds)
  4. Start of very deep respiratory attempt (19 +- 5 seconds)
  5. Decorticate rigidity (38 +- 15 seconds)
  6. Loss of muscle tone (1 minute 17 seconds +- 25 seconds)
  7. End of the very deep respiratory attempt (1 minute 51 seconds +- 30 seconds)
  8. Last muscle movement (4 minutes 12 seconds +- 2 minutes 29 seconds)

The man in this case took himself to Stage 2 before recovering.

Until the last time he tried it, when he didn’t.

ResearchBlogging.orgSauvageau A, Ambrosi C, and Kelly S (2012). Three Nonlethal Ligature Strangulations Filmed by an Autoerotic Practitioner: Comparison of Early Agonal Responses in Strangulation by Ligature, Hanging, and Manual Strangulation. The American journal of forensic medicine and pathology PMID: 22922552

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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