‘Straight Men, Gay Porn’ and Other Brain Map Mysteries

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What’s the role of orgasm in wiring artificial sexual tastes?

Porn addiction can change sexual tastesFor most of the last century, neuroscientists were convinced that adult brains were pretty much set. Now, recent neuroscience reveals that our brains are suprisingly plastic throughout our lives. By learning techniques that help us sidestep unwanted wiring, we can even direct the re-wiring process—with seemingly miraculous results.

A key principle in understanding how we wire, or re-wire, our brains is "neurons that fire together wire together." That is, if two things happen at the same time, our brains often associate them by means of actual neural connections. The more intense the associated events, or the more they are repeated, the stronger the wiring. Groups of nerve cells devoted to a behavior or function are sometimes called "brain maps."

Orgasm is a neurochemical blast so delicious that our brains readily wire it (and arousal) to associated events and circumstances. For example, as Norman Doidge explains in The Brain That Changes Itself,

The men at their computers looking at porn were uncannily like the rats in the cages of the NIH, pressing the bar to get a shot of dopamine or its equivalent. Though they didn't know it, they had been seduced into pornographic training sessions that met all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps. ... Each time they felt sexual excitement and had an orgasm when they masturbated, a "spritz of dopamine," the reward neurotransmitter, consolidated the connections made in the brain during the sessions. [From the chapter "Acquiring Tastes and Loves."]

Clearly, orgasm is such a powerful reinforcer that it can shape brain maps, with implications for where our future attention is directed without our conscious awareness. This suggests that we might want to think ahead before diving into a particular means of sexual arousal.

Aversion can also alter brain maps. Doidge records that the sexual tastes of one of his patients went through phases. (p.95) He was only attracted to Asian sex partners in one phase, and only to African partners in another. In each case, he was sure his happiness depended upon sex with that racial group. Yet eventually he couldn't stomach sex with either. (One wonders where the poor guy's tastes shifted once he exhausted his sexual desire for all five races.)

Paradoxically, too much orgasm may have been behind his aversion. Sexual satiety seems to fuel the Coolidge Effect, that is, the tendency of mammals to tire of mates with which they have exhausted their sexual desire, so they find novel mates alluring.

Along the same lines, heavy porn users sometimes notice that as tolerance builds for their earlier tastes, they move in new directions in their search for intense arousal. Instead of seeking porn that accords with their former brain maps, many seek out what shocks them—perhaps because "forbidden" and "fear-producing," when combined with sexual arousal, offer a bigger brain chemical kick...at least for a time. Each shift wires the new tastes into the brain. (Read how Internet porn differs from porn of the past: Porn Then and Now: Welcome to Brain Training) Porn addiction rewires the brain in surprising ways

Doidge also points out that some users' porn choices, such as spanking or domination scenarios, may be related to subconscious, that is, implicit, childhood memories of which they are unaware. Once activated by the "right" porn, and reinforced with orgasm, such scenarios can more swiftly become compulsions.

Completely unanticipated sexual tastes can arise. More than one poor guy who has been straight all his life, and who honestly believes he is still straight, has arrived at my website shaken by the fact that gay porn is suddenly compelling. Is this just latent homosexuality? Maybe not, because the dial doesn't necessarily stop at gay porn. One man went from straight porn, to gay porn, to porn themes of heterosexual domination and sexual hypnosis. Others are traumatized to find themselves moving from fantasizing to acting out porn scenarios, as the buzz from mere video flags.

Does hypersexuality play a role in these changes? Consider the various instances of alterations in sexual tastes  (from heterosexual to homosexual) in patients given dopamine agonist drugs  for Parkinson's and restless legs. In some, the high-dopamine drugs, or perhaps the drug-induced hypersexuality, caused uncharacteristic sexual tastes—until their meds were adjusted.

Pursuit of frequent orgasm with the help of today's extreme Internet porn may produce a similar effect (surges of dopamine that drive fetish formation). When questioned about the alleged permanence of childhood sexual brain maps, one twenty-year porn veteran said candidly:

I just do not think any tastes are permanent—or that what I would desire would stay the same. I mean with the different phases I went through in the porn addiction, things changed a lot. What are my core attractions? I do not even know anymore. I think I will discover them after I have been out of the porn part of this addiction for a long time.

He may be right. A period of abstinence from orgasm seems to be yet another technique that alters people's sexual brain maps (or reveals more deep-seated maps). Said a straight guy who was exclusively watching gay porn and confused about it:

I made it just 10 days this time without masturbating, but I'm confident my tastes are shifting back. My attraction to women was amped up a lot. I actually got butterflies and spontaneous arousal while looking at a woman for the first time in 2 years! I also had a kind of revelation. Have my tastes have been manipulated by constant reinforcement and conditioning via masturbating to particular sexual fantasies?

His experience paralleled this woman's, which she recounted after she began to experiment with karezza lovemaking. As an adult, she discovered that the torture fantasies that ran in her head whenever she was trying to climax were the product of some insignificant (but apparently both painful and arousing) genital snipping her pediatrician did when she was a baby. Discovering the source of this brain map did not un-wire the association. In fact, she said she never became aroused or climaxed without heart-closing, torture movies running in her head. To her amazement, when she began experimenting with making love without orgasm as the goal the fantasies swiftly receded, never to return.

After reading Doidge's book, I suspect that these individuals saw changes because they reversed the "neurons that fire together wire together" rule. That is, they removed pusuit of orgasm for a time—with its unwanted, but tightly wired, associations. This somehow allowed their brains to shed, or begin to shed, artifically acquired associations.

Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz uses a version of this technique with great success to help OCD (obsessive-compulsive) patients modify the brain wiring that causes unwanted associations to trigger "required" actions. Each time an unwanted impulse arises, the patient turns his attention to some other, pre-chosen, constructive activity. Gradually, "neurons that fire apart, wire apart." That is, nerve cell connections weaken as activity in the key synapses declines.

Porn addiction changes brainsWhat all this means, and for whom, remains to be seen. For example, would it be possible to use this technique to re-wire sexual maps acquired in childhood through misfortune? Doidge describes a study done on a BDSM community (bondage and sadomasochism). It revealed that all the masochists had undergone painful medical procedures during childhood. Could these adults find out what their sexual tastes would have been in the absence of such experiences? And what of unwanted associations acquired due to child sexual abuse? Would a period of sex without orgasm (to the unwanted stimuli) allow a brain to reboot and then align with its earlier wiring?

Orgasm is so enticing that our brains automatically take the fastest path to it, just like taking the most direct route across a field of grass. If we never allow the grass to grow back, we keep walking the path of least resistance even if it formed purely as a quirk of fate.

The possibility that humans may be able to free their sexual brain maps from unwanted debris is fascinating. At the same time, it's sobering to consider how many people may inadvertently be altering their plastic brains with semi-permanent junk they really don't want—with the help of today's cornucopia of intensely arousing Internet porn.