Intimate Relationships and the Brain

Porn addiction hijacks our pair-bonding mechanismThese articles were not written with porn addiction in mind, yet they may be worthwhile to you. If you are addicted to porn, it's likely that your intimate relationships are suffering, or non-existent. The theme that runs through these articles is how mates, or potential mates, speak directly to their limbic brains—the place we fall in love. They do it with signals called 'bonding behaviors' or 'attachment cues.' The neurobiology of love and the evolution of mating are covered here. Perhaps you will view sexual relationships differently after reading these articles.

  • Human Brains Are Built to Fall in Love What do your dainty eyeteeth mean for your love life? Contains the basics on pair bonding and social monogamy. Sheds light on why we fall in love with a significant other, but chimps do not. Explains that pair-bonding is not a societal construct, but a brain program.
  • Committed Relationship: You’re Wired For It Pair bonding is a biological program not a cultural construct. More research confirming that humans are pair bonders, and a discussion of how lots of casual sex isn't typical of humanity as a whole.
  • How to Talk to Cupid What signals are you sending your mate? How to steer your primitive brain in the direction of staying in love. What to do when the honeymoon ends. Explains how attachment cues or bonding behaviors bypass our conscious brain to strengthen our relationship.
  • Lovers' Ultimate Sex Hack: Karezza Karezza side effects may include more energy and a healthier libido "I have fallen deeply in love with my wife really for the first time. We're like teenagers and are able to have intimacy and sex now that was simply unheard of before." Karezza is an organic way for lovers to hack their pair-bonding machinery and remain attracted to each other indefinitely.
  • The Lazy Way to Stay in Love Steer your limbic system to sustain romance. The most In-depth look at bonding behaviors. Contains a long list of bonding behaviors for you to try out. Our most popular article on love and attachment.
  • Staying in Love Monkey-Style Why are pair-bonding tamarins and humans different from chimps? How do monogamous monkeys stay in love? With monkey bonding behaviors. Explains how the brain is organized to pair bond or to fool around. Yet we, like tamarin monkeys, have certain behaviors that can increase closeness and impact our biochemistry positively.
  • Calling All Skin-Hungry Cuddle Sluts How viable is the concept of sexual self-sufficiency? If you're in between lovers, and feeling frustrated, what about finding a cuddle buddy? Read about how four twenty-somethings benefited from snuggling with a close friend.
  • Can’t She/He See I Need Sex? Beware the brain numbed to pleasure. How neurochemical changes after sex or orgasm can put partners out of sync. Explores the unique theory that orgasm can temporarily shift perception of one's partner.
  • Another Way to Make Love Elude the Coolidge Effect with a forgotten approach to sex. Introduces a more gentle approach to lovemaking. A new concept for most, yet it has been around for thousands of years.
  • Oxytocin, Fidelity and Sex Can a guy keep himself faithful by jacking up oxytocin? How can "the love hormone" make men subconsciously keep their distance from attractive, novel mates?

Human Brains Are Built to Fall in Love

What do your dainty eyeteeth mean for your love life?

Marriage dreamsHuman behavior varies a lot. As compared with other primates, we're heavily influenced by culture, religion, family upbringing, and so forth. As a consequence, it's logical to conclude that our fitful monogamy is purely culturally induced and not instinctual. (On the other hand, we readily seem to accept that promiscuous tendencies are wired into our brains.) 

In fact, we are programmed to pair bond—just as we're programmed to add notches to our belts. By programmed, I mean that our brains are set up so that we engage in these behaviors with a lower threshold of enticement than we would otherwise. Both these programs serve our genes, as does the tension between them. For example, on average, we stay bonded long enough to fall in love with a kid, who then benefits from two caregivers. Then we may easily grow restless and seek out novel genes in the form of another partner. Italian research, for example, reveals that our racy "honeymoon neurochemistry" typically wears off within two years

Pair bonding is not simply a learned behavior. If there weren't neural correlates behind this behavior, there would not be so much falling in love and pairing up across so many cultures. The pair-bonding urge is built-in and waiting to be activated, much like the program that bonds infants with caregivers. In fact, these two programs arise in overlapping parts of the brain and employ the same neurochemicals.* The Coolidge Effect (that sneaky tendency to habituate to a familiar sex partner and yearn for a novel one) is also a program. The fact that these programs often dominate one another doesn't alter the fact they both influence us.

Even when we override inclinations like these, they lurk. So it is that mates must often grit their teeth if they choose to remain faithful in the face of urges to pursue novel partners. And most humans are wired with powerful parent-child bonding impulses, even if they choose not to have children. It is a rare mother who does not bond with her kids (although it can happen if, for example, drug use has interfered with her neurochemistry). Similarly, people may choose never to engage in sex and orgasm, but groups of interconnected neurons are ready to give them a powerful experience if they do.

Again, such programs are present because of the physical structures in the brain—especially those that make up "the reward circuitry." This mechanism is activated by a neurochemical called dopamine (the "I gotta have it!" neurochemical). This is why falling in love, sex, nurturing a kid, and often pursuing a novel partner all register as rewarding.

Without this neurochemical reward, pair bonders wouldn't bother to pair bond. They'd settle into the usual, promiscuous mammalian program, in pursuit of its rewards. Predictably, there is evidence of unique brain activation in pair-bonding voles (compared with the non-pair-bonding variety). And there is data showing similar brain activity in pair-bonding primates. See: Neural correlates of pairbonding in a monogamous primate. Although more research is needed, it may be that pair-bonding mammals (unlike non-pair-bonding bonobos, for example) share similar neural correlates: neural networks, receptor type and specific neurotransmitters, etc. Neuroendocrinologist Sue Carter expressed this view: "The biochemistry [of bonding] is probably going to be similar in humans and in animals because it's quite a basic function."

While all mammals find sex rewarding, pair bonders also register the individual mate as rewarding. Thanks to this hidden pair-bonding program, our brains light up so we become infatuated. And our hearts ache when are parted from our sweetheart. Pair-bonding voles, too, show signs of pining when separated from a mate.

Need more evidence? Consider the hellish fury that arises when we are jilted for someone new. A cow, on the other hand, is quite indifferent if the bull that fertilized her yesterday does his duty with her neighbor today. Lacking the requisite neural correlates, she is not a pair bonder.

Porn addiction can interfere with our fragile pair-bonding programWhy should we care that we're pair bonders?

Given the fact that the urge to switch partners so often overrides our pair-bonding inclinations, shouldn't we continue to give this unreliable program scant attention? Maybe not. Even though our pair-bonding urge is clearly not a guarantee of living happily ever after with a lover, a better understanding of it may furnish important clues for relationship contentment, and even greater well-being. We don't have to conform to our genes' friction-prone agenda.

Let's consider some oft-ignored aspects of this program:

First, we may have come from a long line of pair bonders. A recent fossil find suggests that pair bonding could be the opposite of a superficial cultural phenomenon. The discovery of upright early human Ardipithecus (4.4 million years old) means that our line and the chimp line diverged long ago. Some researchers hypothesize that, because Ardipithecus males and females were about the same size, and the specimens do not have large, sharp canine teeth, it's possible that the fierce, often violent competition among males for females in heat that characterizes gorillas and chimpanzees was absent.

This could suggest that the males were beginning to enter into somewhat monogamous relationships with females—possibly devoting more time to carrying food (which would favor walking on two legs) and caring for their young than did earlier ancestors. See: Did Early Humans Start Walking for Sex?  In short, promiscuous bonobo chimps, our nearest living relatives, are really not so close. As non-pair bonders, they may have little to teach us about contented love lives.

Second, a happy pair bond offers humans sensations of deep, health-promoting satisfaction. When researchers measure happiness factors, a contented pair bond registers as one of the most important determinants of happiness. This may be a function of our pair-bonder wiring. Research shows that warm, comforting touch between mates appears to be protective of health and longevity. "Increasing warm touch among couples has a beneficial influence on multiple stress-sensitive systems." 

Affectionate contact between pair-bonding mates is apparently an exaptation of the same soothing contact that bonds infants and caregivers. Many popular articles emphasize that frequent orgasm benefits mates. Yet that assumption overlooks that we're wired to benefit from bonding and closeness themselves, quite apart from whether orgasm occurs. Clarity on this point can make staying in love more effortless than we thought.

Next we'll look at a vulnerability that may haunt pair bonders


* [From Speaker Summary of talk by Larry Young, PhD entitled, "Neurobiology of Social Bonding and Monogamy"]

Prairie voles, like humans, are highly social and form long-lasting pair bonds between mates. This is in contrast to 95 percent of all mammalian species, which do not appear capable of forming long lasting social bonds between mates. Studies examining the brain and genetic mechanisms underlying pair bonding have revealed an important role for a few key chemicals in the brain in establishing social relationships. Oxytocin and vasopressin appear to focus the brain’s attention to the social signals in the environment. During pair bond formation, these chemicals interact with the brain’s reward system (e.g. dopamine) to establish an association between the social cues of the partner and the rewarding nature of mating. So why are some species capable of forming social bonds while others are not? Research comparing the brains of monogamous and non-monogamous species reveals that it is the location of the receptors that respond to oxytocin and vasopressin that determines whether an individual will be capable of bonding. For example, monogamous male prairie voles have high concentrations of vasopressin receptors in a ventral forebrain reward center that is also involved in addiction. Non-monogamous meadow voles lack receptors there. However, if receptors are inserted into this reward center in the non-monogamous meadow vole, these males suddenly develop the capacity to form bonds. These studies also suggest that pair bonding shares many of the same brain mechanisms as addiction. Genetic studies have revealed that DNA sequence variation in the gene encoding the vasopressin receptor affect the level of receptor expression in certain brain regions and predict the probability that the male will form a social bond with a female.

Recent studies in humans have revealed remarkable similarities in the roles of oxytocin and vasopressin in regulating social cognition and behavior in vole and man. Variation in the DNA sequence of the human vasopressin receptor gene has been associated with variation in measures of romantic relationship quality. In humans, intranasal delivery of oxytocin enhances trust, increases gaze to the eyes, increases empathy and enhances socially-reinforced learning. Indeed it appears that stimulating the oxytocin system in humans increases the attention to social cues in the environment....

Committed Relationship: You’re Wired For It

Pair bonding is a biological program not a cultural construct

Porn addiction can interfere with relationshipsDespite a colorful array of cultural differences, humans everywhere fall in love, attach emotionally for long periods, and feel betrayed when mates are unfaithful. These behaviors are innate, not the products of random cultural influences. To make this point another way: Most mammals don't tattoo their mates' names on their bums, and are not subject to fits of jealous rage.

Human Brains Are Built to Fall in Love, an earlier post, explained that pair bonding behaviors have neurobiological mechanisms behind them. Now, there's more research evidence of our underlying pair-bonding programming. Predictably, it lines up with the evidence coming from the famous pair-bonding prairie vole. (More on that in a moment.) New York Times journalist John Tierney describes the new research this way:

The 21-year-old woman was carefully trained not to flirt with anyone who came into the laboratory over the course of several months. She kept eye contact and conversation to a minimum. She never used makeup or perfume, kept her hair in a simple ponytail, and always wore jeans and a plain T-shirt. ...

Previous research had shown that a woman at the fertile stage of her menstrual cycle seems more attractive, and that same effect was observed here—but only when this woman was rated by a man who wasn't already involved with someone else.

The other guys, the ones in romantic relationships, rated her as significantly less attractive when she was at the peak stage of fertility, presumably because at some level they sensed she then posed the greatest threat to their long-term relationships. To avoid being enticed to stray, they apparently told themselves she wasn't all that hot anyway. ...

Tierney adds that clearly,

Natural selection favored those who stayed together long enough to raise children: the men and women who could sustain a relationship by keeping their partners happy. They would have benefited from the virtue to remain faithful, or at least the willingness to appear faithful while cheating discreetly.

He also quotes U.C.L.A. psychologist Martie Haselton: "Women and men are affected by ovulation, but we [humans] don't have any idea that it is what is driving these substantial changes in our behavior. [Such research] makes it clear that we're much more like other mammals than we thought."

How true. In voles, scientists are already uncovering the underlying neural mechanisms that regulate pair bonding behaviors, and sure enough, one of them is a mechanism that causes a male's defensive aggressiveness toward unfamiliar willing females (once he has formed a pair bond with his main squeeze). This behavior obviously doesn't happen for cultural reasons. It happens primarily because the neurochemical vasopressin increases in a key part of his brain. (By the way, it won't necessarily keep Mr. Vole 100% faithful. Mrs. Vole, too, has been known to have a fling.)

Curious about the mechanics that dictate whether a mammal is capable of bonding? Turns out that in monogamous voles natural selection has reconfigured the distribution of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the brain's limbic system. While all voles find sex rewarding, monogamous voles also get good feelings from a particular mate. The bonding mechanism, by the way, is the original addiction mechanism (which all other addictions hijack). This is why addiction can interfere with pair bonds.

Indeed, if scientists trigger the production of too much dopamine with artificial stimulation, an animal not only doesn't bond, but also becomes aggressive toward all females. Could this help explain why some heavy porn users appear to be losing interest in real mates?

The vital point is that our pair bonding penchant arises from physiological events, not mere social conditioning. It evolved from the infant-caregiver mechanism, and the two mechanisms still overlap in the brain's reward circuitry. So, even though many Westerners appear to be caught up in a chaotic hook-up culture for the moment, it doesn't mean that we humans are, by nature, as promiscuous as bonobo chimps or that pair-bonding inclinations are superficial cultural constructs.

Keep in mind that human and bonobo evolution diverged some six million years ago. Our closest relatives are on our branch of the evolutionary tree, even if they're no longer around. Somewhere along that branch humans became pair-bonders due to brain changes.

Although mammalian pair bonding is rare, the alterations that make a species pair bonders are not necessarily exotic. For example, pair-bonding prairie voles are so like their promiscuous meadow-vole cousins that scientists can convert a meadow vole into a pair bonder simply by prompting the expression of a single gene in his forebrain. (It increases receptors for vasopressin). In short, the behavior of our distant bonobo cousins is entertaining, but quite irrelevant when it comes to understanding the fundamentals of human mating.

"Ah, but look how promiscuous we are!" you're thinking, right? Keep in mind two other points about our current hook-up behavior:

First, the studies we do in the West (generally using university students) are somewhat reckless in characterizing all of human behavior based on small slices of our rather unrepresentative culture. While strict monogamy is not the human norm, most mates still live in pairs. (Many cultures permit a man who can afford it to take another wife, but few can afford it.)

In short, if you are hooking up with multiple partners purely for recreation you could be an outlier. Your behavior is not typical human behavior—a point that is easily overlooked by Western researchers. For example, a 2007 study of 1,500 undergraduate men and women claimed to tell us "Why Humans Have Sex." It found that many students had sex for recreation, not procreation. (Really??) In other cultures, humans are often quite adamant that sex is primarily linked to reproduction and building a family. Even sex with multiple partners may have stronger babies ("seminal nurture") as its objective. (Lest readers jump to any misguided conclusions, I'm a 'sex for recreation' fan, but also a fan of the benefits of attachment.)

Second, the term "pair bonder" does not imply perfect sexual monogamy. It simply means mates are inclined to hang out together and raise offspring (known as social monogamy). No pair-bonding mammal species are entirely sexually exclusive; it would be an evolutionary handicap. So the reality that not all humans remain one hundred percent faithful for life and some of us have sex without attachment is not surprising. Variety also serves evolution.

Yet it's useful to keep in mind that pair-bonder brains, including yours, are generally set up to attach to a mate. So, even if your milieu is wildly promiscuous for the moment, you have nothing to apologize for if you notice a hankering for a stable bond at the center of your sex life. The reasons lie in your brain, not your upbringing, and you can consciously tap this innate potential.

In our culture, which so prizes beauty and youth, it may seem downright odd that an aging couple could be more and more pleased by each other as the years pass. ... If you know a handful of elderly couples, think about those among them who are still intensely drawn to one another. Watching them is evidence enough that attraction is not primarily based on attractiveness. ... Seeing, touching, and hearing a devoted partner gains more and more power over time to trigger the release of [the bonding hormone, oxytocin].—Mark Chamberlain PhD

At least in a pair-bonding species like us.

See "The Ape That Thought It Was a Peacock:Does Evolutionary Psychology Exaggerate Human Sex Differences?"

(Excerpt) Pair Bonding

Pair bonding (or monogamy) is an extremely rare mating system among mammals, found in less than 5% of species (Kleiman, 1977). Nonetheless, it appears tobe a central element in humans’ reproductive repertoire. It is therefore a curious fact that our dominant mating system is more like the typical mating system of birds than that of most mammals, including our nearest relatives, the Great Apes. In making this claim, it is important to be clear about three things. First, the claim is not that pair bonds necessarily last for life. In the absence of socially  enforced lifelong monogamy, most pair bonds last for months or years but ultimately dissolve (Fisher, 1992). Note, though, that a significant minority of pair bonds do last until the end of the lifespan, even in traditional forager societies that lack rigid strictures on divorce (see,  e.g., Marlowe, 2004).
Second, the claim is not that human pair bonds are always sexually exclusive. Most surveys suggest that considerably fewer than 50% of men or women in long-term committed relationships are ever unfaithful (Blow & Hartnett, 2005). Nonetheless, some are, and as a result, a certain fraction of offspring are sired by someone other than the social father (the best estimates place this at around 1–3%; Anderson, 2006; Wolf, Musch, Enczmann, & Fischer, 2012). Third, the claim is not that pair bonding is our one “true” or natural mating system. Humans exhibit all the mating systems found in other species, including monogamy, polygyny (one man, two or more women), and even polyandry (one women, two or more men; Murdock, 1967).
It is also not uncommon for people to engage in extrapair mating, or to engage in casual sex before marriage or between long-term relationships. Different frequencies of each of these mating behaviors are found in different cultures and different historical periods. However, with the exception of long-term polyandry, all are relatively common, and thus all are plausibly part of the evolved repertoire of the human animal. Thus, our claim is not that pair bonding is humanity’s singular mating pattern. Our claim instead is simply that the pair bond is the most common setting for sex and reproduction in our species, that it has been for a long time, and that this has left a deep imprint on our evolved nature.

2016 study: Prairie voles show human-like consoling [but non-pair-bonding voles do not]



Guys: Where Do You Fall on the Monogamy Spectrum?

New research overturns commonly held beliefs about men

affectionate couple

Regardless how many sexual partners you've had, you may still benefit from figuring out the extent to which you're wired for pair bonding. Being a pair-bonder, by the way, doesn't guarantee "happily ever after." It means socially monogamous: having the capacity to fall in love and the desire to bond, at least for a time. In contrast, most mammal species are like bonobo chimps and rats; they mate and move on. The reasons for the differences lie in brain structure.

Despite our capacity for promiscuity, we humans are a pair-bonding species. It shows up in our powerful hankering for touch and ongoing companionship—and makes perfect sense, as our offspring benefit from parents who hang around with each other for more than one estrous cycle. (For a solid analysis of human pair bonding, see "Your Sexy Brain" in The Compass of Pleasure.) As with any trait, however, there are always outliers (atypical individuals). So how do you know where you are on the pair-bonder spectrum? And what does it mean in terms of finding contentment?

Consider a recent poll of more than a thousand middle-aged or older couples in committed, long-term relationships from five countries. Said the researchers, "The overall levels of relationship happiness were high in this study." So, what did these couples say makes their relationships most satisfying (i.e., likely to last)?

For men, frequent kissing and cuddling and frequent sexual caressing by a partner each increased the odds of reporting relationship happiness by a factor of approximately 3. (Specifically 3.0 and 3.11, respectively. For women the predictive strength of each was only 1.59 and 1.35.) As the researchers concluded, there's a "need for reconsideration of the role of physical affection and its meanings" by gender. In another study, even young guys associated romantic stimuli more than sexual stimuli with a pleasant condition.

Duration of relationship also had a significant and positive effect on relationship happiness. And men who had had fewer partners reported greater sexual satisfaction. Are some guys just wired for monogamy? Does extended closeness increase satisfaction? What is the link between variety and dissatisfaction? (More in a moment.)

Highly valuing orgasm and frequency of sex were not strong predictors of relationship happiness. However, over all, both spouses rated their partner's orgasm as a more important priority than their own. In other words, those who pair up contentedly over the long haul seem to value affectionate and arousing touch, sexual responsiveness, and, perhaps, a generous mindset more than orgasm itself.

What does your brain say, and are you hearing it clearly?

Monogamy and infidelity often correlate with feelings of contentment or restlessness. These feelings arise in a primitive group of structures in the brain known as the reward circuitry. Wherever you fall on the pair-bonder spectrum, how you get your good feelings can reveal how you are wired. If you are primarily focused on living out your sexual fantasies, and novel partners are your biggest aphrodisiac, you may be more wired for riskier, hit-or-miss sex than long-term monogamy.

In the alternative, you may be a pair bonder whose pleasure response has been numbed by intense sexual stimulation—or even addiction. In this regard, a new study found that significant predictors of male infidelity are: propensity for sexual excitation (becoming easily aroused by many triggers and situations) and fear of sexual performance failure. Both can be symptoms of overstimulation. Novelty and risk may then act as desperately needed aphrodisiacs because they release extra dopamine. Once balance in the brain is restored, extreme stimulation often becomes unnecessary for sexual performance, and contented monogamy is much easier.

In any event, if you find affection, sexy touch and close companionship particularly arousing and satisfying, then you are probably not a restless outlier on the pair-bonder spectrum—even if you have multiple partners over time. Pair bonders adore sex, of course, but for them partner responsiveness and receptivity seem to be especially pleasurable and reassuring. This appears to be true of other pair-bonding primates as well.

Are you wired like the long-term couples described above? If so, you may not be thriving in today's culture. Pair-bonder strengths, such as a need for tenderness to respond sexually, can appear to be a weakness in today's sexual milieu. Here are four areas where the standard advice could backfire for you:

1. 'If it feels good do it' can lead to addiction

Believe it or not, if you have very strong pair-bond wiring, you may be particularly vulnerable to getting hooked—not just on online erotica, but also on other things. The reason is biological. Too much intense stimulation can "hijack" the very brain mechanism that evolved to encourage pair bonding. For example, pair-bonding (prairie) voles are particularly likely to go for addictive substances (unlike non-pair-bonding voles). Yet paired prairie voles have no interest in drugs. It's almost as if the reward circuitry of a pair bonder has a "little hole" crying out to be filled by a pair bond (even if the individual never bonds).

In the absence of contented union, some pair bonders will grab just about anything to fill that "hole." And some won't discover they are pair bonders until they give up their love-substitutes. As one guy said:

Goal: Within the next academic year, acquire a legit, dependable cuddle-buddy. It's likely that this means a girlfriend. Fine by me! Just want some TLC. God, it's so different for me to talk like this. For years I've been a porn-obsessed, introverted weirdo, who was completely mystified by the fact that people can like each other so much. Now I'm turning into one of them.

Incidentally, a pair-bonder brain can make it surprisingly tough to relinquish a porn harem, even when you would prefer a real partner. Said another guy:

John and YokoYour brain has to accept that you are saying goodbye to all those girls, never to see them again! It will make you sad, angry, miserable, depressed, horny as hell, numb, null—it will drag you through the worst kinds of hell to get you to go back to your harem, because it loves them so much. [Pair-bonded male voles show the same kind of distress when separated from a mate.]

He also described how it feels to move toward a real mate:

Then, just like when you break up with a girlfriend (well, in fact exactly the same, because it is the same), you wake up one day and the fever is gone. The brain says "OK. I get it. *sniff*. I guess the harem's really all gone and I'll never see them again. *sniff*... Hey - that woman waiting in line at the bank is cute though! Hey baby!" And you are healed. [He soon got together with a woman he loved from his past.]

2. Solo Sex May Produce Less Satisfaction Down the Road


Given the powerful good feelings that pair bonders get from nurturing connection, the popular expert advice encouraging mates to engage in solo sex to increase their quotient of sexual satisfaction can backfire. One husband, who suffered from erectile dysfunction for many years and therefore seldom had sexual intercourse, decided to experiment with giving up masturbation for the three months prior to a vacation with his wife. After four straight days of intercourse with her, he said:

This is the first time I've had intercourse without fantasizing about something else. Basically focusing on my wife is now a turn on! I might have expected too much of myself in the past. I assumed that I should be up and ready to go at a second's notice, no matter what. I expected to get a boner every time I looked at a beautiful woman. Now my expectation is to eventually get erect if I'm relaxed in the presence of a woman I like (i.e. my wife).

On the first night, it wasn't until I started cuddling with my wife that my erection emerged. I'm now starting to "feel" my libido a little bit throughout the day. I believe I'm cured, and I think my problem was a mixture of performance anxiety and too much masturbation. If 4 days of intercourse in a row with my wife don't convince me that my libido is okay, what will?

3.  Cuddle Buddies May Be More Beneficial Than Hook-Ups

Pair bonders seem to find affectionate touch and companionship more satisfying than sex that has little of either. Therefore, in between relationships, "cuddle buddies" may prove a better option than online erotica or casual sex. Said a couple of guys who experimented:

I now have a snuggle buddy. We just watch a movie together once in a while, while holding each other. It's a good situation because there is no pressure. And I really have to say, real women are so much better than porn. It feels so great. I think it's what I've been craving for most of my life. It was comforting to know that she wanted to do it as much as I did.

It's possible that some pair bonders are actually built for slower courtships that allow for building trust (and assessing trustworthiness). As explained in "The Lazy Way to Stay in Love," the exchange of non-erotic (but genital-friendly) touch may play a special role for pair bonders because the brain's pair-bonding mechanism evolved from the caregiver-infant bond. 

Of course, some men are less sensitive to attachment cues than others. As an evolutionary biologist friend said,

It's likely that brain mechanisms initially selected for mother-offspring bonding have been inherited equally by sons, enabling male-female bonding and father-offspring bonding. Those traits, in turn, have also been positively selected in humans, although less strongly in males than in females—because male genetic fitness is still achieved to varying degrees without these bonds.

4. Sexual Responsiveness May Be Related to Emotional Connection

As revealed in the findings of the couple study summarized at the outset of this post, desire for an emotional connection may be built right into the brain chemistry a pair bonder—whether he likes it or not. Consider the remarks of these guys:

I personally don't like to have a physical relationship if I am not sure that I see a woman being in my life for a while. I think I would be horrible at polyamory. I'm not a one-night stand guy—just not wired that way.

When I am with a girl I've already had sex with, I can have an erection standing next to them. But with a girl that I haven't been with, I don't feel turned on. I have to work to get some feeling in my penis when talking to them or dancing with them.

Today's environment can make it challenging for pair bonders to find their way to lasting contentment. If you happen to be wired for deeper connection and less mate turnover, then today's highly publicized advice about the benefits of casual sex and online erotica won't do it for you. Trying to adapt may leave you feeling empty, or throw you into a loop of dissatisfaction or addiction-related problems

Regardless of what others are doing, find out what increases your sense of satisfaction. If necessary, restore your brain to normal sensitivtiy. Reach out to real potential mates. Try emphasizing more touch and affection in your connections. Very soothing? If so, connection may be improving your wellbeing in important ways. Said one man,

My wife and I both take medication for high blood pressure. A couple of months ago, our numbers started coming down. I have cut my medication to ¼ of the previous level; her doc just told her she can drop the meds. Interestingly, a few months ago I increased the level of our bonding behaviors. I give her a foot and/or back massage every night. I pulled out my dog-eared, highlighted copy of Cupid's Poisoned Arrow. Sure enough, there it is on page 216: "Massage and other caring touch lower stress hormones and blood pressure," even for givers, it seems.

If you experiment, you will learn to recognize, ask for, and deliver the behaviors your brain is actually searching for to register maximum lasting contentment. You'll also know what qualities to watch for in prospective partners. (And what to forgive in past partners.) Figuring out what is right for you has implications for your happiness, your health, and perhaps even for future generations.

Watch a short video on the neurochemistry of pair bonding

Read Age 23 - (ED), 7 months - needed an emotional bond

Research: Gynephilic Men's Self-Reported and Genital Sexual Responses to Relationship Context Cues (2017)

A few pages from "The Compass of Pleasure"

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Lovers' Ultimate Sex Hack: Karezza

Happy loversKarezza side effects may include more energy and a healthier libido

Last year, there was a brief publicity flurry about a venerable, but little known, approach to sex called "karezza" (pronounced ka-RET-za). ABC ran a news story and karezza articles showed up from Argentina to India. The ladies of The View even grappled with it. A karezza subreddit gained steam, and Germany gave birth to a new karezza website.

Still, chances are good that you haven't a clue what karezza is. Before I explain, here's a bit of context. Human mating has some very un-Disney characteristics. True, new lovers are jacked up on thrilling honeymoon neurochemicals. For example, they have extra nerve growth factor and cortisol flowing through their veins. Dopamine-releasing areas of the brain are activated. Their serotonin is often as low as the levels of OCD patients—which is why lovers obsess over each other. In addition, odd things are going on with their testosterone levels: They're lower than normal in men during early romance, and higher than normal in women—bringing their libidos more into sync.

Yet all these potent neurochemicals return to base levels by the end of year two at the latest. Once that booster shot wears off, cracks tend to appear. That's when habituation can set in if couples don't learn to counter it. The standard sex advice for committed couples—which is to heat things back up to earlier intensity with more variety in the bedroom—often backfires. "Heat" can gradually numb lovers' response to pleasure, making vanilla pleasures even less fulfilling. Mates may end up on an unsatisfying, but very demanding, treadmill of seeking new highs while feeling less overall pleasure.

Karezza is an organic way to hack our pair-bonding machinery and remain attracted to each other. It has turned up in various cultures over thousands of years. In simplest terms, it's affectionate, sensual intercourse without the goal of climax. Intercourse is generally frequent, although not necessarily daily. But couples typically also engage in daily "bonding behaviors." These attachment cues are very powerful, and have been shown to reduce stress as well as strengthen bonds.

In this post, I'll address some of the natural questions people have about this unfamiliar practice. First up:

  • How do you respond to the guffaws that accompany any discussion about karezza?

I generally laugh along, because years ago I had a similar initial reaction when I read a Chinese Daoist manual about cultivating sexual energy rather than releasing it in orgasm. Intriguing as the concept was, the book went back on the shelf for 5 years! Eventually, however, I began experimenting with the ideas and was amazed.

Eventually, I realized that my experimental lovemaking had evolved. It had drifted closer to the descriptions in some old karezza books and away from the more performance-driven Daoist lore. Mysteriously, harmony and karezza seemed to go together.

Part of the challenge with karezza is that we humans think we already know everything important about sex. Actually, we have a lot to learn about the subtle, lingering changes in the brain that follow the intense neurochemical event of orgasm—and even more to learn about the neurochemical effects of excessive orgasm (whatever that means for each individual).

These brain events haven't been studied much, but even the limited research that has been done makes it clear there's a lot going on that could have a subtle impact on lover's post-climax perception of each other as well as their moods. As this kind of information becomes common knowledge, the wisdom of karezza will be evident. For now, experimentation is the best way to see its benefits.

  • What is the point of sex without orgasm? Wouldn't it be frustrating?

First, a bit of context. As a culture, we have trained ourselves that sex = orgasm, but for many primates this isn't true. Various apes and monkeys often copulate without ejaculation.

Even among humans, the karezza concept has cropped up repeatedly over the centuries, going by various names: "Taoist Dual Cultivation," "Cortezia," "Amplexus Reservatus," "Tantra," "Polynesian lovemaking," and so forth. Of course, cultures sometimes regulated sexual activity in other ways, too, such as kosher sex or taboos on intercourse after a wife gives birth until a child is walking.

The point is that a less fertilization-driven approach to sex is not as unnatural as we've been led to believe by the Church and today's sexperts. It's just unfamiliar. It may actually be more unnatural for lovers to exhaust their sexual desire for each other until they are as mutually appealing as canned ravioli.

Certainly, as I (and all of the women in whose weddings I participated) discovered, today's orgasm-centric advice isn't strengthening human pair bonds. As my husband quips, "If orgasm bonded lovers, every john would be in love with his hooker." And if orgasm alone were so beneficial, porn addicts would be the happiest, healthiest people on the planet.

LoversIn short, intercourse isn't just for orgasm/fertilization. In pair bonders such as humans and tamarin monkeys, it's also for sustaining attraction and for tapping intimacy's other subtle stress-reducing benefits. Climax not only isn't essential for those benefits, it can sometimes put stress on a relationship because of perfectly natural, post-climax perception shifts. (Think PMS.)

It seems like karezza would be horribly frustrating, but surprisingly it is not—provided lovers (1) learn what they're doing and why, (2) take a slow enough approach to intercourse, and (3) make love in gentle "waves." That is, when things heat up, they allow their arousal to drop down repeatedly, and end in a relaxed, perhaps even trance-like state.

Karezza definitely takes a bit of getting used to, however. You have to learn to stay back from the edge of orgasm—unless you want genital congestion. (If you learn this the hard way, cold water should ease the pain.)

  • What benefits can couples get out of karezza?

As lovers engage in karezza intercourse consistently, they tend to become more sensitive to pleasure. Therefore, even though orgasmic intensity is absent (or rare), overall pleasure (both inside and outside the bedroom) is often greater. Daily bonding behaviors tend to make their relationships more harmonious and flirtier. Because karezza helps protect a healthy balance in the reward circuitry of the brain (the part that governs our appetites, moods and cravings), it can make relationships less volatile and therefore more sustainable.

In addition, non-performance driven sex is very helpful in restoring erections in men with erectile dysfunction. It can even ease premature ejaculation—especially when combined with Michael and Diana Richardson's "soft entry" technique.

Men describe karezza with phrases like deeply satisfying, can make love often without fatigue afterward, feel more virile, feel welcomed into her heart. They report greater attraction to their partners—of any age, greater ease in giving up addictions and having sex more frequently than before. Said one, "I have fallen deeply in love with my wife really for the first time. We're like teenagers ... and are able to have intimacy and sex now that was simply unheard of before." More men's comments.

Women say things like blissful, easy, pure contentment, heart-burstingly loving. They report that their relationships grow more harmonious and playful. Some report less menstrual pain and feeling and looking younger. More women's comments. Paradoxically, women often report that they become more orgasmic, probably because they can relax more during sex. (The absence of vigorous thrusting  means the vagina doesn't tense up to protect against the cervix being bumped painfully.)

It's likely that one scientific basis of the improvements men and women see is the increased emphasis on soothing daily affection, which may help sustain the release of oxytocin (the "cuddle chemical") or increases the brain's sensitivity to it. Not surprisingly, oxytocin is vital for erections and sexual responsiveness. It is released throughout affectionate touch and lovemaking. Oxytocin also plays a role in orgasmic sex—but karezza may sustain oxytocin levels better as it doesn't generally promote climax, which triggers a rapid drop off of oxytocin.

  • Is karezza particularly suitable for particular couples or situations?

Karezza is ideal for couples who live together. It helps keep the romantic feelings flowing even without the hit of those extra new-love neurochemicals discussed earlier. It often gives mates something they may not even have realized they missed: a sense of being wanted, accepted and welcomed in by special invitation of one's beloved, consistently.

Karezza can also be very helpful for couples in which one partner is recovering from porn addiction. Here's what one man had to say:

I am a guy in my mid thirties, and I have been doing porn for getting my masturbation fixes, for years. Today I am 32 days off porn/masturbation. I have a lovely SO of long standing. She knew about my propensity towards P/M, but she thought (and so did I) that it was just a "guy thing." Once I told her my intention to rid myself of this drain on my wellbeing and our happiness, she said she would see me through this.

From my understanding, frequent orgasms can slow the reboot process. So we decided to take up /r/karezza as well, to help me get back on track. And it has been wonderful. We have bonded like we have never before in recent times. It is almost like we are again a couple of teenagers loving each other with our whole selves. And there have been no fights during this whole month; each time some disagreement popped up (and these have been less than the fingers on one hand), one of us would pull back and put the conflict in perspective. Result: no fighting, more love.

On to other benefits of the new lifestyle: I am much more alert than usual. I need much less sleep than before. Indeed for a few days I couldn't sleep for more than four hours or so before I would be wide awake. This has passed, and I now get six to seven hours of sleep and remain wide awake when I am not sleeping. This is in contrast to myself a month ago, when I would feel drowsy in the afternoons (and other boring times). I intend to keep this going, and not go back to my previous lifestyle.

  • Are there drawbacks? Couples whom it won’t benefit?

One drawback is that karezza is unfamiliar and easily mischaracterized. It's therefore difficult to explain to a partner. It's off the radar of most "sex positive" mainstream advice. That's somewhat ironic because couples practicing karezza tend to make love more frequently than they did with orgasm-driven sex. Moreover, research is revealing that intercourse is especially beneficial (as compared with various other sexual activities).

Karezza is obviously more challenging for new lovers because of all those compelling honeymoon neurochemicals discussed above. For the same reason, it doesn't work well in casual hook-ups, where novelty is the prime aphrodisiac. It's also problematic for long-distance lovers. They don't have the option of daily bonding behaviors, and when they reunite after a separation there's understandably a lot of sexual hunger present that makes a relaxed approach challenging.

  • What simple steps can you recommend to couples who want to try it?

Lovers gazingGet educated. It's almost impossible to make any progress with karezza unless you have a clear understanding of why you both want to do it. It's a duet, not a solo. Both partners genuinely have to want to try it, and that's not likely unless both have read something about it and become inspired. In addition to our book Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships, there are some inspiring old free karezza books available online.

Be consistent for at least three weeks. Postcoital neurochemical ripples can linger, so to see the true potential in the karezza concept lovers have to stay with it for a while. Best not to mix it with orgasmic sex during the experiment.

Start slowly, with playful, affectionate activities that don't involve intercourse, but will still ease sexual tension. Take turns finding out each other's favorite non-erotic touch. Cupid's Poisoned Arrow has a 3-week program in the back, but here are 31 playful, non-intercourse activities for inspiration. Cupid also has a lot of humor, stories from real people, and historical and scientific information about mating and bonding.

Gradually add intercourse to the mix. It can be good to schedule lovemaking during your karezza experiment, so both lovers can look forward to the occasions.

After a three-week trial, couples may want to return to conventional sex and see what differences they notice for themselves over the following weeks.


Watch a YOUTube video in which a guy explains "Next Sex" (same concept as karezza)

Growing scientific evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (studies)

Studies on the overlap between sex and drugs in the brain    

Oxytocin, Fidelity and Sex

Can a guy keep himself faithful by jacking up oxytocin?

"A study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience has uncovered a surprising new property of oxytocin, finding that when men in monogamous relationships got a sniff of the stuff, they subsequently put a little extra space between themselves and an attractive woman they'd just met," wrote the LA Times recently.

The results surprised researchers. They had assumed oxytocin would make all men inch closer to cute females. Instead men in committed relationships moved farther away when dosed with oxytocin (and only when dosed). It's more evidence that pair-bonding is biological not cultural.

Yet how could "the love hormone" make men subconsciously keep their distance from attractive, novel mates? The answer is fascinating. Before we consider how men who want to stay happily mated might keep their oxytocin at optimum levels, let's briefly consider the evolutionary roots and biological underpinnings of pair bonding itself. They bear upon the answer.

Experts believe that pair bonding (only 3-5% of mammal species) evolved from the same mechanisms that are behind the mammalian infant-caregiver bond. As explained more fully in The Lazy Way to Stay in Love, the bond between infant and caregiver is created, and strengthened, via bonding behaviors (formally known as attachment cues).

To form a tight bond—even between infant and caregiver—these behaviors need to occur almost daily for an extended period. Eventually the brain can wire up a lasting association of comfort with a particular person/mammal (bond). Unless it is broken by harsh weaning or other stress, or replaced with a new bond, it can last a lifetime. This is how we can come to dote on our parents, kids, pets...and even, if we're lucky, our mate.

Bonding basics

The mechanics behind the power of attachment cues are dead simple. These familiar behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, affectionate touch, nurturing, etc.) release oxytocin in a part of the brain known as the amygdala and relax it. Without this neurochemically induced ease, we don't bond. We remain on guard.

Moreover, if too much relationship stress consistently overpowers the effects of oxytocin in the amygdala, bonds fray. This is because the amygdala's job is to keep our defenses up unless we feel safe(i.e., relaxed). Obviously, the more precarious our childhood bonds, the more soothing we need before we truly feel safe, and the more readily we (over)react to current relationship stress.

Oxytocin, at just the right levels in just the right brain circuits, is a powerful means of keeping our defenses down between us and anyone to whom we attach. Yet there's also another element to bonding: desire, which is powered by dopamine. That's where sexual intimacy and flirting enter the equation. (More in a moment.)

Back to oxytocin. Just as too little oxytocin inhibits bonds, so does too much. Thus, a synthetic overdose of oxytocin can cause pair bonders not to bond. (This paradoxical effect probably has to do with the types of receptors that oxytocin, and the neurochemicals it triggers, bind to—depending upon quantity released.) 

Oxytocin can also make mammals defensive of their young, and aggressive toward outsiders. In fact, both male and female pair-bonded prairie voles sometimes attack other stray adults of the opposite sex. Since oxytocin (and its close neurochemical cousin, vasopressin) is behind this "us v. them" behavior, it's not all that surprising that a hit of oxytocin can make a mated human male keep a bit of distance between himself and unknown adult females.

Incidentally, the nasal spray used in oxytocin experiments is not a viable way to promote fidelity. Nasty, unintended side effects have occurred when oxytocin is squirted up the nose into the brain over extended periods.

The key point is that in mammalian brains, bonding behaviors seem to deliver just the right amount of oxytocin to induce and strengthen attachment—all things being equal. Cuddling registers as rewarding (unless someone has been engaging in too much solo sex). 

In fact, a 5-country study of middle-aged couples found that for men kissing/cuddling was a significant predictor of both sexual satisfaction and relationship happiness. The men valued these activities even more highly than sex. Incidentally, experts think the pleasure of kissing-as-bonding-behavior evolved from the pleasure-producing delivery of chewed food from mother primate to infant before the advent of Gerber's.

Conscious production of oxytocin

Researchers hypothesize that men can keep a distance from temptation by consciously engaging in oxytocin-releasing bonding behaviors with their mates. In the full study, the researchers pointed out that monogamy-promoting oxytocin surges,

may normally depend upon the presence of a close positive relationship in the bond with their female partners and a close physical proximity between them.

In other words, bonding behaviors with one's mate are a good strategy if one wants to effortlessly keep some distance from unknown females.

The ardent researchers next surmised that having sex would be the "most obvious" way to promote natural oxytocin release. This conclusion was no doubt based on the fact that, as lovers begin fooling around oxytocin gradually rises until climax. (Image is from a rat experiment and shows oxytocin rising gradually until ejaculation.)

However, with full integrity, the researchers acknowledged that oxytocin release is not dependent upon climax:

The simple close presence and touch of their partner at any given moment in time might also suffice, (citing a study that showed that "warm touch" decreases stress responses, especially in men).

In short, a whole range of affectionate behaviors (attachment cues) are likely to be effective, just as the researchers somewhat grudgingly acknowledged.

It takes two to tango: oxytocin and dopamine

Oxytocin rises until climaxEnter sex. Oxytocin is high during sexual activity—long before climax. After climax, however, it drops off surprisingly quickly. So does dopamine, the neurochemical behind desire (because prolactin surges and other neurochemical changes inhibit dopamine). As dopamine sags, the urge to merge subsides and your "Miss Right Now" may look more like "Miss Please Disappear." 

This is important information for some lovers, as explained in Will Orgasms Keep You in Love? Block either dopamine or oxytocin and animals don't bond to mates or offspring. Not surprisingly, pair bonders have a higher density of oxytocin receptors in parts of the brain's reward circuitry that release dopamine. Scientists believe this combination explains why pair bonders desire a particular mate.

So, will the drop in oxytocin and dopamine after climax inhibit bonds? Study co-author René Hurlemann thinks not. He privately hypothesized that the bonding effects of oxytocin released during sex with climax may last longer than the brief time that oxytocin blood levels indicate. This is probably true; they may indeed in some men.

But affection and/or sexual behavior without climax has the obvious advantage of not triggering the rapid drop off of oxytocin and dopamine. And it's equally likely that such affection has a lingering positive effect on behavior—and bonds. In fact, we think a sustained oxytocin effect may account for the striking harmony that karezza lovers report in relationships that emphasize frequent, gentle intercourse without the goal of climax.

Moreover, it's possible that repeated neurochemical fallout after climax does not register as soothing to all lovers, or even inhibits their capacity for bonding. Remember the movie When Harry Met Sally? Billy Crystal said that thirty seconds after making love he always wanted to get out of bed and leave. When asked about this, another man said, “Yeah, I guess that is how most men feel. ‘Boom, I’m done! Elvis has left the building. The fat lady has sung. Thank you—and goodbye.’” Not strong evidence of a desire to bond.

This post-coital phase may even leave some men disinterested in their mates yet hungry for other stimulation. A natural neurochemical cycle may be at work, perhaps fluctuating for days in some men (and women), and subtly shifting perception before returning to homeostasis. In short, orgasm is more than a reassuring surge of oxytocin.

Frequency of climax may be an important variable here. Mexican researchers recently showed that if male animals ejaculate before they have recovered from the neurochemical effects of sexual satiety (that is, if they ejaculate too frequently), the result can reproduce drug use-like symptoms and raise anxiety. The males are largely recovered by the fourth day after reaching sexual satiety, but not back to full libido for two weeks.

Bonding 201

Affectionate sex is always delivering benefits but it won't always lead to greater love and bonding. If climax were the key to stronger bonds in humans shouldn't we be seeing more lasting romances than ever now that hooking up is a cultural norm and mutual climaxes readily attainable via natural and synthetic means?

The situation is complex. Intercourse generally entails some activities that are unquestionably evolved bonding behaviors: skin-to-skin contact, nurturing touch, contact with breasts, kissing, and so forth. All can release oxytocin before climax arrives (and whether or not it ever does).

However, peak orgasm itself can carry a mixed neurochemical message. It sends some guys into a neurochemically induced stupor. Many men also crave "cave time" for a while thereafter. Some women are affected too.

Might sustained pair-bonds depend upon initial mating frenzy (supported by temporary, extra-exciting "honeymoon neurochemicals") followed by frequent comforting, flirty contact more than upon frequent climax? Animal biologists point out that in lasting pair bonds much of the contact exchanged is pretty tame: huddling together, mutual grooming, tail-twining, and so forth. Like flirty human behavior, mounting is also a common bonding behavior in paired animals. However, various primates engage frequently in mounting, genital rubbing and even copulation without ejaculation.

Bottom line: If more orgasms with your mate don't soothe your amygdala, strengthen your bond, or help you keep a distance from unknown females, you may wish to increase the frequency of classic bonding behaviors (kissing, cuddling, skin-to-skin contact) and flirty behavior instead.

If you're feeling especially daring, consider combining these tactics with frequent, affectionate intercourse without the goal of climax. Need inspiration to try something so unfamiliar? Here's one man's experiment:

My impetus to finally give Karezza a shot with my girlfriend was another one of my orgasm "benders." I had 11 orgasms in 6 days, and I just felt like crap. I wasn't sleeping. I had that sorta tired, unmotivated, blah feeling. My attitude toward my girlfriend was one of total indifference. So tonight we gave it a shot. It was fantastic, and she loved it, which is a relief to me. We went slow, tried a variety of positions, and just enjoyed ourselves in a very relaxed and sensual way. I was a little surprised at how I was able to keep from orgasming and just find a "zone" where I felt good and not like I was escalating. I sorta went back and forth from this really intense NEED for her, and then settling back down into just enjoying the sensations. I was really surprised to look at the clock and discover we'd been doing it for almost an hour.

Right afterward we went to dinner with a couple friends of ours. In the car on the way, we were so touchy and amorous. We were both just feeling "WOW" about the whole experience. At dinner, I was "on my game": quick witted, charming, focused. My social anxiety and feeling of social awkwardness were very low. I felt confident. We came home and cuddled for another 30 minutes before she had to go home. I showed her the "orgasm v. performance" video and she was very intrigued by it.

This recipe for greater harmony and wellbeing has been around for thousands of years. Recent research about what really bonds mates long-term is helping to explain why this ancient approach to sex may make men happier and more sexually satisfied in lasting relationships.

Studies on the overlap between sex and drugs in the brain    

How to Talk to Cupid

What signals are you sending your mate?

Aphrodite taming ErosHit by Cupid's arrow! It feels so good that you might seek a permanent bond, convinced that passion will keep you both quivering with ecstasy for a lifetime. Yet Cupid is a sneaky dude, or rather the biological agenda he personifies does not, in fact, promote enduring love.

Cupid's dart is but the first of a series of neurochemical impulses in a primitive part of your brain known as the limbic system. Your limbic system is so powerful, and efficiently wired, that it sometimes completely overwhelms your rational mind. Take its mating agenda, for example. Its goal is to urge you to (1) fall in love with reckless fireworks that propel sperm to egg, (2) bond long enough to fall in love with any kids so they have two caregivers, (3) get fed up with your mate, and (4) begin looking around for a new one. In short, it pushes you to fool around—whether you do or not. This improves the genetic variety of offspring, and the greater the variety, the better genes' chances of sailing into the future. Callous, but effective.

What if you want to outsmart Cupid and stay in a long-term relationship harmoniously? After all, contented monogamy is not a bad idea, given that close, trusted companionship is protective of psychological and physical health and two caregivers improve kids' chances of well-being. One household is also cheaper to maintain than two, and seduction itself can be costly.

How would you talk to Cupid? That is, how would you steer the primitive part of your brain in the direction of the results you want? It's problematic, because this primitive region of the brain predated the human rational brain (neo-cortex) by millions of years. It doesn't run on logic. This is why you can't use willpower to force yourself to fall in love or stay in love.

Your limbic system runs on subconscious cues, that is, behaviors that send signals that bypass your rational brain and trigger automatic responses. By understanding which pedals to push, you can steer your romances more consciously and with less inner conflict.

The behaviors that deliver the most potent subconscious signals in your intimate relationship may surprise you. For example, mating frenzy (hot sex, lots of orgasms) resulting in sexual satiation (that "I'm done!" feeling) plays right into Cupid's plan. Decreasing dopamine (after the delicious neurochemical blast of orgasm) tells your limbic system, "Fertilization duty is done here; time to find this mate less alluring-and respond to any potential novel mate with gusto." Scientists know this phenomenon as the Coolidge Effect. Ninety-seven percent of all mammal species operate their love lives entirely on this signal.

As a rare pair-bonding mammal, you may be slow to recognize that this mating "pedal" tends to push lovers apart. This is because you have two other programs in your limbic system, which also influence romance. To varying degrees these programs veil your underlying "get on, get off, and get home" mammalian mating program.

The first is the honeymoon cocktail. New lovers tend to produce a temporary booster shot of thrilling neurochemistry. This heady cocktail (of increased nerve growth factor, dopamine, norepinephrine, lower serotonin, and adjustments to testosterone levels) produces infatuation and even obsession. For a time, it blunts the "move on" message-even in the face of lots of sex and the wild mood swings that new lovers often experience. (More on these highs and lows in a future post.)

Alas, assuming your honeymoon neurochemistry kicks in at all, research shows that it will likely wear off within two years. As it wears off, your perceptions of each other may fluctuate for a while after orgasm. One husband experienced the phenomenon this way:

We'd have sex for fifteen minutes. Then I'd be grouchy for a week. Then I'd be sweet as honey as I got horny again.

And here's an exchange from a popular forum:

Man: My wife turns into a major bitch on occasion the morning after a night of really great sex. I'm talking multiple orgasms and a 2-3-hour session. And the next morning I am the anti-Christ!

Woman: This happens to me, too! I wake up in the morning after a great night with my dear husband and feel like the bitch from hell sometimes . . . really irritable and moody. Normally I'm a very evenkeel kind of gal. Things feel better when orgasms are more spread out. I have personally noticed a significant decrease in my attraction and warm fuzzy feelings toward my spouse when the "O" is on a constant, regular basis.

Mood swings like these, even in milder forms (not to mention the projections they foster), can extinguish the sparkle in a relationship, making both partners wonder if they'd be better off with someone new. Of course, most of us don't realize that subtle shifts in our neurochemistry are influencing us, so we tend to rationalize our feelings by pointing to perceived shortcomings in each other.

Aphrodite restraining Eros, a metaphor for love being the product of restraining the addictive properties of sexThe good news is that humans also have another program that can turn down the volume of our "move on" program. However, our bonding "pedal" only works when we deliver the right subconscious cues with the right frequency.

The behaviors that signal Cupid to keep us bonded are activities such as skin-to-skin contact, gazing into each other's eyes, kissing with lips and tongues, wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure, stroking with intent to comfort, touching and sucking of nipples/breasts, spooning or hugging each other in silence, placing a calming hand on our lover's genitals, gentle intercourse, and so forth.

These behaviors speak directly to the only part of our brain that can fall in love, or stay in love. They deliver the subconscious message "Strengthen this emotional tie." Incidentally, these cues work because they are derived from the basic mammalian infant-caregiver attachment behaviors that enabled us to fall in love with our parents, and which allow us fall in love with our kids. Of course, the cues look a bit different between lovers than they do between infants and caregivers, but they all revolve around generous touch and connection.

It's important to note that bonding cues only signal the limbic system effectively when they occur almost daily. Even a moment or two can do the job, but bonding behaviors are far less effective if couples use them only rarely, or only in connection with getting to climax.

Bonding behaviors are not the same as foreplay. They soothe lovers' nervous systems (specifically, the amygdala). In contrast, foreplay is designed to produce sexual tension. Foreplay is goal-oriented; bonding behaviors are not. (Intriguingly, gentle intercourse without orgasm can be a powerful bonding behavior. Various cultures throughout history have stumbled upon this technique and given it different names. More in future posts.)

So, how do you talk to Cupid? Use your rational brain to press the pedals of your choice to deliver specific signals directly to the primitive part of your brain. In this way you can steer for whatever results you seek in your romance. If you want a long-term relationship, place the emphasis on daily, soothing bonding behaviors (including relaxed intercourse), and steer away from exhausting your sexual desire. On the other hand, if you like turnover in your love life, pursue sexual satiation via more intense, more frequent orgasms.

[About the images in this article: A favorite theme of classical painters was Aphrodite (Love) tempering Eros' impulses.]

The Lazy Way to Stay in Love

Steer your limbic system to sustain romance

“All that we can surmise of humankinds genetic history argues for a more liberal sexual morality, in which sexual practices are to be regarded first as bonding devices and only second as a means for procreation.” ~ E.O. Wilson

Waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, my husband and I checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator resting calmly on his lap. As we stroked the gator, I asked the trainer why it was so tame. "I pet it daily. If I didn't, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn't allow this," he explained.

I was surprised. Only months earlier I had begun to grasp the power of bonding behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking and so forth) to evoke the desire to bond without our having to do anything more. I didn't realize reptiles ever responded similarly.

Bonding behaviors, or attachment cues, are subconscious signals that can make emotional ties surprisingly effortless, once any initial defensiveness dissolves. Bonding behaviors are also good medicine for easing defensiveness. Here's a dramatic example: Adoptive parents had been struggling for years with a Romanian orphan with reactive attachment disorder. Violent, he put over 1000 holes in his bedroom walls, and as he grew bigger his mother had to hire a body guard. Finally, in his teens, the parents tried daily attachment cues. After three weeks, he finally bonded with his parents and began to form healthy peer relationships as well. Listen to his ‘thank you' speech for an award.

Bonding behaviors are effective because they are the way mammal infants attach to their caregivers. To survive, infants need regular contact with Mom's mammaries until they are ready to be weaned. Bonding behaviors work by encouraging the release of neurochemicals (including oxytocin), which lower innate defensiveness, making a bond possible.

In short, these generous behaviors are the way we humans fall in love with our parents and children. Caregiver-infant signals include affectionate touch, grooming, soothing sounds, nurturing, eye contact, and so forth.

In rare pair-bonding mammals like us, bonding cues serve a secondary function as well (known as an exaptation). They're part of the reason we stay in love (on average) for long enough for both parents to attach to any kids. Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it's somewhat like a booster shot that wears off. In contrast, bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely.

In lovers, bonding behaviors look a bit different than they do between caregiver and infant, yet the parallels are evident. These potent signals include:

· smiling, with eye contact

· skin-to-skin contact

· providing a service or treat without being asked

· giving unsolicited approval, via smiles or compliments

· gazing into each other's eyes

· listening intently, and restating what you hear

· forgiving or overlooking an error or thoughtless remark, past or present

· preparing your partner something to eat

· synchronized breathing

· kissing with lips and tongues

· cradling, or gently rocking, your partner's head and torso (works well on a couch, or with lots of pillows)

· holding, or spooning, each other in stillness

· wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure

· stroking with intent to comfort

· massaging with intent to comfort, especially feet, shoulders and head

· hugging with intent to comfort

· lying with your ear over your partner's heart and listening to the heart beat

· touching and sucking of nipples/breasts

· gently placing your palm over your lover's genitals with intent to comfort rather than arouse

· making time together at bedtime a priority

· gentle intercourse

There are some curious aspects to bonding behaviors. First, in order to sustain the sparkle in a relationship these behaviors need to occur daily, or almost daily—just as the alligator trainer observed. Second, they need not occur for long, or be particularly effortful, but they must be genuinely selfless. Even holding each other in stillness at the end of a long, busy day can be enough to exchange the subconscious signals that your relationship is rewarding. Third, there's evidence that the more you use bonding behaviors, the more sensitive your brain becomes to the neurochemicals that help you feel relaxed and loving. (In contrast, intense stimulation sometimes causes tolerance to build up.)

Fourth, some items on the list above may sound like foreplay, but in one important sense they are not. Foreplay is geared toward building sexual tension and climax—which sets off a subtle cycle of neurochemical changes (and sometimes unwelcome perception shifts) before the brain returns to equilibrium. In contrast, bonding behaviors are geared toward relaxation. They work best when they soothe an old part of the primitive brain known as the amygdala.

The amygdala's job is to keep our guard up, unless it is reassured regularly with these subconscious signals. To be sure, it also relaxes temporarily during and immediately after a passionate encounter. After all, fertilization is our genes' top priority. However, regular, non-goal oriented contact seems to be more effective as a bonding behavior. This suggests that loving foreplay preceding a wonderful orgasm is great...but can send mixed messages. Perhaps these contradictory subconscious signals account for the "attraction-repulsion" phenomenon lovers often notice after their initial honeymoon high wanes.

In any case, nurturing touch not only creates a space of comfort and safety. It can also be surprisingly ecstatic, as a friend shared:

Though it was after 11 PM, we cuddled. For about two hours. Ecstatic cuddling. I had experiences last night that I do not have immediate words for. Rich, deep, full. Subtle. Powerful. Moving. Meaningful. Pointing to greater connection with all life. We were in connection. In the same wave, as she put it, like a flock of birds wheeling in the sky as if with one mind.

Whether or not you experience ecstasy, bonding behaviors are a practical means of restoring and sustaining the harmonious sparkle in a relationship...even with a partner who is snapping like an alligator. Combine them with gentle lovemaking with lots of periods of relaxation (and a minimum of sexual satiety signals via orgasm), and you may find that you can sustain the harmony in your relationship with surprising ease.

Maybe those rare "swans" (couples who effortlessly stay together harmoniously) are largely made, not born. Certainly, I now carefully ponder news stories like this one about a couple married happily for over 80 years. The journalist reported that, "The couple never went to bed without a kiss and cuddle."

Hmmm...cause or effect? 

A husband's insights about bonding behaviors:

My wife and I just had guests for three weeks, and kissing, cuddling, complimenting each other, making love, etc, took a back seat. Now, it's like we're partial strangers (again), and it has been something of an eye-opener for me to recognise what is cause and what is effect. If I hadn't been aware of the theoretical importance of bonding behaviours, and their likely result, I would have tended to think, as I have in the past, that our cuddling had dried up because we'd temporarily 'gone off' each other, rather than the other way around. This wouldn't have been particularly worrying. We've been married for ages, and we've had loads of ups and downs. In fact, I used to believe ups and downs were inevitable in marriage; and that the only way round them was to wait for the bottom to occur, and enjoy the passage to the top again. Now, I'm not so sure, since it's become clear to me that 'going off' one another is the result, rather than the cause, of a dearth of cuddling.

Lack of cuddling eventually leads to lack of desire to cuddle, whether through laziness, habit, resentment or indifference. Cuddling (all bonding behaviours included) causes the desire for more cuddles. It is a beneficent biofeedback machine, just as the absence of bonding behaviours seems to be the opposite. Everyone will be familiar with young lovers not seeming able to get near enough to each other. Well, we've experienced the same, repeatedly, as a result of initially scheduling bonding behaviour and watching it snowball.

If serial cuddling doesn't come naturally (i.e., a couple isn't an inseparable pair of young lovers) it seems absolutely critical to schedule bonding behaviours. It's as critical as an exercise regime, should a person have decided they like the outcome of exercise. In this case, assuming a couple likes the idea of feeling as close and as in love as parent and child or star crossed teenagers, time and effort have to be employed.

Actually, it's hardly any effort at all. The effort is in remembering to do it, and in overcoming any underlying resentment that might make that 'remembering' more difficult. Initially, the bonding behaviour need only be one activity a day; and that activity needn't last longer than a minute, though it could, of course, last a lot longer. I think it needs to last at least as long as a minute, as, in our experience, that's enough to start the snowballing effect. Bonding behaviours then become automatic and seem to replicate themselves in abundance. It's not so much that they become a habit, like brushing teeth; they are more like a drink that we develop a liking, and then a recurring thirst, for, not because of the obvious beneficial effect, both short and long term, but because the taste becomes inherently irresistible.

Recent bonding behavior research.

Staying in Love Monkey-Style

Why are pair-bonding tamarins and humans different from chimps?

tamarin monkey pairThe Lazy Way to Stay in Love pointed out that humans are pair bonders, with the unique ability to strengthen their romantic bonds at will. We do so by employing a special range of subconscious signals, or "bonding behaviors"

These behaviors (technically, attachment cues) include skin-to-skin contact, sensual kissing, gentle stroking, wordless sounds of contentment and pleasure, hugging or silent spooning, smiling with eye contact, caressing of breasts, penis holding, playful intimacy, relaxed intercourse, and so forth. Used daily, they effortlessly increase relationship satisfaction because they bypass the yakety-yak of our cerebral cortex and make a beeline for our limbic brain. In contrast, talk is cheap. Not only that, it gets filtered through the brain's analytical centers where we tend to add all sorts of spin to what we hear. Said one woman who experimented with daily bonding behaviors:

Those delicious warm melting tingly feelings (that make you go mmmm, ahhh, and ohhhh) that used to take a while to turn on (through kissing, caressing, sex), are now just there waiting, and don't need any time at all to awaken again. My breasts, ears and inner wrists are now like 'off pause' buttons.

Like all animals, humans are primed to perceive the signals that indicate whether or not another is safe enough to relax with. If these safety signals are not forthcoming, a subtle defensiveness creates emotional distance. This can happen even if there was lots of lovin' in the past. Bonding behaviors deliver the safe-to-bond message by relaxing the defensive mechanism of the brain (primarily the amygdala), but they need to occur frequently.

One reason that these affectionate acts increase the urge to merge with a mate is that they induce the flow of oxytocin (the "cuddle hormone"). Oxytocin lowers anxiety, increases trust, and counteracts depression. In short, we feel good interacting with this person; it's rewarding at a neurochemical, or subconscious, level. Not surprisingly, earlier this year scientists reported that those in committed relationships produce less stress-related cortisol. Mated humans also live longer, and have lower rates of psychological distress. There's even growing evidence that oxytocin (or oxytocin-producing behaviors) may prove to be effective protection against addiction in pair bonders. (Alas, pair bonders may be more prone to addiction than other mammals, due to the very brain sensitivity that makes pair bonding possible.) For us, teaming up is good medicine.

Recent research on tamarin monkeys confirms the power of simple behaviors of this type to release soothing oxytocin and keep monkey-love alive. Tamarins, like humans, are socially monogamous pair bonders that raise their young together.

In contrast, chimps and bonobos do not form pair bonds. They haven't evolved the neural machinery for it. Keep in mind that, although chimps may be our closest living genetic relatives, our paths forked about six million years ago. Our true closest genetic relatives were located on our branch even if they're no longer around. Somewhere along our branch we evolved into pair bonders, as have tamarins, gibbons and titi monkeys. Sex is rewarding for all mammals, but for pair bonders, contact with a particular mate can also register as very rewarding. (For more on the neural mechanics of pair bonding, see the remarks of Larry Young at the end of this article.)

The point is that we're part of a small club of primate species wired for the ability to fall in love and settle in with one significant other, whether or not we choose to avail ourselves of this option. We're not programmed to be "sexually monogamous." No species is. But we are "socially monogamous," that is, able to pair up. The fact that we sometimes experience lust in the absence of attachment doesn't make us bonobos, or mean we'd be happier with a more casual approach to mating.

Monkey-love detective

Researcher Chuck SnowdenAware of the link between attachment behaviors and oxytocin, University of Wisconsin researcher Chuck Snowden decided to measure both in tamarin monkey pairs that had been together for at least a year. His results revealed a wide range of oxytocin levels among the pairs. However, within each pair, mates had similar levels. Whatever they were doing clearly benefited both.

Here's the key finding: The pairs with highest oxytocin levels engaged in the most affiliative and sexual behaviors. These behaviors are tamarin versions of bonding behaviors: snuggling up with tails intertwined, grooming, tongue flicking and scent marking/investigation, erections, solicitations (flirting by either sex), investigations of genitals, and all mounts in which the female was receptive, whether or not the mount led to actual copulation—or ejaculation. No performance worries for tamarins!

Tamarins mount almost daily, regardless of where the female is in her cycle, so getting it on is not just about fertilization. In private correspondence about the role of nonconceptive sex in primate pair bonding, Snowden opined, "The physical contact of making love [is] important [and] orgasm is simply a nice and fun add-on when it happens." (For a recent book that affirms the benefits of this relaxed concept in human intimacy see Tantric Sex for Men.)

The researchers concluded that oxytocin levels probably reflect the quality of a pair bond, and are likely maintained through the behaviors they observed. Said Snowdon, "Here we have a nonhuman primate model that has to solve the same problems that we do: to stay together and maintain a monogamous relationship, to rear children, and oxytocin may be a mechanism they use to maintain the relationship."

Snowdon's team suggested that close contact and nonconceptive sexual behavior might also predict the quality and duration of human relationships. Sadly, we humans often overlook the importance of these comforting signals.

How many couples, after the honeymoon frenzy subsides, have occasional sex but rarely engage in affectionate, sexy (but non-goal-oriented) contact? Intermittent orgasms may simply not be enough to keep their oxytocin up or their bonds strong. Occasional sex is like turning a water faucet on...and then off. Daily bonding behaviors are like a steady flow of water that keeps your pipes from freezing. True, some couples attempt to keep their bonds strong with intense sexual stimulation in the belief that frequent orgasms are the best glue. Yet it may be that this narrow focus causes them to overshoot the more easygoing rhythm of pair-bonder romance or, paradoxically, numb their pleasure response.

In The Myth of Monogamy David Barash points out that in pair-bonding mammals sex is not "especially fervent." (At least not after the initial frenzy.) Many interactions between mates take the form of resting together, mutual grooming, and hanging out.

Regular affection protects against porn addictionThe interesting point is that human lovers have a choice. Unlike other mammals, we can consciously enhance the quality and satisfaction of our unions by increasing our mutual oxytocin levels with simple, nearly effortless signals. We simply use our expanded cerebral cortex to jumpstart our brain's limbic love machinery. Maybe the thirteen percent of couples  who maintain juicy bonds somehow stumble upon this secret early in their unions without consciously realizing it.

Has romance failed you in the past? Did you offer your fellow pair-bonding mammal enough of the bonding signals to keep your mutual perception of each other rosy, allow you to overlook errors, and deepen the intimacy between you? If not, take a lesson from your pair-bonding primate cousins.


[From Speaker Summary of talk by Larry Young, PhD entitled, "Neurobiology of Social Bonding and Monogamy..."]

Prairie voles, like humans, are highly social and form long-lasting pair bonds between mates. This is in contrast to 95 percent of all mammalian species, which do not appear capable of forming long lasting social bonds between mates. Studies examining the brain and genetic mechanisms underlying pair bonding have revealed an important role for a few key chemicals in the brain in establishing social relationships. Oxytocin and vasopressin appear to focus the brain’s attention to the social signals in the environment. During pair bond formation, these chemicals interact with the brain’s reward system (e.g. dopamine) to establish an association between the social cues of the partner and the rewarding nature of mating. So why are some species capable of forming social bonds while others are not? Research comparing the brains of monogamous and non-monogamous species reveals that it is the location of the receptors that respond to oxytocin and vasopressin that determines whether an individual will be capable of bonding. For example, monogamous male prairie voles have high concentrations of vasopressin receptors in a ventral forebrain reward center that is also involved in addiction. Non-monogamous meadow voles lack receptors there. However, if receptors are inserted into this reward center in the non-monogamous meadow vole, these males suddenly develop the capacity to form bonds. These studies also suggest that pair bonding shares many of the same brain mechanisms as addiction. Genetic studies have revealed that DNA sequence variation in the gene encoding the vasopressin receptor affect the level of receptor expression in certain brain regions and predict the probability that the male will form a social bond with a female.

Recent studies in humans have revealed remarkable similarities in the roles of oxytocin and vasopressin in regulating social cognition and behavior in vole and man. Variation in the DNA sequence of the human vasopressin receptor gene has been associated with variation in measures of romantic relationship quality. In humans, intranasal delivery of oxytocin enhances trust, increases gaze to the eyes, increases empathy and enhances socially-reinforced learning. Indeed it appears that stimulating the oxytocin system in humans increases the attention to social cues in the environment....

Bonding Behaviors Among Pair-Bonding Crows

Nurturing Nests Lift These Birds to a Higher Perch

Crows and bonding behaviors
Amid all the psychosocial caterwauling these days over the relative merits of tiger mothers and helicopter dads, allow me to make a pitch for the quietly dogged parenting style of the New Caledonian crow.

New Caledonian crows are renowned for their toolmaking skills.

In the complexity, fluidity and sophistication of their tool use, their ability to manipulate and bird-handle sticks, leaves, wires, strings and any other natural or artificial object they can find into the perfect device for fishing out food, or fishing out second-, third- or higher-order tools, the crows have no peers in the nonhuman vivarium, and that includes such textbook dexterous smarties as elephants, macaques and chimpanzees.

Videos of laboratory studies with the crows have gone viral, showing the birds doing things that look practically faked. In one famous example from Oxford University, a female named Betty methodically bends a straight piece of wire against the outside of a plastic cylinder to form the shape of a hook, which she then inserts into the plastic cylinder to extract a handled plug from the bottom as deftly as one might pull a stopper from a drain. Talking-cat videos just don’t stand a chance.

So how do the birds get so crafty at crafting? New reports in the journals Animal Behaviour and Learning and Behavior by researchers at the University of Auckland suggest that the formula for crow success may not be terribly different from the nostrums commonly served up to people: Let your offspring have an extended childhood in a stable and loving home; lead by example; offer positive reinforcement; be patient and persistent; indulge even a near-adult offspring by occasionally popping a fresh cockroach into its mouth; and realize that at any moment a goshawk might swoop down and put an end to the entire pedagogical program.
Jennifer C. Holzhaider, the lead author on the two new reports, said that in one year of their three-year field study, the crows they were following gave birth to a total of eight chicks.

“We thought, yay, we’ll have eight juveniles we can watch,” she said. But the goshawks, the rats, the owls and the torrential rains took their toll, and only one of those eight chicks survived. “It’s a hard life in the jungle; that’s all there is to it,” said Dr. Holzhaider.
By studying the social structure and behavior of the crows and the details of their difficult daily lives, the researchers hope to gain new insights into the evolution of intelligence, the interplay between physical and social skillfulness, and the relative importance of each selective force in promoting the need for a big animal brain.

The researchers want to know why it is that, of the 700 or so species of crows, ravens, rooks, jays and magpies that make up the world’s generally clever panoply of corvids, the New Caledonian crow became such an outlier, an avian savant, a YouTube top of the line.

“It’s a big puzzle,” said Russell D. Gray, head of the Auckland lab. “Why them? Why is this species on a small island in the Pacific able to not just use but to manufacture a variety of tools, and in a flexible rather than a rote or programmatic way? Why are they able to do at least as well as chimpanzees on experiments of cognition that show an understanding of the physical properties of the world and an ability to generalize from one problem to the next?”

If the birds learn to avoid holes and barriers in the experimental setting of a plastic tubed box, for example, they will avoid holes and barriers in the very different conditions of a wooden table. “Knowing their social structure,” Dr. Gray said, “is one part of the jigsaw.”

New DNA studies suggest that corvids first arose at the end of the dinosaur era, roughly 65 million years ago, somewhere in the neighborhood of Australia, and radiated outward from there. The ancestors of the New Caledonian crow didn’t travel far before settling on the 220-mile-long land sprig from which the species derives its name.

The modern New Caledonian crow is funereal of bill and feather and, at an average of 12 inches in length and 12 ounces in weight, a middling sort of corvid: much smaller than a common raven, slightly more compact than the ubiquitous American crow, but beefier than a jay or a jackdaw. Brain size is another matter.

“All corvid brains are relatively big,” said Dr. Gray, “but preliminary evidence suggests that the New Caledonian brain is big even for corvids.” Moreover, the brain is preferentially enlarged, displaying impressive bulk in the avian equivalent of the cogitating forebrain, particularly structures involved in associative learning and fine motor skills.

Their bills are also exceptional, “more like a human opposable thumb than the standard corvid beak,” said Dr. Gray.
The bills “appear specialized to hold tools,” said Anne Clark, who studies American crows at the State University of New York at Binghamton but who also has observed New Caledonian crows in the field. “When I was watching them, they seemed to grab a stick whenever they appeared unable to figure something out,” she said, rather as a mathematician has trouble solving a problem without a pencil in hand.

The birds are indefatigable toolmakers out in the field. They find just the right twigs, crack them free of the branch, and then twist the twig ends into needle-sharp hooks. They tear strips from the saw-toothed borders of Pandanus leaves, and then shape the strips into elegant barbed spears.

With their hooks and their spears they extract slugs, insects and other invertebrates from deep crevices in the ground or in trees. The birds are followers of local custom.

Through an arduous transisland survey of patterns left behind in Pandanus leaves by the edge-stripping crows, Gavin Hunt of the University of Auckland determined that toolmaking styles varied from spot to spot, and those styles remained stable over time. In sum, New Caledonian crows have their version of culture.

Being cultured is hard work. In studying the birds’ social life, Dr. Holzhaider and her colleagues confirmed previous observations that New Caledonian crows are not group-living social butterflies, as many crows and ravens are, but instead adhere to a nuclear family arrangement. Males and females pair up and stay together year-round, reaffirming their bond with charming gestures like feeding and grooming each other, sitting close enough to touch, and not even minding when their partner plays with their tools.

Young birds stay with their parents for two years or more — a very extended dependency, by bird standards — and they forage together as a family, chattering all the while. “They have this way of talking in a quiet voice, ‘Waak, waak, waak,’ that sounds really lovely,” said Dr. Holzhaider.

The juveniles need their extended apprenticeship. “They’re incredibly persistent, wildly ripping and hacking at Pandanus leaves, trying to make it work,” said Dr. Holzhaider, “but for six months or so, juveniles are no way able to make a tool.”
The parents step into the breach, offering the trainee food they have secured with their own finely honed tools. “By seeing their parents get a slug out of a tree, they learn that there’s something down there worth searching for,” she said. “That keeps them going.”

The carrot-on-stick approach: It works every time.

Calling All Skin-Hungry Cuddle Sluts

How viable is the concept of sexual self-sufficiency? Single woman looking at cuddling museum work

Feeling "off" and wondering what to do about it? You could just be touch-starved. If so, solo sex may may not heal the feeling that something...isn't right.

Turns out that sexual needs aren't just orgasm needs. Sexual needs are also intimacy needs. For tribal pair bonders like humans, affectionate touch and close, trusted companionship are "mood meds." That is, our brains are set up to reward us for engaging in them by producing neurochemicals that offer balanced feelings of well-being.

To state this differently, the prime directives of our brain's primitive reward circuitry are food, water, bonding and mating. Now that modern life isn't meeting our needs for close contact and bonding very well, our reward circuitry is "looking around" to fill the void in good feelings however it can. Like junk food, Internet porn is such a stimulating substitute that it fools us into thinking we've found a really valuable activity. As one guy explained, "There is no woman in actuality who is into you, but you feel like there is. You are getting a reward for staring at a glowing rectangle, which motivates you to stay there instead of going out."

Sadly, solo orgasms don't offer the same soothing neurochemical cocktail as real contact—and their pursuit can easily become compulsive thanks to today's hyperstimulating porn or superhuman vibrators. As we engineer more orgasms with stronger stimuli, overall feelings of anxiety can, paradoxically, outweigh feelings of satisfaction.

It's great when all our sex/touch/companionship needs are met in one magnificent, convenient package: a lover. But most of us also have to cross some deserts in our romantic lives. What do desert travelers traditionally do? Head for an oasis. Here are four twenty-somethings who found their oases by snuggling buddies.

First person (male):

I have a female friend with benefits, but the benefits are that she likes to come over once a week and just cuddle as we watch a movie. She's a virgin, and it's probably a good idea for us to never have sex given her history. It's so liberating for me to let go of the NEED to have sex. In the past if a woman who was romantically interested in me was at my place, I would single-mindedly pursue sex. But now I can just relax and be.

Second person (male):

After a long explanation to my friend about how I thought I was touch-starved, she very promptly took off her coat and snuggled with me in my bed. I was pretty shocked at how readily she took to it. We cuddled for about 2 hours, sitting up against my headboard with my arm around her and her head in my chest. We talked most of the time, with periods of silence here and there. The conversation was so open. We revealed secrets and it felt so natural. I'm positive this wouldn't have happened had we not been snuggling.

My god, the feelings of safety were incredible. Just soooo, I don't know, RIGHT. I think now to myself: This is how man and woman should relate to one another. In a very non-erotic way, I just felt so manly tucking this girl into my chest and sheltering her. I could see it in her face too. She just looked so relaxed, ready to fall asleep. I've never deliberately tried to cuddle for sustained periods before, so these feelings are quite new. I must admit that some of the touching was arousing—again, I'm not used to non-goal oriented contact—and I did have some blue ball sensation in the evening but it wasn't bad at all.

After she left, I meditated for a bit and guess what? Very few thoughts. It was amazing! I'm definitely going to ask her to do this again.

Third person (female):

We both knew it wasn't going to lead to sex. It wasn't even going to lead to kissing. It was just snuggling, cuddling and possibly caressing if we felt like it. It did involve almost complete nudity, however. And do you know what? That was fine.

We didn't set boundaries before we started, but he never crossed any of my internal ones. He was slightly turned on when we got into bed together, which he was completely matter of fact about. He said it was nigh on impossible for a guy not to get slightly turned on when getting into bed with an attractive, nearly naked girl—and that he would probably also get morning wood. But that 'being physically turned on' and 'mentally wanting sex' are different.

He was careful to keep his genitals away from me when erect, and I never felt at all uncomfortable. It was gloriously asexual. It was also bonding. We'll probably always be friends now, and we had an amazingly long, honest conversation about relationships and sex and all sorts of things. Breaking the taboo about being naked together made it easier to break taboos about what is acceptable to talk about. It was a beautiful, trusting experience being able to safely lie naked with a guy who could both honestly say that I was attractive and yet not abuse his position even slightly.

Now I'll hug anyone. I'll cuddle anyone, of any sex, for as long as they like—so long as they are clean and they make me feel comfortable. It isn't hurting anyone. It makes me, and whoever I am cuddling, happier.

Fourth person (female):

[A month after this woman swore off men for a time to study for professional exams she developed severe, uncharacteristic insomnia, which wouldn't respond to any remedies.]

One day, while talking with a friend, I wondered aloud, "When was the last time I was touched?" It had been so long since I'd been touched, that even a hug from a friend felt foreign. I realized that I yearned to be held; I felt empty and depleted inside.

I also realized that my energy had been fluctuating in an uncharacteristic way, leaving me less able to give as much love and energy to my friends and family. A female friend, with whom I discussed this, said that she noticed that when she is not cuddled for a month, she becomes angry and resentful towards men, decreasing her future chances of being intimate with them. 

Just after this conversation, an opportunity arose for a guy friend to come over. The space was clear for us to comfort each other with no other agendas. We snuggled for an hour, just chatting about our day. I thought, "I'm going to sleep well tonight!" and voilà. For the first time in three months, I fell asleep the moment I lay down and awoke refreshed. The next evening, we watched a movie and cuddled. I felt fantastic for weeks. (He traveled to South America shortly afterward.)

Speaking to a new friend, I learned that he had an agreement with a woman he was dating. They both knew that they weren't ultimately "right" for each other. Yet their regular, sensual contact let them avoid going out in the world as needy, single people.  He explained, "I think men get off their game if they haven't dated in a while." His energy was balanced; he was able to focus on fulfilling his life's purpose, and enjoy life. Meeting new women was effortless for him, as he was an altogether healthy and easy-going man. When he did meet a new woman with mate-potential, he didn't feel the need to rush into bed and trash the opportunity to develop deeper intimacy. Read more of her experiences in "Are You Skin Hungry?"

Cuddle buddiesHow viable is sexual self-sufficiency?

The modern push to make us all sexually self-sufficient via masturbation underrates our fundamental needs for touch and trusted companionship. Consequently, many of us are ignorant of how evolution has molded us. For example, it has only been a matter of decades since scientists discovered (to their astonishment) that orphaned monkey infants prefer soothing terrycloth "mothers" without milk to "mothers" of chicken-wire with milk. (Listen to a fascinating radio show about this experiment.)

The benefits of generous touch arise in part from the fact that oxytocin, a hormone produced in response to affectionate touch, counters the effects of cortisol (the stress hormone). Oxytocin can also reduce pain (i.e., increase pain thresholds) by triggering the release of endorphins, thus increasing feelings of well-being and even performance. (More on the science behind touch's benefits.) Above all, safe touch activates and comforts our primitive reward circuitry, so we aren't as likely to fall for synthetic substitutes.

So, who is your next oasis? Know anyone with whom you could you cultivate a cuddle-buddy connection? Here are some tips:

  1. Not sure how to broach the subject? Share an article about the concept and find out what your buddy thinks.
  2. Friends who have gone through massage therapy school, or training in other hands-on healing, usually welcome exchanging healing touch and have training in healthy boundaries.
  3. Attend a cuddle party, or plan one of your own with friends.

Keep in mind that cuddling is a service to everyone. Your touch benefits your buddy as much as it does you, and glowing people make the planet a happier place.

Warning: If you try this idea, you may soon conclude that the modern, Western assumption that 'humans can thrive on a narrow diet of intermittent casual sex plus masturbation' is...well...damned peculiar.

Can’t She/He See I Need Sex?

Beware the brain numbed to pleasure

'Porn addiction can inflame cravings for sex'Are you gauging the value of your relationship by how often you have sex? Is your mate starting to react to your every gesture of affection as pressure to "get it on?"

If so, you may be victims of a primitive brain mechanism that promises satisfaction—but delivers its opposite. It can put couples out of sync sexually. (This is especially likely after your one-time booster shot of honeymoon neurochemistry has worn off.)

Let's say you act out a sexual fantasy or try a hot, new foreplay technique. You briefly recapture some of the drug-like buzz that characterized your early romance, right? But here's the sinister bit: intense stimulation appears to have the power to trigger lingering changes that can leave mammalian brains like ours more dissatisfied soon afterward.

How? By temporarily dampening the pleasure response of the brain's primitive reward circuitry. For those affected,* what goes up must come down—and doesn't return to baseline for a while. Deep in the brain, it's as if the scales are tipping until the brain recovers.

There's much still to learn, but it looks like a number of reward circuitry events bouncing around after climax have the potential to desensitize us (numb us to pleasure to a degree) for a time. First, androgen receptors decline after ejaculation, and take up to seven days to normalize. (That means the effects of testosterone on the reward circuitry are probably blunted for a while, quite possibly affecting outlook.) In addition, opioids released during copulation hang around for a while, apparently causing lingering declines in oxytocin, which hamper sexual responsiveness. As noted above, there is also likely a drop in responsiveness to a neurochemical vital to our sense of well-being: dopamine. In effect, the brain has changed. It now requires more stimulation to get the same pleasure response as before, and sometimes no amount of stimulation will truly satisfy until it returns to equilibrium.

Whatever the precise mechanisms, any decrease in the pleasure response of the brain is bad news for lovers. For one thing, not everyone experiences the recovery from an exciting wallop of neurochemicals precisely the same way—thanks to genetic and gender differences, childhood trauma, or their own habits.

Some of us are simply uninterested in sex until our brains return to their natural sensitivity and orgasm once again seems like a great idea. In others of us, however, the temporary neurochemical (or receptor) drop-off can soon make us feel like we are missing some essential ingredient for our happiness. We are: our ideal sensitivity to pleasure.

The resulting angst strongly motivates us to seek relief now (when discomfort strikes). Due to this "mini withdrawal," we may feel anxious and emotionally distant—and want to ease our tension with another orgasm as soon as possible. Or perhaps we are needier than usual, craving additional proofs of our mate's love—on our terms. Strategies such as these are attempts to stimulate feelings of well-being in a now-sluggish reward circuitry.

Unfortunately, unless you both happen to choose the same "meds" for your discomfort, on the same schedule, your love life can go out of sync. If your mate rebuffs your advances, it may seem like your mate doesn't care enough to ease your distress. Or it may seem to your mate like all you care about is "getting some." Now, you could be seeing the worst in each other, and, perhaps, doubting each other's devotion—all because your mindless, primitive reward circuitry is giving you imperfectly matched impulses as your brains return to equilibrium. Bummer.

These days, you may be advised to become a better lover to try to heat up the partner who's "not feeling it yet" with spicier foreplay, fantasizing during sex, acting out kinkier scenarios, watching porn together, sexual enhancement drugs, or even swapping partners for an evening. One husband remarked,

I was going on the assumption that if she could just enjoy sex more, i.e., have more orgasms, we would have sex more often and my needs would be better satisfied. So, I was always trying to give her a good pounding. Instead she moved out of our bedroom.

In short, logic may result in less overall satisfaction. It may even dim your chances for long-term contentment with your current relationship. Here's why:

"Heat ‘em up" tactics reap short-term results—and hidden costs.

More intense stimulation produces quick orgasms but can further numb the brain, so this tactic can increase distress over the following days. Remember, an over-stimulated brain is a number brain. And a further numbed brain is even harder to satisfy for long. In fact, perpetual over-stimulation may turn your brain into a neurochemical black hole that urgently demands more and more jollies. At the same time, your recovering partner may feel an even greater need for soothing affection...only, or emotional distance.

Although it may seem painfully unfair, negotiating a middle ground may not help. You could need time to restore your brain(s) to normal sensitivity. Allow nature to take its course. Meanwhile, choose activities that comfort without further over-stimulation: exercise, friendly interaction, meditation, time in nature, service to others, and so forth. If possible, engage your mate in generous non-foreplay affection; it will help bring you back in tune.

Desensitization makes infidelity more tantalizing.

Novelty offers a rush of enlivening dopamine—and a novel potential sex partner is one of the most thrilling forms of novelty. That colleague, that person in the online chatroom, or that porn star all look better when your brain is number. And you won't have any idea that all you're really seeking is a dopamine fix. (Our genes use this mechanism to improve their chances of cruising into the future.)

The lure of novelty for a desensitized brain is especially problematic today. We are surrounded by an inexhaustible array of enticing, if often synthetic, sexual stimuli. When we keep "medicating" our recovery discomfort with intense stimulation, our brains can't return to balance. One result is that the grass often looks greener outside a relationship.

Blunted brain responsiveness can interfere with bonding between mates.

Daily affection is normally very soothing and rewarding for pair bonders like us—even if we don't climax. (Even the casual bonobo chimps don't climax each time they get it on.)


*In a recent experiment, researchers noted that occasionally one or two animals of each dozen or so tested didn't show this particular effect (depleted D2 receptors).

EquilibriumBut what happens when we're not able to feel subtle pleasures due to temporarily blunted brain sensitivity? The thought of mere affection isn't appealing. It may even register as disagreeable. Instead of tenderness, we may want cave time. Or perhaps we want rougher, or more daring, sex—which is exciting and releases tension, but perpetuates the desensitization problem.

Some of us naturally attempt to equalize out-of-sync libidos by turning to potent sex-aids and masturbation. Unfortunately, today's vibrators and extreme porn videos do their jobs with such intensity that they can further over-stimulate and numb the brain's pleasure response. After a time, the thought of normal sex with a familiar partner may no longer power up the urge to merge.

What to do?

Intense cravings for sex are stressful, but loving mates can also suffer over how best to comfort an insatiable sweetheart. Some couples beg, bicker and develop headaches. Some negotiate date nights and sexual favors. Some take jobs in different cities or jobs that require lots of travel, so their brains have time to return to balance. Said one man,

I once worked in a remote fly-in fly-out job, two weeks on, two weeks off. As a result, my wife and I enjoyed the best sex life of our marriage. The homecoming was a moment to be savored, especially whenever I caught the flight that got me home before the kids got home. But we also savored the moment of departure. As she said, "I like it when you get home, and I like it when you go away."

Obviously, the curse of sexual stimulation leading to decreased responsiveness and discontent is not a new challenge. Two thousand years ago, Roman poet Ovid advised this cynical cure for love: "Enjoy your girl with complete abandon, night and day—and loathing will end your malady." This may be why sages across the globe developed techniques for managing sex to keep lovers in balance and help sustain the harmony of their unions. Kosher sex, for example, prescribes almost two weeks a month in separate beds.

Remember, your mate's apparent indifference (or single-mindedness) may be nothing more than some sleepy nerve cell receptors caused by too much of a good thing. If so, then your out-of-sync libidos are not anyone's fault. Try addressing the challenge where it arises. Allow your brain to return to its ideal sensitivity. See if greater balance makes subtler pleasures delicious—and by extension, you and your partner look good to each other.

Growing scientific evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (studies)

Studies on the overlap between sex and drugs in the brain    

Another Way to Make Love

Elude the Coolidge Effect with a forgotten approach to sex

loversRecent posts discuss (1) why lovers might want to know more about what's going on in their limbic brains, (2) how too much intense stimulation of the brain's primitive reward circuitry can lead to subtle mood swings and a need for more stimulation, and (3) how dopamine fluctuations drive the Coolidge Effect (the tendency to lose interest in a mate after sexual satiation.) I've also mentioned that there's a way to make love that helps ease dopamine extremes and promote harmony.

I happened upon this concept decades ago in a book on Daoist lovemaking. After modifying the ideas based on practical experience I eventually read a book on karezza—and realized that it described what my husband and I were doing. Karezza is gentle intercourse, with lots of affection and relaxation, but without the goal of orgasm. (Yes, it still happens on rare occasions.)

This practice has apparently been used to deepen and harmonize relationships for millennia, going by many names through the ages. These include: Daoist dual cultivation, le jazer (cortezia), amplexus reservatus, tantra (in its more relaxed variations), transorgasmic sex, and so forth. To taste the benefits, both partners emphasize daily bonding behaviors (such as skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking, spooning, and occasional gentle intercourse) and sidestep orgasm for three weeks. (Details in Cupid's Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships.)

At first, intercourse not geared toward orgasm seems like..."WTF?!" but this may be due, in part, to the fact that we in the West have so thoroughly codified our current biases, even branding sex without orgasm a "paraphilia." Incidentally, karezza creates strange bedfellows. Pope Pius XII also condemned it. In his time, Catholics in France and Belgium were extolling amplexus reservatus (karezza) as a legitimate means of avoiding conception, and also as a means of achieving a more perfect, more spiritual kind of conjugal love. The Pope said it either wasn't "a true marriage act," or, when it did result in inadvertent orgasm, it was dangerous because of its potential for hedonism. Sometimes you just can't win.

Over the last century or so, three medical doctors have written books affirming karezza's benefits. (Stockham, MD, Lloyd, MD and Jensen, MD) Here are comments of some of today's husbands (none of them mine):

The thought of removing foreplay / orgasm etc. is mind-boggling. Your mind fights it. "It will be boring. What will we do in bed?" Once you try it though, at least for me, there is no going back. Not achieving satiety using karezza is truly wonderful. Of course, satiety can never be reached via conventional sex either, but that lack of satiety always seems to result in a lustful feeling of wanting more.... This is different. It is heavenly, for lack of a better word. I am satisfied, but I am not. I do not feel the sense of urgency I usually feel when I am not satisfied. I feel complete somehow, at peace, and best of all, in love.... My wife and I are really bonding again.

My wife and I have been practicing/doing what can be called karezza for a number of years. As time passed, we found the position that works for us, scissors position, and developed a routine that actually leaves out foreplay and makes the whole affair less "hot." We use jojoba oil for lubrication and connect before sleep and each morning. We've been doing this for 6-7 years, and it is great. Every couple hopefully finds their own way to make love often with no pressure, stress, or depletion. Karezza works for us. We stay high and grateful almost all the time. Negativity can't last long because our positive energy is generated and supported daily.

At first my wife resented me taking away her pleasure. So we compromised. We decided to have orgasms on the first of every month and on some special occasions. Now we are in our third month of squirtless loving, "because we do not want to ruin a good thing." We usually stay engaged for an hour twice per week. We comment daily on how cute we appear to each other. I have had opportunities to have sexual relations outside of our marriage over the last eighteen years and I do not know how I remained faithful. Now my attitude is that nothing could ever match what is going on inside our marriage.

Intriguingly, Canadian research recently confirmed that "great sex" is generally not focused on orgasm. The head researcher also noted that, "There is plenty of evidence that most people believe that the secret to sexual fulfillment is technical, that it's about better manual and oral stimulation techniques." However, the study showed that "You could have terrible sex with orgasms and despite orgasms, but you could have optimal sexuality without orgasm."

How could this be? I suspect that karezza yields benefits because it sidesteps hidden neurochemical fallout. Orgasm, and more particularly sexual satiety, is a (delicious) neurochemical blast, which sends out ripples for as long as two weeks while as the body returns to equilibrium. (More in "The Passion Cycle.")

Perhaps those who have been plagued by the Coolidge Effect will find karezza especially beneficial. When lovers make love gently and only rarely "finish," they seldom feel "fed up" with a partner. They also sidestep the potentially risky tendency to cure all post-orgasmic fallout (flatness, heightened frustration, neediness) with more orgasm.

Marriage counselors sometimes recommend that couples seeking to reconcile begin by refraining from conventional sex, but engage in affectionate touch or even non-goal-oriented intercourse. (Both gently raise dopamine and oxytocin without triggering the full passion cycle.) Perhaps bonding techniques of this type restore positive feelings because our "mating" and "bonding" programs operate on distinct subconscious cues. When we project these conflicting signals (of attachment/attraction and satiety/aversion) onto a mate we may feel like we're falling in, and out, of love in bewildering way. In effect, we're delivering mixed signals at a level below the conscious mind.

In a future post, I'll explain what research can already show us about the neurochemicals involved in the passion cycle, and more about how this phenomenon can create unwelcome projections.

(More on karezza)

Recovering addicts may also find this thread of interest.

Growing scientific evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (studies)

Studies on the overlap between sex and drugs in the brain