Intoxicating Behaviors: 300 Vaginas = A Lot of Dopamine (2010)

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Has the porn industry gotcha?

Almost monthly, new research confirms that food addiction can cause brain changes that mimic those found in drug addiction. Food and sex are known as "natural reinforcers." That is, they aren't drugs, but our brains light up for them so we reach for more without thinking.

Still, the concept that "food can cause obesity because it is like a drug" is perplexing. After all, our rather buff ancestors ate a lot, and quite evidently were enthusiastic about sex. Yet becoming dangerously hooked didn't seem to be much of a risk. Didn't their brains light up for food and sex? Yes, of course. The difference is that they weren't surrounded by superstimulating, synthetic versions of food and sex. We are, and it is a relatively recent hazard.

Think about it. How many of your ancestors had easy access to tasty munchies that were ready-to-eat, available cheaply in endless variety, and carefully laced with fat, sugar and salt to keep them coming back for more? How many had computers on which they could click to an unending stream of hyper-stimulating erotic videos, featuring real, novel mates, writhing with desire (perceived by a primitive part of the brain as genetic opportunities)—and, when appetite flagged, a cornucopia of ever kinkier videos?

Pornography? It's a new synaptic pathway. You wake up in the morning, open a thumbnail page, and it leads to a Pandora's box of visuals. There have probably been days when I saw 300 vaginas before I got out of bed.—John Mayer, musician

The extreme stimulation of today's enticements can hijack our brains. There's no way John Mayer would view the same vagina 300 times before rising if, say, he only had a porn magazine, or even a woman. Constant novelty-plus-erotica is riveting. His brain releases more dopamine with each new image, even as it shuts down key nerve cell receptors (to drive him to binge). He is tricked into valuing his pussy panorama even above 3-D stimuli.

PLAYBOY: You'd rather jerk off to an ex-girlfriend than meet someone new? MAYER: Yeah.... Internet pornography has absolutely changed my generation's expectations. How could you be constantly synthesizing an orgasm based on dozens of shots? You're looking for the one ... out of 100 you swear is going to be the one you finish to, and you still don't finish. Twenty seconds ago you thought that photo was the hottest thing you ever saw, but you throw it back and continue your shot hunt and continue to make yourself late for work. How does that not affect the psychology of having a relationship with somebody? It's got to.

This is how food and sex, which throughout evolution have generally contributed to our well-being and led naturally to warm feelings of satiety, morph into drug-like and addictive superstimuli that don't. When we plunge in, we fall for enticements that are not especially valuable, and sometimes risky. Not only can they steal our attention from soothing connections with real people (and nutritional food), they can actually hook us.

Who's at risk for addiction to natural reinforcers?

Most addiction research focuses on substance abuse, not addiction to natural reinforcers. It reveals that only a minority of us ("novelty-seekers" and "impulsives") are genetically susceptible to substance abuse, due to low dopamine receptors in different regions of the brain's reward circuitry. (Dopamine is the "Gotta get it!" neurochemical, and the reward circuitry is the brain pathway that drives all appetites and motivation.)

So, are the rest of us safe from addiction? When it comes to substance abuse, perhaps yes. Yet when it comes to unrestricted access to superstimulating natural reinforcers, the answer may be no, although certainly not everyone gets hooked. The reason hyper-stimulating versions of food and sex can hook us—even if we're not otherwise susceptible to addiction—is that our reward circuitry evolved to drive us toward food and sex, not drugs.

Take food. If you binge on hyper-stimulating foods (say, concentrated fat and refined sugar) it can cause changes that resemble the brain changes seen in substance abusers. This happens in rats, too, and not just in the novelty-seeking, impulsive minority. Nearly all the animals that were offered unrestricted access to goodies like bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, Ding Dongs and frosting couldn't stop binging and became obese.

Almost immediately, dopamine receptors dropped in their brains, which drove the rats to binge, and ensured they would later experience less stimulation from normal chow. Other changes, such as a numbed pleasure response, worsened over time. Two weeks after scientists returned them to rat chow, the rats' brains still hadn't recovered. In fact, when confronted with a diet of normal chow, they chose to starve for a time rather than eat it. (Full study)

It makes sense for mammals to have a built-in mechanism that can override feelings of satiety. They must "get it while the getting is good": storing calories when fruit is ripe, gorging before hibernation, swallowing a kill before the competition shows up, and so forth.

"Not found in nature"

The binge-to-obesity phenomenon, however, doesn't show up unless mammals, including humans, shift to diets that don't exist in nature: unrestricted starches and sugars.

Although obesity has been increasing among all Americans in recent decades, it has skyrocketed on Indian reservations since the 1960's. The [starchy] commodity and fast food diet is the opposite of what Indians ate until recent generations: ... [In contrast,] high protein and saturated fat food [bison, elk, antelope, deer, with some berries, nuts and roots] seemed to serve the tribe well.

Native Americans aren't the only ones bulging, however. Nearly two-thirds of most Westerners are overweight, and 30+ percent of Americans obese. This is especially telling because, unlike rats, we care about our waistlines, which keeps some of us in check even in the face of severe temptation.

The regions of the brain that change in response to superstimulating food also govern sexual appetite. So, are today's sexual superstimuli, like today's junk food, causing drug-like changes in the brain's reward circuitry? They certainly constitute a sexual diet not found in nature.

Update: since this article was written, Brain Scan Studies on Porn Users, have found evidence of desensitization, escalations of use, and less arousal to normal sexual stimuli, along with sensitization and changes in the frontal cortex.  As we explained, the symptoms heavy porn users complain of could logically be explained by the same brain changes observed in rats with unrestricted access to super-goodies. (Incidentally, rats and humans are distant relatives, and share the same primitive brain mechanisms for appetite and addiction.)

Just as rats binge on exciting food, porn users often binge on porn. Many users report that they are unable to stop or control their viewing, not unlike Sooty the guinea pig, who "got it while the getting was good" when he broke into a cage full of females.

Users also frequently notice numbed sensitivity to pleasure (probably from lower dopamine receptors), which shows up as skyrocketing libido, that is, a need for more frequent stimulation (more dopamine) to self-medicate restlessness or anxiety. Often they require more extreme material to achieve climax, develop erectile dysfunction, or discover that sex with a willing partner doesn't satisfy them (leading back to supplemental, or perhaps exclusive) porn use.

Heavy users also sometimes report obsessive-compulsive behaviors, depression, severe stress at the thought of socializing, and concentration problems. And users who try to stop viewing porn report lingering withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, insomnia, mood swings, splitting headaches, anxiety, depression, lethargy, foggy thinking, stomach pains, disturbing dreams, flu-like symptoms, and a strong desire to strangle someone. These symptoms suggest that their brains are indeed struggling with brain changes common to addiction. Porn recovery sites are springing up all over the Web.

Here's the key point: Most people don't abuse substances because they haven't tried them, don't get much of a buzz, or find the effects aversive. But who doesn't like sweets or sexual arousal? And who doesn't like an especially tempting treat or hyper-arousing visual—especially if his brain's pleasure response is numb from over-stimulation? Our brains are more vulnerable than we currently believe.

When does a stimulus put us at risk for slipping into excess?

Danger lurks when something:

  • registers as an especially "valuable" version of a thing that our ancestors (and we) evolved to find irresistible,
  • is available conveniently in limitless supply (not found in nature),
  • comes in lots of varieties (novelty), and
  • we binge without realizing it is triggering brain changes.

As we've seen, junk food fits this model. So does free Internet porn. Yet porn poses unique risks. Food sets limits on consumption: stomach capacity and the natural aversion that kicks when we can't face one more bite of something. But there are no physical limits on Internet porn consumption, other than the need for sleep and bathroom breaks. One can "edge" to porn for hours without climaxing and without satiety or aversion kicking in...hours of supranormal neurochemical stimulation of the appetite mechanisms of the brain. Each click to a novel video "violates our expectations" with something new and exciting, releasing more and more dopamine into the brain.

Intense arousal produces a more exciting buzz of neurochemicals than cheesecake—one that is therefore more reinforcing. That is, the brain more thoroughly wires together all associated cues, making repetition of the experience in the future more automatic. Moreover, heavy porn use sometimes discourages the user's pursuit of friendly interaction with others, which would help regulate the brain naturally. Also absent are factors that once protected our ancestors against over-stimulation. There are no jealous mates, wise elders, or social taboos, and often no sexual partners with their own ideas. Porn use seems risk-free because it's private and virtual.

Alas, not only are most of us unaware that today's hyper-stimulating sexual goodies can put our brains at risk for the changes associated with addiction, we're also up against a powerful meme in today's culture. It proclaims that, "Any kind of orgasm-promoting behavior is inherently so healthy that we must vigorously deny the growing evidence of the risks inherent in unlimited access to today's sexual superstimuli."

Is this sound thinking? If our brains have evolved to drive us toward food and sex, shouldn't we be a bit more cautious about inundating ourselves with hyper-stimulating versions of them? Already, "about 17% of individuals who view porn on the Internet meet criteria for sexual compulsivity. That translates to a lot of people, given that about 12% of all the Internet traffic is porn and nearly 90% of the young male population (about 30% of the young female population) view pornography," says Professor Steven C. Hayes.

NEW: Adolescent Brain Meets Highspeed Internet Porn (half-hour presentation on sexual conditioning and the adolescent brain)

Relevant comments from fourms

Cut out porn, but now constantly looking OKcupid and Facebook pictures

It's all SFW, but I realize that I'm acting out the same patterns. I'll have 30 tabs open of OKcupid profiles. However, I'm not even aroused, nor am I stroking it. I'm just addicted to the novelty, the chase. This is harder than I thought.

I honestly dont fap that much and can go a couple weeks without really thinking about it. Im not awkward with women, or have problems with anxiety, but the thing that really struck me was the potential effect on my libido and risk of ED. I am most definitely desensitized to "porn"... to the point of i have problems defining it. what is porn? I know its video but do pictures even still count? no body has fapped to pictures since 1993. I scroll thru nudes, artistic or otherwise, on reddit and tumblr like so much email.

so i guess my question is does the simple desensitization to the sight of nudes/sex acts kill your libido? or does using those things on a daily basis as a means to sate your urges makes you lose interest in the real thing? either way I figured i'd take a shot at a no fap month and see how it goes..

Why internet porn addiction is worse than drug or alcohol addiction -

This case has been made before at senate hearings and Christian forums and usually gets poo pooed as way too alarmist. The main argument I've heard as to why internet porn is worse than drugs and alcohol is that unlike substances that can be purged from your body, porn images never leave your mind. However, I believe that internet porn is worse for better reasons than "it gives you bad memories". So without further ado here are my reasons why I think internet porn is worse than drugs or alcohol.

1. TOTAL ANONYMITY. When a drug addict gets hit with an unstoppable craving there are several things he must do to get his fix that the internet porn addict doesn't have to do. The drug addict must actually leave his residence and purchase his drugs or alcohol from a seller. This means that in order to get his fix somebody has to see him going for it in public. There's a risk of public exposure that the alcoholic and drug addict face that the internet porn addict does not. Notice I said internet porn addict. Porn on VHS or DVD or in magazines isn't the same as today's porn because you still had to go out into the public and buy it. When the addict is ready to kick his habit, the shameful march to the dealer, the risk of public exposure becomes a safeguard. Even buying porn with a credit card has a risk of public exposure that todays internet porn just doesn't have.

2. MONEY. Speaking of buying, your habit is only as bad as your income is good when it comes to drugs or alcohol. In extreme cases drug addicts have been known to sell their own families into slavery just to get that next hit. Internet porn however is 100% free. Sure there are some paid sites out there, but with all the tube sites and torrents only an idiot would pay money to watch porn these days. Some of us may feel we have more self control of our habits than a drug addict because we don't commit crimes to get our fix. But, imagine if the government made porn illegal, and expunged all porn from the internet. How many of us would sell our mothers furniture to see just one more scene when that craving you cant say no to hits you?

3. ACCES. Not only does the drug addict or alcoholic have to have a face to face encounter to get their fix, he also has a limited number of suppliers. He is always one police crackdown, or delivery truck breakdown away from huffing glue, or drinking bathtub gin. The internet porn addict however has an unlimited supply of his drug of choice due to the ubiquitous nature of the internet itself. Internet porn never sells out, never needs an ID (checking yes or no if you're over 18 is a joke), and you never have to leave the house to get it. Unlike the meth addict, the internet porn addicts drug dealer lives in his house and has an unlimited, free supply of his drug, oh and he's invisible. And you wonder why you keep relapsing.

4. NO SMELL. While the stench of unwashed genitals may permeate the room of an internet porn addict that stench isn't always an indicator of porn use. Alcoholics, certain drug users, even cigarette smokers substance gives off a distinct smell that is undeniably from their product. Which means that to get their hit without anyone noticing they have either do it with other addicts of their ilk or climb under a bridge or something. Internet porn addicts can abuse their drug in the comfort of their homes without worrying about it telling on them with a smell. You may feel like you go through great trouble to hide your porn use. But, the difference is that when you're done you don't have to pop a mint, spray air freshener, or wash the stench of porn off your clothes. There is no scent that internet porn use gives off that lets people know without a shadow of a doubt that you fell off the wagon again. How many of us have cycled through internet porn on our smartphones while our wives or girlfriends lie right next to us in bed, oblivious to what we were doing. That's a luxury the drug and alcohol addict will never have.

5. NO PHYSIOLOGICAL TRACES. Now I know some of you who suffer from porn induced ED may be screaming "off with his head! " at this point but hear me out. Unlike drugs and alcohol, porn cannot be found in your blood or urine. Whereas the drug and alcohol abuser has a fear of losing his job or car due to his habit, the internet porn user, unless he's actually caught watching it during work hours, never has to worry about this. Erratic driving can be caused by any number of reasons. The driver may be tired, or fist fighting his passenger, or trying to text while driving. But, when the police pull him over, test him, and see he has a BAC over the legal limit the buck stops. You may suffer from porn induced ED, but tell me what test can your doctor conduct where he'll come back and say "well son it looks like you have porn in your body". Absolutely none. Imagine what your life would be like if porn could be traced in your urine or on your breath.

6. NO DISFIGUREMENT. Not all drug and alcohol abusers look like drug and alcohol abusers. But if an emaciated 26 year old with missing teeth and sunken eyes told you he was a meth addict, chances are you wouldn't be surprised. Long time use of drugs and alcohol is known changing how its user looks. How many prom queens who hit the skids have you seen that shocked you with how terrible they looked compared to how they used to look. Now think about how many internet porn users have the same story. Can you even pick an internet porn user in a crowd? Having your good looks stolen from you is another safeguard the drug user has to help him kick his habit that the internet porn user does not.

7. FEAR OF DEATH BY OVER CONSUMPTION. Unlike the drug or alcohol addict, you can binge on internet porn to your hearts content and never have to worry about dying from an overdose. I mean a person who drinks too much water will die faster than a porn addict on an all day binge. Fear of death is an excellent motivator to kick the habit that the drug and alcohol user has that the porn user will never have. Sure some have commited suicide or some have died in car crashes from watching porn as they drive, but those are more indirect causes of death. Nobody will ever say "hey did you here about Johnny? He died from watching too many big breasted girls on his computer. Such a shame".

8. NO ONE KNOWS YOUR HIGH. Its been said that the dopamine rush you get from internet porn is comparable to meth or cocaine use. But the meth or coke addict has a period of time when he is obviously buzzed from using his drug. Which means that the internet porn user can get almost or as high, and still drive a forklift, teach a class, or have a normal conversation without getting weird looks. Sure you may get depressed or moody, but those can be attributed to any number of things. A drunk man can never claim his drunkenness is due to not getting enough sleep, or because he though about something sad.

So that's all I got. What is the conclusion of all this? Stop being so hard on your self. You are dealing with an addiction that doesn't have any of the safeguards to stop you from going overboard like drugs or alcohol do. While you can get encouragement from an ex drug addict on how to beat addiction, keep in mind that you are dealing way more than he had to. As internet porn addicts we have to implement these natural safeguards artificially. And even then it's not the same. So keep fighting, keep trying, and stop thinking so down of yourself.

Quote by John Mayer that made me realize why I don't have healthy relationships. "... out of 100 you swear is going to be the one you finish to, and you still don't finish." (Full quote inside)

When I read this I thought... Oh my god, that's exactly what I do, and that probably explains why my brain is so jacked that I can't find or maintain healthy relationships. I think my bar has been set unrealistically high because I'm so used to seeing THOUSANDS of naked (and usually very attractive) women every week! How could I possibly find a REAL woman with clothes on who could compete (in the brain chemistry realm) with my porn addiction?!

GUY 2)

This is a great quote from Mayer. I can definitely relate to that. It's scary how quickly you get bored with the hottest girl you can find on the Internet, only to try and find one even hotter. I have probably wasted weeks or months of my life looking for the next hot girl to finish to. I've been late for work, been late for dates, been late picking people up when they were counting on me...just because I wanted to see a few more hot girls.

GUY 3)

So true. It's downright scary how I'd set out to fap and suddenly an hour or two has passed and I'm still sitting there clicking like a madman.

GUY 4)

Thanks for the quote. Tomorrow will be a week for me and I feel so much better.

GUY 5)

I can only speak for myself, but with only 18 days into this challenge I can state for a fact that PMO can and will ruin relationships if you let it. I am lucky to have such an incredibly sexy wife, and even after over ten years of marriage and two kids she has kept that same sexy body, personality, sharp mind, and vibrant spirit that I first fell in love with over a decade ago.

But MY abuse of PMO was starting to make ME the problem! I have become out of shape, lazy, kranky, and frankly much more content with the ease of private alone time with PMO than in putting in the effort and the attention that she and MY family rightfully deserves.

Luckily, I found the source of MY problem before too much damage has been done to OUR relationship and I am now starting to make proper amends for it. For example this weekend will be spent minus the kids just the two of us on a short out of town trip to a romantic B&B that I found.

TL;DR; I have started taking responsibility for MY shit and am diligently working hard to fix it!

GUY 6)

You just described me, brother. This is the kind of thing no fap doubters need to hear: real men taking responsibility for their part in their problems and being man enough to do something about it. Awesome post.

Reward circuit resensitization isn't necessary sexual (nofap good for other than ED/real sex/religion)

(my english != native)

I just wanted to post this experience. I have been nofap for like 1/3 of year (with not that much relapses and if, then generally to mild stimuli). I found nofap few days ago from ted(x).

I wanted to add to debate my observation: I noticed that reward circuit (RC) is probably also desensitized by fap. For sexual arousal it's obvious, deeper stimuli = less sensitivity. But, masturbation alone (if PMO, then it's amplified) (if too often then amplified) imho can somehow modify reward circuit. Like maybe desensitization. Example from real life: ordinary things like listening to piano music, eating peaches or drinking green tea - I always loved them. But I noticed, that during last few months it got somehow more intense.

Today we got peaches from our garden and eating them was 'like-orgasm' (obviously not that strong) but longer lasting and certainly it was action not just likable but giving something that orgasm does. Or silence during late evening - I always appreciated those things, but now I'm feeling that veeery good during them.

TL;DR Imho this is reason other than meeting woman/ED/religion for nofap that really pays off.