I was a once a contented product of the sexual revolution--or so I believed. My family was open and sensible about discussing sex, and barely religious. I concluded that orgasm was pure pleasure and the best possible relationship glue.
As it turned out, my relationships were passionate but disconcertingly fragile. The marriages of my healthy, sensual girlfriends crumbled too, as one spouse or the other decided s/he would be better off with someone new.
Why weren't our orgasm-rich relationships even more satisfying and harmonious than our parents'? They all stayed married until death parted them.
Statistics reveal that close, trusted companionship is one of the best forms of health insurance, and that happy pair bonds are a key determinant of human happiness. How come my instincts weren't leading me where I knew I wanted to go?
Men, too, have been learning to pursue orgasm even more efficiently and frequently--with a lot of help from today's media. They can also generate super-stimulating porn with a mouse click. In fact, as my husband says, "an Internet user can see more hot babes (or whatever gets him going) in an afternoon than his ancestors saw in a lifetime."
Are men more satisfied and happier? Are their relationships stronger? According to psychiatrist Norman Doidge, patients report increasing difficulty in being turned on by their actual sexual partners, spouses or girlfriends, though they still consider them objectively attractive. Initially porn helped them get more excited during sex but over time had the opposite effect. The Brain that Changes Itself, p. 104
In our drive for orgasmic gratification, could some of us be bruising ourselves on one of evolution's most unyielding cornerstones? "Life is a struggle," wrote Charles Darwin. An easy-to-overlook consequence is that our brain's limbic system is molded for survival under conditions of scarcity. It's certainly geared to exploit the occasional bonanza.
However, the same mechanism that urges us not to overlook golden opportunities leaves us vulnerable in the face of constant bingeing (superabundance). To understand why more is not better, you need to know something about a primitive part of your brain: the reward circuitry. Key parts of it lie in the limbic system. Your reward circuitry's job is to shout a loud "YES!" to things that furthered the survival of your ancestors. This means that its priorities may not reflect your goals.
It particularly responds to two things, which were highly prized scarcities until very recently (evolutionarily speaking). These are high calorie food and the chance to pass on your genes with an unfamiliar partner. Why? Genes don't make it into the future unless you eat enough to reproduce, so you're molded to gorge on both calories and promising mating opportunities (subject to cultural restraints and often fragile pair-bonding inclinations).
Your reward circuitry goads you using a neurochemical called dopamine. Dopamine is the "I gotta have it!" signal. When it surges in your reward circuitry, you find it scandalously easy to just say YES!
According to long-time Princeton researcher Bart Hoebel, highly palatable foods and highly potent sexual stimuli "are the only [natural] stimuli capable of activating the dopamine system with anywhere near the potency of addictive drugs." Now you know why diets so often fail and why people have affairs, engage in unprotected sex, or watch porn at work despite the risks. Their reward circuitry gooses them with a burst of neurochemical craving, and they find it very challenging to weigh their options wisely.
A primitive part of their brain is determined that they not pass up opportunities that were once critical to their ancestors' survival/reproductive success. Dopamine surges can do more than just distort short-term judgment, as I'll explain in a future post.
The point here is that today's superabundance can mislead us about where our genuine well-being lies. Our reward circuitry evolved over long stretches of time during which extra calories and novel mates were both rare and likely to improve the survival of our species. Extra calories could be stored as fat for lean times, and novel mates meant hardier offspring with more diverse immunity. Now, we struggle with obesity and overpopulation.
We don't realize that we live in an extraordinary period of rare superabundance. Calories and sexual stimuli are plentiful and marketed to our primitive appetites with disquieting effectiveness. Sexually, it's one big, colorful binge out there, with more intense sexual stimuli, fewer taboos, and widely available birth control. Thanks to our reward circuitry, we assume that if it feels good we should do it, are (perhaps) divinely decreed to do it (at least if married), and will be happier people if we are doing it as often as possible.
And when it comes to porn, we may be oblivious to the fact that every new video registers with that ancient reward circuitry as a novel, valuable "fertilization opportunity." Our primitive reward circuitry is spurring us with powerful, subconscious signals to say "yes" even under circumstances when we would be better off saying "not this time." Visit www.yourbrainonporn.com for more.
Empty calories and the lure of novel partners often do not increase our well-being, despite the short-lived gratification they offer. Yet we are so accustomed to relying on our reward circuitry when it signals the presence of "high-value" activities that we react without thinking. As we'll see in the next post, constant over-stimulation seems to promise greater happiness and satisfaction. However, these loud, deceptive signals can actually undermine both, and they get even louder when we say "yes" too frequently.