Your Brain on Porn Series - Part 4

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Binge cycle is tied to declining dopamine receptors
The cycle of declining dopamine receptors is also part of the cycle of addiction. It starts with binging. That causes a decline in dopamine receptors, which numbs the pleasure response of the brain. Now, you want something more to stimulate the brain, which shows up as cravings. So you do more binging—whether it’s more alcohol or more porn—which causes a further decline in dopamine receptors. Now, there’s even less pleasure response and stronger cravings. So you binge again.

That’s the cycle. It’s how your dopamine receptors decline. At the same time, your brain is always making a point of remembering which activities raise dopamine. Each time you binged, your dopamine went up—briefly. So now, just the thought of porn gets your dopamine going. It motivates you to reach for relief from low dopamine by clicking on porn without even thinking much about it.

You’re caught in a continuous cycle: the cycle of addiction. Think of dopamine as the “accelerator,” and low receptors as “brakes.” The more you hit the dopamine-accelerator in an effort to feel better, the more your brain responds by hitting the brakes—by reducing dopamine receptors.

It’s almost as if your brain wants you to binge on your addiction. I think your brain does want you to binge—at least on food and sex. We’ll see why in a moment.

Recent research has shown that overconsumption of highly stimulating food causes the same brain changes that are seen in drug addiction. Specifically, a decline in dopamine receptors. Here are the details of the experiment—and remember that it involves a natural reinforcer, not drugs:

Instead of regular rat chow, the rats were given cafeteria food: unlimited access to sausage, cheesecake, frosting, bacon and DingDongs. Their dopamine receptors dropped immediately, within a few days. And they stayed low. The rats ate to obesity.

In the same experiment, other rats were given only an hour of access to the “cafeteria” diet. They didn’t show the brain changes…at least not during the limited time of the experiment.

So unlimited access and overconsumption led to brain changes. Both are found in Internet porn addiction too.

In the last few months, research on humans confirmed that overconsumption of fattening food causes a numbed pleasure response in the brain. So it’s unsafe to assume that overconsumption of Internet will not change the brain, when junk food has already been proven to do so. Research on the brains of gambling addicts and videogame addicts has also shown a decline in dopamine receptors.

Key point: Natural reinforcers can cause changes in the brain that mimic drug addiction. And the pattern is similar to what we saw in the slide above. Overconsumption leads to a numbed pleasure response, which leads to dissatisfaction and cravings.

What happened to the obese rats when they were switched back to normal chow? Two things: At first they would hardly eat it, even though they were raised on normal chow. Maybe it was just to boring, not stimulating enough. In other words, they were dissatisfied. This parallels what heavy porn users often report:

1. Old porn is now “boring,” or not stimulating enough.
2. Their tastes in porn have changed over time—sometimes in startling ways.

Both of these shifts arise from cravings for more stimulation (dissatisfaction).

The second thing that happened with the rats—or rather what didn’t happen—was that two weeks after they were back on normal chow, their dopamine receptors still hadn’t bounced back to normal levels. (That’s when the experiment ended.) Compare this phenomenon with rats given cocaine. Their dopamine receptors bounced back in two days. This is odd. Cocaine, of course, releases more dopamine. So why would dopamine depletion last longer after food than after cocaine?

I think there’s some type of genetic program kicking in. I think of it as a “binge mechanism.” It seems to be triggered by a drop in dopamine receptors. I think it happens for a reason. A “binge mechanism” is nature’s way to override normal fullness, or satiety (the “I’ve had enough” feeling). I think it works for both food and sex.

Sometimes it’s a real evolutionary advantage to override this “I’m done.” feeling. Think of wolves stowing away twenty pounds of a kill at one time, or bears gorging on salmon before they hibernate. Or our ancestors putting on a few pounds for the winter.

Or what about mating season—when there’s a harem to impregnate? It definitely would be an advantage there. For mammals, such opportunities were rare, and they passed quickly. So your limbic system is saying, “Get it while the getting is good!”

Sooty is a real, live example of the “binge mechanism”—and also the Coolidge Effect. He broke into a cage of 24 females…and fathered 42 baby guinea pigs. When apprehended after The Deed, he slept for two days straight.

Such opportunities were rare for animals. But, today, our environment has changed. Being hooked on Internet porn makes perfect sense to your genes. The Internet offers endless “mating” opportunities, which your primitive limbic system perceives as real. That’s a key point. This part of your brain perceives them as real, even though your larger cerebral cortex knows better.

So, like any good mammal would, you try to spread your genes far and wide. And there’s no end to your “mating season.” You can get stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle. Endless novel mating opportunities (Internet porn) à the Coolidge Effect (binging) à Fewer dopamine receptors, if you continue (“binge mechanism”) à Cravings for more novel mating opportunities. The result is more binging…and there you go.

So here’s the takeaway message: There’s no reason to feel guilty about getting hooked on Internet porn. You’re simply doing your job. The well-respected mammalian job of impregnating willing females…on a screen.

But there’s more to addiction than a numbed pleasure response. Another key aspect is the rewiring of the brain. There’s an old saying: “Nerve cells that fire together wire together.” Rewiring strengthens the connections between nerve cells, making it a lot easier for them to communicate. By hooking up, they create circuits. The stronger the connections, the easier it is for a message to travel along those circuits.

As with the numbed pleasure response, all this rewiring occurs at the synapse. Exactly how this happens is very complex, and really not yet fully understood. But rewiring is happening all the time. It’s how we learn. It’s how we make new memories. The more we use brain circuits, the stronger they get. That’s how we learn any skill, such as walking or riding a bike.

Some learning involves repetition; some does not. For example, memories don’t need to be repeated to form. Yet they are also circuits. You have a circuit for your graduation, and maybe you even have a circuit for your favorite porn star.

A good analogy for forming brain circuits is footpaths. When you first walk through a field of tall grass, it’s pretty heavy going. The more often you take the path, the easier it becomes. Eventually, the path is just dirt—or maybe even a rut. I guess this is how we “get into a rut.” Think of this pathway as a memory or a skill—or a habit.

The key point is that you are more likely to take the same path again, because it’s easier, even if you don’t want to. Now, this is what happened to you. Your numbed pleasure response and memories urged you to use porn again and again. You created a deep rut, which is now easy to fall into. For you, it’s the path of least resistance.

Strong emotions form strong memories. A memory pathway can form instantly—if something is very significant, or has a lot of emotional impact. Examples would be a birth, a car accident, maybe even scoring a winning basket. Your brain is excited and says, “Please remember this. It’s very important!”

Dopamine is very important in memory formation. That’s one of its jobs. Moreover, if you release a lot of adrenaline, memories are even more powerful, more “important.” The more intense the experience, the more dopamine and adrenaline released, and the stronger your memories. That’s just how it works. So, now, instead of “walking” to create a pathway, you are using a weed-wacker to create it.

If you experience emotions such as excitement, fear, shock, disgust, guilt or shame while watching porn, you are strengthening the memory. So, some good advice would be, “Don’t feel guilty. Don’t feel shame.” It’s not helping on any level.