Sex, Brains & Monogamy

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(as published in Australian magazine, "WellBeing" in May, 2004)

Cover of WellBeing magazine

The sex pact

Like most mammals, we are not naturally monogamous. In fact, anthropologist Helen Fisher estimates that we are physically designed to stay with our mates for only about four years before neurochemical changes make us feel like moving on. This is because our physical design has evolved in directions that ensure the maximum number of offspring and lots of genetic diversity (through changing partners) and these traits are at odds with monogamy.

Still, monogamy can be surprisingly beneficial. Harmonious union is a powerful defense against illness and premature death. In a seven-year study of 800 young adults, depression and alcohol abuse declined more significantly for those who married. Cohabitors, too, enjoy significantly lower levels of psychological distress than those with no partner living in the household.

But it's not union, rather harmony, that really benefits us. A recent study of hundreds of older couples showed that spouses who were able to make their spouse feel loved and cared for lived significantly longer than those who gave no emotional support. In Love & Survival heart-disease specialist Dean Ornish points out that connecting with others in a genuinely caring way has an even greater beneficial impact on our health than regular exercise, stopping smoking or improved diet.

Biology vs monogamy

So how does biology achieve its goals at the expense of our health-giving unions? By ensuring that our brains release certain neurochemicals that cause highs and lows in our relationships. Dopamine, for example, can make us reckless with passion (to encourage fertilisation) and even addict us to hot sex. Yet the "hangover" from such intense stimulation can also make us feel like pulling away from (or driving away) our lovers when we feel a need to recover.

This subconscious attraction/repulsion dynamic - which we mistakenly perceive as each other's character flaws - can destroy relationships over time, leaving us too discouraged to keep trying. In fact, now that church and state are losing their power to keep us wedded for life, we can see the force of biology's agenda in the Census Bureau's 2002 prediction that half of all new marriages will end in divorce.

In short, if we want to remain harmoniously monogamous we must successfully buck a biological tide. This can be done, and the clues about how to do it have been around for thousands of years. Taoist, Tantra and even pre-Roman Catholic Christian texts all speak of another way of making love - one that outmanoeuvers biology. They recommend a relaxed approach, in which fertilisation efforts (the conventional orgasms that overheat our brain chemistry) play no part. Instead, partners tap into an ecstasy that is heart-centered and based on the steady production of the altruism neurochemical oxytocin. This gentler approach also heightens spiritual awareness - which is why, I suspect, relationship chaos is really Spirit at work, signaling us to raise our sights.

Let's look more closely at some of these ancient clues. Taoist master Lao Tsu,Lao Tzu widely acknowledged as the author of the Tao Te Ching, also authored the Hua Hu Ching. More than 2000 years old, it addresses the hidden power of intimate relationships:

Although most people spend their entire lives following this biological impulse, it is only a tiny portion of our beings. If we remain obsessed with seeds and eggs, we are married to the fertile reproductive valley of the Mysterious Mother but not to her immeasurable heart and all-knowing mind. If you wish to unite with her heart and mind, you must integrate yin and yang within and refine their fire upward. ...The result [of dual cultivation, in which yin and yang are directly integrated in the tai chi of sexual intercourse] is improved health, harmonised emotions, the cessation of desires and impulses, and, at the highest level, the transcendent integration of the entire energy body.


Where ordinary intercourse is effortful [and leads to dissolution], angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural.

According to Buddhist scholar Keith Dowman in Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel, the ancients well understood the connection between sexual over-stimulation and an undesirable state of mind:

There is no trace of hedonistic indulgence [in the Buddhist Tantra].. "Do not be loose with your sexual organs," advises [female Buddha and Tantrika] Tsogyel. "Bind them fast." And "preserve the seed of kindness [sexual essence] for the sake of other beings."


Not only is desire vitiated by orgasm, but the will to enlightenment itself is temporarily lost.

Additional clues appear in certain little-known early Christian texts, the Gnostic gospels, which claim to record "secret knowledge." One of the most intriguing, which came to light in 1945 in Upper Egypt when peasants unearthed ancient urns, is the Gospel of Philip. It mentions the Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber - a sacrament of sexual union that aims at higher levels of balance and, heightened consciousness by learning self-control in the bedroom:

If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of defilement [in which we give birth to bodies], how much more is the undefiled marriage [in which we give birth to our enlightened selves] a true mystery! It is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to the will.


Understand the undefiled [immaculate] intercourse, for it has great power.

The suggestion that enlightenment lies just beyond our preoccupation with biology's reproductive dance is truly fascinating. Certainly, every step my husband and I have managed to take away from our fiery biological programming toward a gentler, more heart-centered approach to sex has profoundly benefited us both. Urinary tract infections and yeast infections stopped. So have a long-term addiction and chronic depression. We also often see flashes of light in our third eyes during our lovemaking and look forward to experiencing more of this mystery firsthand.

For now, however, I'll confine my observations to the striking parallels between these ancient clues and recent brain science discoveries. A vital key to biology's reckless-fertilisation strategy is high levels of the neurochemical dopamine, the "molecule of addiction." At moderate levels, dopamine motivates healthy appetite and a sense of cheerful anticipation. But more is not better. Why? Too much of an exciting substance like dopamine is just too much. High levels of dopamine have been implicated in sexual fetishes, schizophrenia, nerve cell damage (in cocaine users), and, of course, all addictions.

Intense cravings for sexual gratification equate with a compelling, chemical high that is ultimately more addictive than satisfying - followed by a hangover as our body seeks to self-regulate to bring us back into balance. As Dutch professor and brain researcher Gert Holstege reported in October, "Orgasm is akin to a shot of heroin." Following over-stimulation, our brain chemistry changes. Dopamine drops and prolactin, a sexual satiation signal goes up.

Unfortunately this built-in, protective shut-down mechanism can, over time, put us out of sorts for days or weeks. It can even backfire - leaving us with intense cravings for anything to make us feel high again. That's when we project our uneasiness onto each other, behave recklessly, and develop secondary addictions. Could this be why many spiritual traditions called for celibacy while biology's ruthless agenda appeared to be the only alternative?

The cuddle hormone

If we would tap the many benefits of harmonious union, we'll have to learn to bring out the best in each other while still engaging in intimacy. This is where the neurochemical, oxytocin, comes in. Nicknamed "the cuddle hormone," its properties are so numerous - and so consistent with the benefits observed by ancient sages - that we would be wise to explore ways to encourage its production. For example, oxytocin lessens the effects of stress, eases cravings (offering a very effective strategy for anyone who wants to overcome an addiction) and acts as a natural antidepressant. When we produce it, we even have a measurable calming effect on those around us!

No wonder harmonious union benefits us. When feeling peaceful, receptive, and loving (rather than hot and bothered), we are also more likely to sustain the neurochemistry of ecstasy for more than the few seconds of intense orgasm. Indeed, Taoists describe a timeless merging experience of total relaxation that leaves lovers glowing with well-being for days. They call it a valley orgasm, as distinguished from a peak, or dopamine-driven, orgasm.

Finally, pair of volesoxytocin increases sexual desire and the attraction between familiar partners - that is, mates - but not between unfamiliar partners. When scientists compared monogamous with promiscuous species of voles (field mice), they learned that the difference in their behavior boiled down to the different quantities of oxytocin in their brains. So oxytocin is also the "hormone of monogamy."

Happily, we can choose behaviors that strengthen our intimate unions and build a strong foundation for shared adventures in heightened spiritual awareness. Kissing, conscious nurturing of another, and affectionate, generous touch such as stroking or massage all raise the levels of this bonding, nurturing neurochemical.

Yet without our conscious participation, even oxytocin is not strong enough to counter indefinitely biology's attraction/repulsion programming. Indeed, the dreary prediction that "honeymoons last less than a year" was recently borne out in a study of hundreds of newlyweds. We're engaging in wishful thinking if we assume we can just do what comes naturally in the bedroom and expect to sustain a harmonious, juicy intimate relationship long-term. The solution? Learn to make love as the ancients did.

Having experimented with this gentler approach for years, my husband and I have discovered several useful keys for outwitting biology:

  1. We began with a gradual approach that delayed intercourse for a couple of weeks while we went through a withdrawal period (from the standard orgasm addiction) and laid down a new neural response to sexual arousal using planned affectionate exchanges of energy (massages, dancing together, shared meditations, and so forth).
  2. We treat intercourse as a special, planned event. Spontaneity, unfortunately, leaves us vulnerable to our impulsive, dopamine-based brain chemistry. In contrast, when we schedule our encounters we don't "rev up" constantly because we know in advance when we will be making love. A surprising benefit is that our non-intercourse snuggles are even more playful and satisfying than they were as "foreplay" because we aren't feeling driven to get anywhere. And intercourse feels like a special, or sacred, encounter.
  3. Like the ancients, we avoid striving for conventional orgasm in favor of more heart-centered, deeply satisfying states of bliss.
  4. We intentionally nurture and give to each other in order to trigger the production of healing oxytocin. That strengthens our attraction to each other. And, as I mentioned, our health has definitely improved.

So if you sense there's hidden spiritual potential in your union that you'd like to explore, or if you are tired of the wreckage from leaving the driving to biology, or if you have an addiction you'd like to conquer, try a new approach in the bedroom. Experience the benefits of a steady supply of heart-centered oxytocin - without the roller coaster ride of biology's agenda. Who knows? You may find yourselves on a path to spiritual transcendence.