Mind-benders: When 'Natural' Is Risky – Part II

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Mae WestPart I of this article explained that junk food (especially high sugar/high fat nutritionally-empty foods) and sexual stimulation (especially with the emphasis on climax rather than affectionate contact), although natural, have the potential to distort sound judgment. Both are examples of supranormal (unusually intense) stimulation, which reinforce learning – that is, they draw our exaggerated attention to anything associated with experiencing them. 'Learning reinforcement' is the same brain mechanism that distorts addicts' judgment, and locks them into their destructive behaviors. It occurs in the reward circuitry of the brain, and the neurochemical dopamine plays a critical role.

A key point is that our brains are not geared to handle supranormal stimulation, even from natural sources like sex and food. Mae West didn't know this when she said, "Too much of a good thing...is even better." Despite the compelling messages from our reward circuitry about how 'good' these things are, 'too much' is a potential problem when the 'good thing' entails release of excess dopamine in the reward circuitry of the brain.

Not everyone becomes an addict, of course. But nearly everyone's judgment is distorted now and then by natural reinforcers. (There is even evidence that high dopamine may distort sexual preference.) We binge on what is not good for us; we pursue sexual gratification in circumstances that risk unwanted pregnancy, disease, or destruction of our primary relationship. We also run a very real risk of creating unwanted dependency.

We may blame our behavior on our character deficiencies, the inadequacy of our mates, or the fabled devil. Yet perhaps it would be wiser to learn more about supranormal stimulation, its effects on our behavior, and its potential risks. We could more easily engage the evolved parts of our brain and make sounder decisions when temptation presents itself. In the case of supranormal stimulation, it's far better to choose wisely at the outset. The more we unsettle our equilibrium, the harder it is to change course. After all, our brain is literally rewiring itself to focus more and more of our attention on the stimulant.

To state it differently, our willpower is eroding where our chosen enticement is concerned. As a result, our judgment about its value to us is also likely to be increasingly distorted. Too often this means that our perception of those around us – especially if they impede our satiation – suffers. Our mate, for example, may seem unusually irritating or unable to meet our needs (because our needs 'Mental Distortions' signhave become exaggerated). We may discard a mate for reasons that have more to do with our own distorted thinking than with our mate's true value to us.

Unwittingly, we are also risking long-term depression, the loss of pleasure from milder stimulation, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, increased attraction to other addictive substances or activities, and an unruly desire to repeat unwise behavior.

All of these risks apply especially strongly to stimulants promoting compulsive eating and cyberporn addiction. However, even conventional sex can trigger supranormal stimulation. For millennia, careful observers have remarked on its power to hijack our judgment and inflame desires. Less careful observers have watched their lives turn into soap opera plots without a clue as to the true significance that intense sexual gratification plays in the process.

In this article we'll first consider how the labels 'addictive' and 'non-addictive' can obscure important information where learning reinforcers are concerned. All of them are, in fact, on the same reward circuitry spectrum, which is largely governed by dopamine. Next we'll look at some research that may highlight the inherent risks in supranormal stimulation, whatever its source. Then we'll address strategies for coping with our susceptibility.

'Addictive' or 'Not Addictive'

Sex isn't always addictive, but we have only to consult our novels, TV episodes, and usually our own past experience to see that it is very frequently perception distorting. For example, a liaison with Monica Lewinsky no doubt seemed to Bill Clinton like a good idea at the time. Instead it turned out to be a huge error in judgment - not unlike a teenager's casual use of recreational drugs. In Clinton's case, this error had negative consequences on the entire country, making possible the election of the current administration.

Actually the question, "Is sexual stimulation or junk food addictive?" is a bit of a red herring. It implies that the issue is black and white, and that there is no difference between balanced meals and fries, and no difference between caring intercourse and an isolating porn habit. The better question is, "Is this substance or activity likely to absorb my attention in such a way that it could sabotage my powers of discernment?" The answer to this question determines whether something is potentially harmful.

The medical profession does not ask this question. It traditionally thinks in black and white terms because it has to decide whether to define a particular condition as suitable for medical intervention - using pharmaceuticals, for example.1 doctorIt draws the line between pathological and non-pathological somewhat arbitrarily. Not only that, this boundary changes over time. Not long ago, doctors did not recognize alcoholism as a disease calling for medical intervention. On the other hand, despite the official reluctance of the profession, some doctors now suggest that compulsive eating and sexual compulsion should be recognized as pathologies.

Meanwhile, the mainstream is perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that the medical profession hasn't officially warned us of the addictiveness of natural reinforcers like junk food and intense sexual stimulation empty of affection.

One result is that we tend to assure each other that nearly any sexual behavior is healthy and harmless if enough people appear to be doing it. Yet should commonplace be the test of harmlessness? Maybe the question should be "Does a behavior easily seize the attention in a way that distorts judgment?" Or "Does it escalate compulsive behavior because of its natural tendency to reinforce learning?"

For example, our culture is flooded with increasingly explicit sexual images. This trend is framed as a free speech debate. Yet should we frame it as a risky natural reinforcer debate? Could we educate ourselves to avoid dangerous content because of its supranormal stimulation? In fact, explicit sexual imagery is not all about freedom. At a biological level, it's quite the opposite. Recklessly, and from an early age, many of us are being induced to focus increasing attention on supranormal sexual stimulation. Over time, supranormal stimulation changes the brain, drawing users ever more powerfully toward the targeted stimulant. In reality, advertisers' calculated coercion of the human will is the very opposite of freedom.

Whether or not officials stamp something as an addiction, if it has the power to usurp our judgment, we're on a slippery slope. If someone is likely to be unable to form a health-giving intimate relationship because his reward circuitry will signal him that erotic stimulation is more rewarding than the trusted companionship of a real person, shouldn't he be warned - even if his situation is not officially recognized as pathological?

Telltale signs?

The substances and activities that are officially recognized as addictive, such as methamphetamine, gambling, alcohol and so forth, have been studied quite a bit in the last decade or so. Not only that, researchers have conducted experiments on the effects of elevated dopamine. (Again, dopamine is the craving neurochemical behind all learning reinforcers, both natural and otherwise, whether or not they have been labeled addictions.)

While there's much still to learn, the unwelcome effects of supranormal stimulants are coming into focus - and there is already some evidence that natural reinforcers can alter the brain and behavior in ways similar to recognized addictive substances. brain chemicals and desireFor example, recent neuroimaging studies in humans have discovered neuroadaptations in the brain of obese individuals that mimic those previously observed in individuals addicted to cocaine and other drugs of abuse. 2 Overconsumption of sugar has produced behavioral and neurochemical signs of opiate withdrawal.3 And, as we pointed out in Part I of this article, Dutch researchers found that brain scans of ejaculating men resembled brain scans of people shooting heroin.4 Such parallels between learning reinforcers make sense, as dopamine is common to them all.

As you read the following list, consider whether you, or someone you know, may be suffering from the effects supranormal stimulation, via a natural reinforcer.

  • Depression
    Scientists used to think dopamine surges were fleeting. That is, they rose, motivated behavior, and dropped back to normal levels without leaving long-term changes in the brain. Now research suggests that some receptors in the brain respond to dopamine over a longer period, turning off a regulatory protein known as Akt, and may affect the brain indefinitely. Mice exposed to prolonged elevated dopamine later behaved like they were depressed in response to stress.
  • Decrease in normal pleasure
    One potential drawback of supranormal stimulation is that, over time, it may make normal pleasures seem less rewarding – at least until our brains recuperate. For example, recovering cocaine addicts say that they do not feel pleasure in anything for a while after they stop using.5 Recovering porn addicts have reported the same thing. According to addiction researcher and Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Nora D. Volkow, MD, the dopamine function is markedly disrupted in addicted individuals. There are decreases in dopamine release and in dopamine D2 nerve cell receptors in the striatum. Low dopamine may lead to diminished reward, motivation and inhibitory controls.6
  • Withdrawal symptoms
    When dopamine surges, the brain seems to protect itself by shutting down some of the nerve cell receptors for dopamine - or related proteins - for a time. This can result in physical discomfort. (Also see 'The pain of withdrawal.' Here are the remarks of a man withdrawing from porn use:

    Today the whole day I have been shaking with jitters similar to how it felt when I had quit smoking. My body has been jolted with what felt like an unusually intense energy especially in my spine. I would feel tense and stiff for a while and then as if my spinal bones are being popped and a big relief and then tension and then relief. It just came out of the blue and has been subsiding.

  • Desire to repeat unwise behavior
    Dopamine also surges when we want out of an unpleasant situation – and even higher when we are offered a chance to escape it. This means that when temptation presents itself during the discomfort of withdrawal, we probably feel even more motivated to reach for a stimulant than we did at initial exposure to it.7 Unfortunately, the primitive part of our brain doesn't understand the inherent risks in potent reinforcers. It simply registers them as a quick way out of the immediate discomfort of withdrawal.
  • Devaluing what truly nourishes
    As explained, intense sexual stimulation can cause us to exaggerate the importance of the novel or erotic aspects of sex, and undervalue the long-term, health-giving benefits of close, trusted companionship. We can grow especially irritable and resentful toward anyone we perceive as an impediment to "relief," or anyone who is not meeting our (now) inflated desires. Junk food use can cause similar distortions of judgment about which foods are 'good.'
  • Cross-tolerances
    dual diagnosisAnother risk of supranormal stimulation is what scientists call 'cross-tolerances.' That is, such stimulation can make someone more likely to reach for other potent stimuli. For example, hamsters that have previously mated are more likely to use amphetamines than are virgin hamsters.8 Teens who are sexually active use more recreational drugs than those who are not.9 Sugars have produced cross-tolerance with drugs of abuse.10

If you suffer (or someone you care about suffers) anxiety, depression, irritability or intense cravings in connection with the use of a natural reinforcer like junk food or sexual stimulation, it might be wise to treat these effects as warning signals that your 'mind is bending.' It could be time to let go of the behavior, however harmless it may seem, and regain your equilibrium.

Of course, it's seldom that we recognize our discomfort is related to supranormal stimulation. Instead we tend to blame those around us for our stress or anxiety. Sadly, stress itself can veil the return to clear perception. It has been shown to trigger the dopamine system and promote the use of addictive substances. 11

Coping

Once we understand that supranormal stimulants can alter our brain even if they are natural, we can steer around these risks. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use junk food and potent sexual stimuli sparingly - especially junk food without a balanced meal, and sexual stimuli without affectionate interaction.
    It's not clear how long the average progression is from casual use to full-blown addiction. Natural reinforcers are believed to take more time to reinforce learning than recreational drugs. However, a recent experiment revealed that sugar, which is quite natural, is powerful. Even rats addicted to cocaine preferred intensely sweet substances – sucrose and saccharine – to cocaine.12 Avail yourself of the window during which it is relatively easy to let go. Don't just keep going back for more easy gratification; you are likely to find it much harder to quit on down the road. (The impermanence of this window suggests that kids need early education about the effects of porn and junk food.)
  • Avoid 'novelty-on-demand.'
    The brain is particularly susceptible in situations where it can obtain novel thrills on demand. In fact, the availability of predictable anticipation may be a bigger factor in the compulsion behind internet porn use than love of naked bodies. Using internet porn is like being in front of a slot machine. People trying to avoid porn report that it's very hard to resist finding out whether there's a new picture at a porn site.
  • Don't wait for the medical profession or the mainstream press to confirm the risks of these two potent natural reinforcers.
    Even though food and sex are known to be learning reinforcers, which, when used unwisely, cause a lot of avoidable misery, the medical profession is unlikely to define them as addictions - until pharmaceutical companies begin to market the lucrative drugs to 'treat' these conditions. This event may be closer than expected. Already drugs are being developed to tamper with the reward circuitry of the brain to counter drug addictions. And doctors are surgically addressing compulsive eating. Meanwhile, although your doctor generally won't tell you that natural reinforcers can alter your brain, he/she will promptly write you a prescription for antidepressants for the depression that often accompanies unwitting overindulgence. Such drugs are not miracle cures. They modify the brain; they are costly; and all have side-effects of varying severity, some of which depress (or inflame) libido. Don't wait for the medical profession to fix (with a hammer) the problems that you can avoid in the first place.
  • Value your partner.
    Supranormal stimulation can distort your perception. It may even be part of biology's plan to keep humans moving on to new mates to increase the genetic variety of their offspring. Counter this subconscious program by finding reasons to be grateful for your partner every time you feel annoyed or irritated.
  • Strengthen your equilibrium.
    Controlled intercourse is an excellent way of increasing balance in the reward circuitry of the brain. More than two thousand years ago, Taoist master Lao Tzu noted that it eases cravings and promotes harmony. Also try meditation, tai chi, spiritual study, yoga, prayer, Qi gong, generous touch, singing, exercise, heart-felt, supportive exchanges with people you care about (via gatherings, the internet, smiles, and so forth), or service to others. All of these behaviors make you less susceptible to the call of dopamine. This is probably due to the effects of oxytocin.13
  • brain

  • Remember the brain is malleable.
    Even someone who has slipped down the natural reinforcer slope can heal. Food and sexual addictions are neither rare, nor incurable. Seek help if your needs often feel overwhelming and impossible to resist despite the fact that such behavior could damage your personal and/or professional life. (Visit our blogs to see how others are coping with this challenge.)

Value your freedom

Junk food snacks are NOT just another food. Cyberporn sex is NOT just another way to orgasm. Let advertisers sell you designer water, a CD, or the latest gizmo, but think twice before consuming junk food and using potent sexual stimuli. They aren't mere indulgences. At our current stage of evolution they can be mind-benders.

  • 1. As one doctor explained, "All mental health diagnoses are codified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), originally published in 1952 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). At that time, it had 112 entries. Since then the APA has added hundreds more, based on the current whims of the profession and the most current in-vogue maladies. The current DSM-IV and the soon to be released DSM-V include such gems as: Mathematics disorder, Caffeine disorder, Disorder of Written Expression, Telephone Scatialogia, Malingering. These absurd codes make it possible for your mental health professional to invoice for your visit, no matter how normal or innocent the real problem might be. And with the bill comes a label, and most often a drug. [Dr. Mercola]
  • 2. See Wang GJ, Volkow ND, Thanos PK, Fowler JS (2004) Similarity between obesity and drug addiction as assessed by neurofunctional imaging: a concept review. J Addict Dis 23: 39–53, and Wang GJ, Yang J, Volkow ND, Telang F, Ma Y, et al. (2006) Gastric stimulation in obese subjects activates the hippocampus and other regions involved in brain reward circuitry. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 103: 15641–5.
  • 3. Colantuoni C, Rada P, McCarthy J, Patten C, Avena NM, et al. (2004) Evidence that intermittent, excessive sugar intake causes endogenous opioid dependence. Obes Res 10: 478–88.
  • 4. J. Neuoscience, 23(27):9185-9193
  • 5. Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy, Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder, W. W. Norton & Company (1998)
  • 6. See NIDA Responds to Escalating Prescription Drug Abuse, Addiction, a Disease of Compulsion and Drive: Involvement of the Orbitofrontal Cortex and Low Level of Brain Dopamine D2 Receptors in Methamphetamine Abusers: Association With Metabolism in the Orbitofrontal Cortex
  • 7. Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy, by Klaus Grawe, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (2006), p. 270
  • 8. (Bradley, 2001)
  • 9. (Columbia University, 2004)
  • 10. d'Anci KE, Kanarek RB, Marks-Kaufman R (1996) Duration of sucrose availability differentially alters morphine-induced analgesia in rats. Pharmacol Biochem Behav 54: 693–7.
  • 11. See Kalivas & Duffy, 1989, 1995; Sorg & Kalivas, 1991, Thierry, Tassin, Blanc & Glowinski, 1976, and The impact of stress on addiction
  • 12. See Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward
  • 13. Oxytocin reduces cravings. When scientists administered it to rodents who were addicted to cocaine, morphine, or heroin, the rats opted for less drugs, or showed fewer symptoms of withdrawal. (Kovacs, 1998) Oxytocin also reduces cravings for sweets. (Billings, 2006) Oxytocin is the reason that wounded hamsters heal twice as fast when they are paired with a sibling, rather than left in isolation (Detilliona, 2004).