Remember the myth of Tantalus? The gods punished him by immersing him in water up to his neck, but when he bent to drink, it all drained away. Luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but when he reached for it, the winds blew the branches beyond his reach. The Mick Jagger of the ancient world, Tantalus "got no satisfaction." Humankind is in an equally unsatisfying predicament. Unlike Tantalus, we can reach (or click on) many of the tantalizing goodies we desire: high-calorie foods, sexual stimulation, online gambling, alcohol, and mood-altering drugs. Yet the majority of us are nearly as frustrated as Tantalus, and far more despondent. After all, Tantalus no doubt believed satisfaction was theoretically possible. Many of us have forgotten what true satisfaction feels like or where to find it. We're addicts - and often in worse shape than our ancestors - or people living in cultures where our coveted temptations are not so readily available. Addiction is endemic in American families. One in ten adults admits to internet sexual addiction.1 Roughly 40 million American adults have a spouse, parent, sibling or child battling an alcohol or drug addiction.2 Two million adults meet the criteria of a pathological gambler.3 22.1 percent of US adults still smoked as of 2003. 4 And what about food addictions? In the USA, 31% of all adults are obese and 65% are overweight.5 Some argue that obesity isn't an addiction problem, but merely the result of poor diet (too much sugar, fat and pasta) combined with too sedentary a lifestyle. However, there is growing evidence that humanity's underlying addiction mechanism is at work on waistlines too — and that surgeons can't defeat it with a stapler. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that:
On the heels of a five-year boom in weight-loss surgeries, researchers are observing an unusual phenomenon: Some patients stop overeating - but wind up acquiring new compulsive disorders such as alcoholism, gambling addiction or compulsive shopping. 6
Actually, there's nothing unusual about this phenomenon. It is the natural result of the interaction of a very primitive, yet powerful part of the brain with a modern lifestyle for which it is sorely unsuited. The result? We try very hard to feel good by seeking short-term gratification — even though it is guaranteed to decrease overall well-being. Not only do we feel worse, we create a dependency upon, or intense craving for, the very substances or activities that threaten our wellbeing, simply because they promise some immediate comfort. What's wrong with wanting to feel good? Nothing. The problem is that the primitive part of the brain, which drives us to feel good, is designed for circumstances that are far different than ours. We evolved in an environment where high-calorie foods and mating opportunities were scarce, but advantageous to our survival as a species. There were no quick shops on the corner offering super size sugary drinks, fried chips, pornography, alcoholic beverages, and lottery tickets. Tribal lifestyle offered close relationships, mutual aid, and group endeavors that constantly reinforced an emotional connection with others, helping to balance desires naturally. The good news is that it is possible to manage this primitive part of the brain, known as the 'reward circuit.' In so doing, we decrease all unwanted cravings. First let's look at why this reward circuit mechanism is such an influential - yet unreliable - pilot. Then we'll consider why better sexual habits may hold the key to genuinely feeling good.
Why the reward circuit?
The reward circuit is at the heart of our mental activity and guides all our behaviours. The Brain (website)
Everyone wants to feel good. And all feelings are synonymous with neuroendocrine activity in the brain. 'Feeling good' means activating the reward circuit in the limbic system (pictured to the right - arrow indicates the hypothalamus). As mammals, we always find ways to activate that reward circuit. If we don't, life becomes a dreary, depressing experience. Worse yet, we hamper our decision-making because the reward circuit is intended to help us steer for behaviors that have proven...well...rewarding. Put another way, the reward circuit needs to be activated for us to drink water, eat food, make love, strive for goals, take risks, feel optimistic, pet a cat, or hug loved ones. By the same token, we are quite likely to abandon anything that isn't registering as "rewarding," since, at a subconscious level our reward circuit pilot is signaling that it is not a good investment of time and energy. Unfortunately, there is a biological tendency in most mammals to find mates less rewarding following sexual satiation. Perhaps you can already see that not all reward circuit-based urges lead to sound decisions for the long-term. Certainly, some urges help us maintain equilibrium - such as the desire to engage in close, trusted companionship and affectionate lovemaking without orgasm, the urge to care for others, participate in group activities, engage in spiritual practice, spend time in nature, or listen to uplifting music. Other reward circuit-based urges throw us into addictive cycles - such as binge-pattern eating, pursuing novel sex partners, and using recreational drugs or pornography. Unfortunately, the reward circuit tends to send us the loudest neurochemical 'YES' for whatever gives us the biggest neurochemical high...regardless of the ultimate repercussions. As one scientist put it, we are designed to see the reward before the risk. Loud 'YES' signals for high-calorie foods and mating opportunities weren't much of a problem for our ancestors. They had no fast food restaurants or computers flooded with pornography - and limited resources and sexual opportunities. Our circumstances are quite different, however. Things that feel intensely good, such as orgasm, sniffing cocaine, or gorging on goodies, have a hidden cost. They send a neurochemical in the reward circuit (called dopamine) soaring so high that the body then puts the brakes on. This causes dopamine to drop abnormally low for a while. Low dopamine is associated with anxiety, depression, a feeling that something is terribly wrong (and fear that it will stay that way), and, above all, a desperate urge to do something - make that anything - to feel better. Here is where we can slip into addiction. Instead of waiting until our equilibrium restores itself naturally (that is, until dopamine levels recover), we reach for (or click on) something that is sure to activate our reward circuitry. Even if we know better, we don't care what the long-term repercussions are. We just want an end to the distress now. In the typical addiction cycle, the high points are less and less rewarding at a brain chemical level, so pretty soon we're indulging in our chosen reward circuit triggers strictly to avoid the inevitable pain of withdrawal. We're hooked. And the more we hate ourselves, the more desperate the cravings for short-term relief. Obviously, we'd be better off if we chose only rewarding activities that do not throw us into addictive cycles, such as connecting with others, spiritual pursuits, creative endeavors, achievement, healthy food, and so forth. That would mean avoiding intense sexual stimuli, recreational drugs and binge foods. The more we opt for healthier choices, the more we come to associate them with the benefits of feeling good. Thus we actually shift preferences over time - toward substances and activities that keep us in balance. It's then far easier to say 'no' to those that over-stimulate us. Of course it helps that we are no longer in that vulnerable place of needing immediate relief from feeling bad. Even scientists are starting to recognize the importance of balance to well-being. One researcher recently called on society to protect children from the toxic (addictive) diet that has evolved in the West. Is this admonishment based on science? Yes. When researchers feed rats sugar in a binge pattern, the rats become addicted to it. That is, if the rats don't get the sugar, they behave like opium addicts going through withdrawal, with chattering teeth and tremors. Yet, this reaction never arises if the rats are fed a moderate diet at regular intervals. Perhaps this "balance" factor explains why some people report benefits from the Shangri-la diet. The diet calls for regular (small) servings of fructose and oil, substances our reward circuit is designed to crave. But what if we're already caught in the snare of the addictive cycle, looking to 'feel good' by any means? Sex may hold the key. Although it currently tempts us into an addictive cycle, if used strategically, it becomes a life raft.
Why begin with sex?
Cultivating sexual desire by making love frequently, but without orgasm, may be the best starting point for regaining equilibrium and escaping the addictive roller coaster. Perhaps, like the Shangri-la diet, it soothes our cravings - without throwing us into sex's natural addictive cycle. Sages from the past report that by calming inordinate desire in the sexual center, willpower increases across the board. This may be because of the way the endocrine system is set up. The pituitary is called the 'master gland,' but the hypothalamus (located just above it) tells it which hormones to release. Sexual thoughts and activities stimulate the hypothalamus (a key part of the reward circuitry), which then signals the release of desire hormones throughout the body. This is how intense sexual stimuli can hijack the command center and seize the controls. Here's some evidence that supports the concept that sexual discipline may counter addiction in general: Teens who are sexually active use more recreational drugs than those who are not.7 One could argue that sexually-active teens may use drugs due to various social factors. However, hamsters that have mated also react to amphetamines more than virgin hamsters. 8 Social factors can't explain that result. Furthermore, therapists who treat sexual addiction frequently discover dual diagnoses (alcoholism, gambling, drug use) among their patients. Sexual stimulation may actually foster addiction. Again, the reward circuit that governs sex is the same one that drives all addictions. And, as one Princeton professor explained, highly potent sexual stimuli can activate the dopamine system with nearly the potency of addictive drugs.9 Indeed, one scientist noted that brain scans of people having orgasm resemble brain scans of people shooting heroin.10 So there we have a second reason that sex may be the best place to take control: neurochemically speaking, the drive toward orgasm is the most potentially addictive activity that the body engages in naturally. It is the closest to a recreational drug high. If we avoid this risky behavior by learning to make love without orgasm, we avoid hurling ourselves back into the addiction cycle with every sexual experience, while still gaining all the benefits of intimacy. For a more complete look at the research suggesting a link between sex and addiction, see the article, "Sex and Addiction."
Why change lovemaking habits now?
After all, our ancestors engaged in orgasmic sex, and they didn't face endemic addiction. How can orgasmic sex suddenly be a problem? Fertilization-driven sex was always a problem in that it tended to drive an emotional wedge between mates and encourage infidelity. (See 'The Coolidge Effect' for details.) These ill effects were, however, somewhat offset by ameliorating circumstances. Our ancestors generally lived in stable communities of extended family and other familiar acquaintances. Their daily activities called for lots of mutual aid and social interaction. Humans are designed to find such intimacy rewarding. It actually offsets cravings because it encourages the production of an extremely beneficial hormone: oxytocin. In other words, healthy social interaction and service to others helped keep our ancestors in balance, and countered, to a degree, their innate potential for addiction. In addition, until recent times, temptations were less prevalent and not promoted with advertising carefully crafted to erode willpower. Even so, addictions have plagued humankind for centuries. Short-term 'feel good' solutions are more readily available now than at any time in history - and counterbalancing factors are fewer. We are living a new experiment in human existence, and judging from addiction rates, we are not well-equipped to handle our changed circumstances. Clearly we need drastic measures of some kind to help us restore well-being. This discussion of how times have changed brings us to an even more important reason that sex is the ideal place to regain control. We may not be able to recreate tribes, but most of us can find a lover. Lovemaking nurtures us. It pulls us close to another human being in ways that release oxytocin. Oxytocin decreases cravings and soothes withdrawal symptoms. It is also the emotional bonding neurochemical and as we increase our sensitivity to it emotional bonding grows more rewarding. Love and intimacy are the most accessible antidotes to the emotional isolation of modern life. Isolation is not harmless. It leaves us very susceptible to addictive substances and activities. If we can't 'feel good' through close relationships with extended family or friendly contact with familiar acquaintances, we lose the 'connection rewards' on which our tribal ancestors thrived. Then we opt for the riskier options that promise the joy missing in our lives. We need human interaction to function optimally. For example, insecure emotional attachments in childhood appear to result in changes to the brain that throw one into a lasting bias toward self-preservation. This is the start of a downward spiral. Selfish people and those who seek pleasure in ways that don't involve others (alcohol, pornography, unhealthy food, etc.) tend to lose their ability to form emotional bonds. Sadly, the tendency can easily worsen with each generation as children watch their parents choose risky isolation rewards over healthy social interaction. Masturbation is certainly not sinful, but the decision whether to seek pleasure through isolated online sex or choose social activity and closer companionship may prove critical to future happiness. (Yes, spiritual practice and service can also benefit inner balance, whether or not we socialize. However, to pursue spiritual work responsibly, we must also overcome inordinate sexual desire. This is evident from the sexual misconduct among clergy and spiritual masters.) The good news is that the human brain is very plastic. By actively training ourselves to interact with a lover generously, and without using him or her to set off an addictive, high-dopamine cycle via orgasm, we experience the neurochemical rewards of generosity-based connections with others. At the same time we balance our brain chemistry and increase willpower. The changeover takes time and self-discipline, but it can potentially pull us out of the search for happiness where it does not lie - namely in empty, addictive high-dopamine activities and substances. As one man discovered after weeks of sexual discipline,
I get more sensual joy just from being alive! [And I realize] the only means I have for being really deeply satisfied is through the heart. - Scott Blossom, Yogi Times article
Controlled intercourse not only keeps us off the dopamine roller coaster in the reward circuit. It also makes novel partners less appealing because an existing relationship continues to register as rewarding at subconscious levels. The science of "feelin' good" is in its infancy. At the moment mankind is generally moving in an unhealthy direction. Most of us blindly exploit the short-term means of relief that sweep us into addiction and pull us away from the rewarding emotional connections with others that would help to balance us and counter cravings. Worse yet, the pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals are eager to cure any addiction-related ills with risky drugs or (weight-loss) surgery. For example, drugs are being developed to mimic dopamine in the brain so women taking it will want sex all the time. In other words, this drug creates an addiction. At the same time drugs are being developed to cure addiction by countering the effects of dopamine in the brain. This type of reckless manipulation, reminiscent of Alice's travels in Wonderland, is both absurd and dangerous. Such drugs do not change our fundamental direction toward balance in the reward circuit. Nor do they confine their effects to the symptoms for which they are proposed - as Parkinson's patients and restless leg syndrome sufferers discovered when they took dopamine-elevating drugs and developed sexual obsessions and gambling addictions. The holistic solution of moving toward closer union with careful management of sexual energy not only balances the reward circuit, it makes emotional connections ever more rewarding. The sooner we move in this direction, the shorter the climb out of current unhealthy patterns of behavior based on seeking short-term thrills. "Just say 'no' to drugs" is a fine slogan, but if we want to continue to feel good, a better one would be "Just say 'yes' to mutual support, hugs, and careful lovemaking."
- 1. Link to Pornography Industry Revenue Statistics
- 2. USA TODAY/HBO nationwide poll of adults April 27-May 31, 2006 found that one in five said they had an immediate relative who at some point had been addicted to alcohol or drugs. Link to USA TODAY article(PDF file)
- 4. Link to smoking and health website
- 5. Approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight, 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese, according to the American Obesity Association
- 6. See Link to article 'After weight-loss surgery, some find new addictions'
- 7. Sexually active friends and dating practices can signal increase in a teen’s substance abuse risk (2004). CASA 2004 Teen Survey.
- 8. Bradley, K.C. & Meisel, R.L. (2001), Sexual Behavior Induction of c-Fos in the Nucleus Accumbens and Amphetamine-Stimulated Locomotor Activity Are Sensitized by Previous Sexual Experience in Female Syrian Hamsters. The Journal of Neuroscience, 21(6):2123-2130.
- 9. Bart Hoebel, a psychologist at Princeton University in 'Fast food may be addictive.'
- 10. 'Brain Activation during Human Male Ejaculation'.