Addictive Behaviors part II
I recently discovered a book with an entirely new perspective. It probably will eventually shed light on causes and solutions to addictive behaviors. The book is The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Dr. Normal Doidge, 2007, from Penguin Books.
The main idea in the book is that researchers are finding more and more evidence of how the brain, itself, can change. This is called Neuroplasticity. Most of the research in the book applies to disabilities involving visual or auditory processing. The book also mentions some early work with sexual addictions, the use of pornography and other risky behavior.
Addictive Behaviors related to Risky Behavior and Sex
Young people participate in a lot of risky behaviors. Playing football is risky. Concussions and other injuries can be serious, and occasionally fatal. But football players are aware of the problems and do what they can to protect themselves.
The mountain climbers in the snow are taking a risk. Mountain climbing is dangerous even in the summer. In winter climbing, they need to take extra precautions but they believe the risk is worth taking. They work hard to reach their goals.
Students often take other risks without thinking about the consequences. There is no reason for speeding, especially on a dangerous mountain road. But young people get a thrill from speeding and don’t consider that they might kill themselves and their passengers.
There are other risky behaviors I have read about: people who try riding on the roof of a car, sometimes standing up, people who lie down in the middle of the road, perhaps thinking a driver will see them and swerve our of the way, people who sit on the railing of a hotel balcony while drunk, never imagining they could fall to their death.
There are plenty of exciting activities you can participate in that you can enjoy without risking your life. Try mountain climbing (with experienced hikers.) Try cave exploring (with experienced spelunkers.) Try an amusement park and ride the roller coasters.
The young man resting with his head on a railroad track is another example of what not to do, especially if he’s drunk and falls asleep. Perhaps he thinks it’s exciting to wait until the very last minute before moving his head. That is an intentional risk that is exciting because he is risking his life.
Doidge describes a man who liked to climb mountains with no ropes, leaping up to reach higher footholds, constantly trying to set new records. He also enjoyed jumping off high places with a rope instead of a bungee cord because this was more dangerous and thus more exciting. You might say he was an adrenaline junkie.
The pleasure he got from risking his life day after day, made changes to his brain. You might say he was addicted to thrills. This was now the only activity that made him happy. His twelve-year-old daughter was worried and begged him to stop, and he did stop for a day. But he craved the adrenaline rush ike an alcoholic craves one more drink, or the drug addict craves his drugs. Only days after his daughter begged him to stop, he took a longer fall on his rope. The rope broke and he fell to his death.
If you plan to succeed in college, if you plan to graduate and make your family proud of you, you need to stay alive.
Addictive Behavior involving Pornography and Sex addiction
Until I went to college the big question was whether you should let a boy kiss you on a first date. I was shocked at the number of boys I met my first year of college who, having little experience with sex in high school, thought since they were in college they could have sex with a different girl every day. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel the same way. One young man told me that, since he had bought me dinner, I had an obligation to sleep with him.
I let him know what I thought of such complete nonsense, but I also made very sure I didn’t accept a date for dinner after that unless I knew and trusted my date. Lunch dates were less of a hassle.
And it isn’t just the boys. When my son moved into an apartment freshman year, we hadn’t even left when a young lady approached him and made it clear she was willing. It was something like, “You’re so good-looking. If you want – you know – come see me. My room is just upstairs.” Tony may have been intrigued, but he also understood that anyone involved with multiple sex partners was far more likely to get and pass along STDs (Sexually Transmitted Disease) including HIV/AIDS. This overly generous girl was very likely to have one or more STDs.
College is a wonderful place to meet people and make new friends but you need to think carefully before rushing into having sex before you know anything about the other person.
Sex and pornography can lead to addiction, creating changes in your BRAIN!
WARNING: Even though I have a master’s degree in biology, I am not an expert in this area. I have tried to summarize this information as clearly as I can, but I could be missing a point here and there or be oversimplifying the concepts. If you want to know more about this idea read Norman Doidge’s book for yourself.
Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain that changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, discusses sex in chapter 4. He quotes Freud:
The sexual instincts are noticeable to us for their plasticity, their capacity for altering their aims.
Freud didn’t understand what modern researchers know about the brain but “he laid the foundations for a neuroscientific understanding of sexual and romantic plasticity.”
Note: When Doidge or Freud or other researcher refer to the brain as “Plastic”, they obviously don’t mean the brain is made of plastic. They mean the brain is changeable, that our behavior can actually make physical changes in our brain.
Scientists have known for years that, if an animal or person doesn’t use one part of its brain, that part of the brain will be used by another part of the body.
The classic experiment showed that a newborn kitten, with one eye sewn shut for three weeks, will be blind in that eye for life. The part of its brain that would have used by that eye is now used by the eye that does see. Human babies born with cataracts need cataract surgery right away so they can see and also to develop that part of their brain. If they don’t, they will be blind or have serious visual problems..
Dr. Michael Merzenich has done experiments with shocking results. In one experiment, he sewed together two fingers on a monkey so the two fingers moved as if they were one. After several months, they mapped the monkey’s brain. As expected, the areas for the two fingers was now a single larger area. When they separated the fingers, the monkey could no longer move the fingers separately. If the monkey moved one of these fingers, the other moved right with it and the entire new area on the brain map would light up on an MRI.
This is similar to people who are born with webbed fingers. They have a single brain map for the pair of fingers that are attached. BUT we now understand that, after the fingers were separated, after the fingers are used over and over individually, the single brain map re-forms into two separate brain maps. They can learn to use these fingers separately because their behavior has changed their brain..
A study of London cab drivers showed that part of their hippocampus (a part of the brain related to memory) was thicker than normal. The more years of experience the cab driver had, the thicker this area was. They had changed their brains by driving their cabs and learning to visualize the ways the roads were connected. When we develop more and more synapses (connections between neurons), more connections develop, making the neurons take up a little more space.
The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron. Like all revolutions, this one will have profound effects and this book, I hope, has implications for, among other things, our understanding of how love, sex, grief, relationships, learning, addictions, culture, technology, and psychotherapies change our brains.
— Norman Doidge, pp. xix, xx.
How is this study related to pornography?
You are probably aware that a person might happen to look at a page on the internet with pornographic pictures. If you look at this picture of a man looking at a computer and feel a guilty thrill, knowing what he must be seeing and feeling, you need to be extremely careful to avoid this problem. Maybe he really is just doing his homework.
Sometimes you might click on a link, expecting something different and you are surprised to land on a page with pornographic pictures.
More often people, mainly men, are simply curious. They wonder what all the fuss is about. They don’t intend to do this regularly.
But the more they look at these pictures, the more they are hooked. They tend to believe that they enjoyed looking at pornography and kept going back because they enjoyed it.
That’s true enough, but it isn’t the whole story. Some of these men begin spending more and more time looking at pornography, looking for more kinds of pornography. Soon they find they are spending three, four or more hours a day doing this.
They really can’t stop. It isn’t LIKE an addiction. It IS an addiction, just as much as an addiction to alcohol or drugs.
The problem is, they have changed their own brains. That’s what an addiction is. ‘Eric Nestler, at the University of Texas, has shown how addictions cause permanent changes in the brains of animals. A single dose of many addictive drugs will produce a protein called… delta FosB, that accumulates in the neurons. Each time the drug is used, more delta FosB accumulates, until it throws a genetic switch, affecting which genes are turned on or off.’
— Doidge. p 107
Doidge adds that this leads to “irreversible damage to the brain’s dopamine system and renders the animal far more prone to addiction.” p. 107
Now for the SCARY PART OF THE STORY! These men, sitting at their computer, looking at the porn sites, feel excited. Researchers like to say that “neurons that fire together wire together.” The neurons that fire because of the excitement, fire along with the neurons for seeing the pornography and the neurons for the two experiences seem to connect up (wire together). Now the delta FosB begins to collect. When the men feel sexually stimulated or if they masturbate, their neurons get “a spritz” of dopamine’, the reward neurotransmitter.
As days go by, they need greater and greater stimulation to feel that same level of pleasure. And, as they become more hooked by pornography they feel less satisfaction with their wife or girlfriend. Their brains have been changed. When this continues, marriages or relationships fall apart. He’s no longer attracted to her. The pornography takes up so many hours a day that he gets less and less sleep. As with all addicts, he is likely to fail all his classes, he is likely to lose his job. IT ISN”T WORTH IT!
The good news is that most men can escape from this addiction.
As for patients who became involved in porn, most were able to go cold turkey once they understood the problem and how they were plastically reinforcing it. They found eventually that they were attracted once again to their mates.
None of these men had addictive personalities or serious childhood traumas and, when they understood what was happening to them, they stopped using their computers for a period to weaken their problematic neuronal networks and their appetite for porn withered away. — Norman Doidge p. 131.
I would suggest that, if you’ve gotten hooked on porn, you might try going cold turkey but, if it doesn’t work, you need to see a counselor for help. The statement above implies that, if you have an addictive personality or if you suffered from childhood trauma, this won’t be easy. Try to find a therapist familiar with neuroplasticity.
What about Sex Addiction?
Doidge considers several cases of patients or other people with serious sex-related problems, but does not actually mention sex-addiction. Many of us didn’t realize sex-addiction existed until Tiger Woods described his series of extra-marital affairs as due to sex-addiction.
Having read Doidge’s book, I can believe that sex addiction, an urge to experience more and more risky or stimulating sexual acts probably is much like pornography in making changes to the brain due to the same neurotransmitters.
Michael Herkov on PsychCentral.com defines sex-addiction as “a progressive intimacy disorder characterized by compulsive sexual thoughts and acts.”
On MedicineNet.com (owned and operated by WebMD) it says the term “Sexual Addiction is used to describe the behaviour of a person who has an unusually intense sex drive or an obsession with sex… making it difficult to work or engage in healthy sexual relationships.”
Both sites give a long list of behaviors that would be included. These include multiple extra-marital affairs, frequent use of pornography, and multiple or anonymous sexual partners or one-night stands.
It is normal for college students to “fall in love” and become intimate. It is normal for college students to occasionally experiment with sexual experiences.
What is NOT normal is that students who are obsessed with sex. Both male and female students sometimes think they need to have sex every day, or at least several times a week, and don’t care who they sleep with. They may not even know or want to know their partner’s name. They treat the other person as nothing more than a thing to be used. They often call this “hooking up,” implying by this term that it has no personal meaning to either partner.
In this picture, I don’t sense that either the man or the woman cares for the other. They don’t even look at other. I have the impression that both are hoping the other will be hot in bed. I imagine them hooking up and never seeing each other again.
Such behavior is not only risky in terms of possible STDs and the possibility of pregnancy. This behavior will make changes to their brains. This will make it very difficult for them to ever have a healthy relationship. Unless they change this habit completely, their future is likely to include unhappy marriages and divorces.
The facts below come from the article by Hannah Parmalee. They are also listed on the page, Romantic Relationships, but they are important to consider here as well.
1. Couples who date at least two years are more likely to stay married.
2. The more sexual partners a man has before marriage, the more likely he is to cheat once married.
3. The more sexual partners a woman has before marriage, the more likely she is to get divorced.
4. Couples who had sex before marriage are less sexually satisfied with their relationship once married.
5. Couples who live together before they get married are more likely to get divorced.
If you feel a strong compulsion to have frequent sexual experiences with people you know little about and don’t care for, you should recognize this as a sexual addition. This behavior is likely to cause major problems for you in efforts to establish a healthy relationship or marriage.
You might try to stop on your own, but I suspect you will need to see a psychiatrist or therapist with experience in this area. I strongly recommend that you do this now, rather than putting it off. The longer you wait to change your lifestyle, the harder it will be and the greater the effects on your brain and on your future.
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