Monday, June 25, 2012

Hello and welcome to the first installment of "Your Brain is a Jerk". Today's topic is Behavioral Addiction (aka. Process addiction", "non-substance-related addiction" or "Excessive reward-seeking behavior"); compulsions which arise without the introduction of psychotropic materials into the body (although they may indeed be accompanied by chemical addictions).
To investigate one such source of behavioral addiction, we're going to look at pornography.

Always good to make a strong first impression.

Why porn? Because:
1. Unlike certain other types of impulse control disorders, there actually are a number of studies which have been able to show physical changes in the brain directly correlated with consumption of pornographic materials. (Overeating has also been shown to cause physical changes.)
2. "Hypersexual disorder", while not currently included, is under review for inclusion in the DSM-5. (Gambling addiction is already included under "Substance-Related Disorders")

A definition: Here, "porn" refers to visual or audio materials, as chosen by the user, chosen specifically to invoke sex-related feelings in the individual. We further assume the people to whom we are referring here are not asexual, and are choosing to partake of these materials of their own free will.

Gary Wilson's TEDx presentation "The Great Porn Experiment" is a good starting point for this:
If you don't have time for the full thing, the important points are included within the notes below.
 Image Source: Psychology Today
  • People seek out novelty. Our brains reward us for seeing and experiencing new things with the release of certain neurochemicals (See: "How Weed Works" for more information). When guys see different women (or men), their brains react as if each new female is an actual new experience, even in the absence of additional sensory inputs such as touch and smell. As a result, consumers develop a resistance to "arousing" stimuli. It's not that mammals are addicted to novelty, but rather, to the chemicals our brains release when we encounter new and exciting situations. 
  • When you partake in an activity which your brain finds particularly excellent (those which people can begin to use to excess), you experience an increase of certain neurochemicals in anticipation of, during, and immediately after that activity. 
  • This same cocktail ALSO triggers the release of Delta-FosB, a protein which acts as a regulator of cell growth, differentiation and transformation. It's presence actually changes the physical structure of your brain. Every time you indulge in a behavior which triggers the release of these two chemicals together, you risk becoming addicted, especially when you don't give your body a chance to break them down before they have a change to start messing with stuff.
 Moldoveneste and neurochemicals do what they want.
  • This process creates a cycle in which Delta-FosB starts screwing with your head (particularly the amygdala) and creating cravings, and the user starts having a numbed pleasure response to other stimuli (i.e. You end up with less interest in the things that used to make you happy.) This in turn increases the amount of stimuli needed to make you feel the same amount of pleasure as before (and the completion of mating, in the case of actual sex, or an extreme desire beyond that of a healthy person to overeat, gamble, exercise, shop...), and the brain starts to actively look for and react to the addictive stimulus.
When you indulge in an addictive behavior, your brain will want more of it. If you do it, your brain will ask for even more because the previous type and amount isn't enough anymore. So you start looking for more, and doing it (whatever it is) more often. Eventually, the other things in your life that used to make you happy just won't cut it anymore.

You become addicted to chemicals of which your brain has a limited quantity, and you've trained yourself to only release those chemicals when you participate in a certain activity, you're stuck, and it takes a conscious, deliberate, effort to get yourself out of a situation like that.


  1. This is scary. Can you "undo" the physical changes in your brain.Do "habits" also cause physical changes?

    1. Provided you don't have any sort of physical or chemical damage to your brain to decrease the thing's ability to change itself, you should be able to go back to acting the way you were before. You can't really undo anything, but seeing as physical changes in your brain can be evident in as little as seven days, there is reason to believe you can write-over (though not exactly undo) the changes.

      In answer to your question regarding habits, yes. Our brains are naturally quite adaptive, but behavioral addictions and obsessive behavior occur when the reward system is hyper-engaged as a result of participating in a certain activity.