Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Love or Addiction?

When we have sex, our bodies release certain neurochemicals that cause us to bond with the person we have sex with.

For instance, our bodies release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that does a number of things in humans, but it should be noted here that it is addictive. That is, oxytocin is as much of an addictive substance as is alcohol or nicotine.

Most people readily describe the emotional effects of oxytocin as having "a warm and fuzzy feeling towards someone". If you gave someone a shot of pure oxytocin, they would experience a rush of warm and fuzzy feelings, among other things.

So what does all this mean? It means that when you have sex with a person, your body releases an addictive chemical that you come to associate with that person. If you cease having sex with that person, you will be able to go a few days with no problem. Then the withdrawl symptoms will set in and you will yearn for him or her (you are really yearning for more oxytocin, but your mind doesn't know that).

This pattern is why so many couples break up, are happy with their break up for a few days, and then plummet into yearnings for each other. Not realizing that they are chemically addicted to each other, they think their yearnings mean they are in love with each other. So, they get back together again. Only to face the same problems that caused them to break up in the first place.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is this: Be careful who you sleep with. If you sleep with them often enough, whether inside marriage or outside of marriage, you will become addicted to them. That is especially true for women: Estrogen multiplies the bonding effect of oxytocin.

I am not making an argument here for restricting sex to marriage, but rather am merely saying that sex has consequences we don't always think about, but should. Sex, after all, is something that evolved in us not just for procreation, but (at least in humans) also for bonding us to each other.


Brendan said...

Very interesting, Phil.

Why is it that when animals engage in sexual behavior it is "natural", but we think of human sexuality as an aspect of morality? As much as chemicals are produced to create a pair-bonding addiction, so too does that bond not hold very strong for some humans it would seem. Is that "unnatural" then? What is the appropriate chemistry by which one's behavior should be determined?

The difficulty as I see it is to examine an issue from a naturalist/determinist perspective but still include terms of judgment, of which "should" is one. Is that reasonably tenable?

decrepitoldfool said...

One question is how powerful an association is made, and with what/whom? Odds are it varies from one person to another. Somewhere I read a study about the strength/rapidity of attachment but darned if I can think of where/when now.

Individuals vary widely.

Anonymous said...

To briefly synthesize the 2 comments: I think this is a case where compartmentalizing the notions of morality and naturalism help illuminate the debate. Morality is a substructure of social organization, which is based on personal and shared-personal experience as much as resource accumulation/distribution. The naturalist element is the material substance that makes up these quasi-deterministic scenarios. One is the hardware + electricity, the other is the output of the software. But whats most intriguing is that it appears that the *brain/mind* is the bridge between the two. In other words, we may be subject to the qausi-deterministic qualities of biochemistry, but we still maintain the ability to step back and think about what choices we have amidst that influence.

Brendan said...

"we may be subject to the qausi-deterministic qualities of biochemistry, but we still maintain the ability to step back and think about what choices we have amidst that influence."

That, of course, could merely be an illusion. Whether or not one has "free will" or "power of choice," it would still appear from one's subjective perspective that one has freely chosen, regardless.

Paul said...

So far as I know, George is right. Humans are a very diverse species, and there is no reason to suppose that individuals vary any less in their ability to bond than they do in the shape and size of their noses.

As Brendan points out, that raises the interesting question of whether there is any "should", and -- if so -- what that "should" is.

I'm not very comfortable with the notion there should be only one sexual morality for all people. But I think people have a moral obligation to tell their prospective partners what their honest expectations are before engaging in sex.