This is the third blog in a series on the Tripartite Brain. In the previous blogs, we looked at the more primitive parts of the brain, the reptilian brain and the paleomammalian brain—or the Limbic System. In this blog, we will look at the third part of the brain, the part of the brain that allows us to reason, plan, and worry.
Again, please remember that this is a hopefully helpful oversimplification of a very complex and only recently understood way of looking at what it means to be human.
Having said that, this particular blog will be a long one, so grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable. Thinking about thinking is not easy.
The Neomammalian Brain: The Cerebral Cortex
Welcome to what makes us human. As you have probably figured out, the cerebral cortex is where the higher brain functions occur: language, complex reasoning, anticipation, abstract thought, planning, etc. This is the part of the brain that enables you to read and comprehend this text, think through its implications and applications, plan dinner, play an instrument, operate an automobile, etc. In terms of computing power and sheer mass, this part of the brain is clearly the champion.
But, this part of the brain has two distinct disadvantages. First, it is very slow to develop as the animal matures. It has been observed that a human infant is the most helpless creature on the planet. Despite possessing the most sophisticated brain on the planet, a human infant can’t move (except to wiggle fruitlessly), feed itself, or protect itself. It literally takes years for these basic survival skills to develop. Note carefully this analysis in a new book on the brain.
“At birth, the reptilian brain is fully functional and the paleomammalian brain is primed and ready to be organized by early experiences. The cortex, on the other hand, continues to slowly grow into the third decade and matures throughout life [emphasis added]. Thus, much of our most important emotional and interpersonal learning occurs during our early years when our primitive brains are in control. The result is that a great deal of learning takes place before we have the necessary cortical systems for explicit memory, problem solving or perspective. Consequently, many of our most important sociomotivational learning experiences are organized and controlled by reflexes, behaviors, and emotions outside of our awareness and distorted by our immature brains."
Thus, as humans our experiences of vulnerability, powerlessness, and dependency are formed at a very early age, when we actually are vulnerable, powerless, and dependent. Yet, for many, those feelings–and the coping mechanisms we developed to deal with them–survive long after we have aged beyond our need for them. If we learned healthy coping mechanisms, we are better prepared for the autonomy maturity brings as we enter the world of adulthood. But, if we learned unhealthy coping mechanisms, we are less likely to get our needs met in the context of adult interactions. As Louis Cozolino put it,
“That so much of the brain is shaped after birth is both good and bad news. The good news is that the individual brain is built to survive in a particular environment. Culture, language, climate, nutrition, and parents shape each of our brains in a unique way. In good times and with good-enough parents, this early brain building will serve the child well throughout life. The bad news comes into play when factors are not so favorable, such as in times of war or in the case of parental psychopathology or separation. The brain is then sculpted in ways that assist the child in surviving childhood but may be maladaptive later in life.”
Thus, the most sophisticated part of the brain is the last to develop. In fact, it takes not just years but decades to achieve full maturity. Anyone who has dealt with a teenager knows this. We now know that the human brain does not fully develop until age 25.
The slow development of the cortex has important implications for sexuality and sex addiction.
Humans do not become sexual until relatively late in their physical development. While small children may be curious, the actual mechanics and plumbing of eroticism are repugnant to most pre-pubescent children. Do you remember the first time you heard about what actually happened during intercourse? If you were like most kids, it probably seemed not only nonsensical but “icky.”
By the age most humans hit puberty and the hormones start pumping, most other species are well into great-grand-parenthood.
If the child was raised in a healthy environment, this slow development is not a problem. Indeed, it is an asset because the romance and eroticism can be placed in a context of morality and values. But, our hyper-sexualized culture, coupled with an alarming rate of dysfunctional families, many children are growing up with messages about sexuality that are least inappropriate and, in many cases, outright damaging.
Slow to React
The second “disadvantage” of this higher brain is that it is slow to react. As we have noted earlier, our most rational thinking is late to the game when it comes to external stimuli. In their 2015 book Always Turned On, psychotherapist Robert Weiss and Dr. Jennifer Schneider write about the rapid chemical changes that take place in the brain when it is presented with stimuli that appeal to the primitive, pre-programmed parts of the brain.
“ . . . Essentially, when an ‘object of desire’ comes within reach of our senses, our brains release a flood of neurochemicals–primarily dopamine but also serotonin, epinephrine (adrenaline), endorphins, and a few others. These are the brain’s mood-lifting and pain-regulating elements, and it is this rapid alteration of brain chemistry–initiated through fantasy and championed by the heightening of our five senses–that leaves us feeling excited and pushed toward whatever it is that we see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and increasingly desire.”
“We don’t even have to actually engage with the activity or substance (i.e. dessert) to get excited. A mere lingering thought about a highly pleasurable previous experience begins this biologically based arousal process. We remember eating and savoring chocolate cake in the past, so when see a similar offering in the present we want it. In fact, we crave it. This is the natural order of things.”
If it is true that “Anticipation is the greater joy” (a quote often attributed to Thomas Aquinas) or “Anticipation is greater than realization” (often attributed the Shakespeare) then the anticipatory experiences provided by illicit romance and/or internet porn will inevitably produce disappointing results when reality finally arrives. Dopamine is a powerful drug and its effects on the primitive parts of the brain are incomparable.
“Exposure to or fantasy about sex, romance, spending, gambling, and more can all cause temporary chemical changes in the brain, ignited by anticipatory interest and excitement. Our pupils dilate, our heart rates increase, our breathing grows faster and shallower, and we may even perspire. In the process, we also become a bit fuzzy intellectually, increasingly focused on the idea of pleasure. When this occurs, a once definitive “no” turns into a “maybe” and eventually a “yes.” We quite literally lose our ability to follow through on intellectual decisions.”
The power of anticipation creates a surge of focused energy which, unless there is targeted and effective intervention, inevitably results in “acting out.” This inevitability is at the foundation of the “ritual” stage. The ritual and the anticipation feed on each other and build momentum. At this point, the brain is virtually pre-programmed to act in a certain way. It requires no thought. In fact, “the less thought the better” is the addiction’s motto.
Once the cortex “catches on” to the behaviors which the more primitive but faster parts of the brain are prompting us to do, it starts sending signals to either enhance and fine tune the “Fight, Flee, Freeze” response (“Don’t run that way, run this way!”) or it engages in a futile attempt to “reason with” its inherently unreasonable cousin. (“Don’t do that. You made a promise. It’s not on your diet. You’ll regret it later.”)
The cortex, that “still, small voice” of calm and reason, is drowned out by a chemical cacophony swirling in your head. At this point, the sex addict is just another drug addict.
It has been suspected that “sexual addiction affects the brain in the same way as other addictions. And in July of 2014 ... proof [of this] arrived in the form of a detailed fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University (UK).
This study compared the brain activity of self-identified sex addicts to the brain activity of non-sex addicts, and also to the brain activity of drug addicts. The researchers found that when sex addicts are shown pornographic imagery their brains ‘light up’ in three specific areas–the ventral striatum, the dorsal anterior cingulate, and the amygdala–while the brains of the non-sex addicts do not. Furthermore, when sex addicts’ brains light up they do so in the same places and to the same degree as the brains of drug addicts when they are exposed to drug-related stimuli. In short, the parts of the brain in charge of things like anticipatory pleasure, mood, memory, and decision-making are activated in sex-addicts exactly as they are with drug addicts.”
This is precisely because sex- and love-addicts are drug addicts, except that the drugs to which they are addicted are produced within their own bodies and brains when they are exposed to the objects of their addiction.
“In a brand-new relationship, the ‘first rush of love’ incites the same basic neurochemical excitement that drug and sex addicts repetitively exploit–mostly the release of dopamine. Over time, as the coupleship grows, this intense attraction fades to a less stimulating but ultimately more meaningful sensation, caused primarily by the release of oxytocin into the brain, resulting in feelings of contentment and satisfaction.”