Bonded in The Brain: New Science Confirms View of Sex (10/2010)
[ED. While this article references the Bible, it is scientifically-based and worthy of posting here.]
Many ... parents must feel desperate when it comes to trying to protect their children from a hyper-sexualized culture that often encourages kids to ignore traditional morality.
So what should parents do?
At the top of the list should be this: Don’t be embarrassed nor apologetic about what the Bible says about sex.
The truth is, on the subject of sex, science is catching up to the Bible.
Pathways in the brain
Most of us probably remember health classes in which rudimentary sex education lessons taught us the basics of reproduction. We remember that the onset of puberty is driven by the sex hormones estrogen (girls) and testosterone (boys).
But human sexuality doesn’t stop with estrogen and testosterone. There are other, less familiar names that represent forces that are just as powerful – and their primary work environment is the brain.
This is laid out in fascinating detail in Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex Is Affecting Our Children, written by Joe S. McIlhaney Jr. and Freda McKissic Bush. Both are obstetrician-gynecologists who have served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
As McIlhaney and Bush explain, the brain is a magnificent and wonderfully complex organ. It works by electrical impulses that flow through its basic cell – the neuron. These neurons communicate with each other through synapses, which function similarly to computer cables bridging the gaps between the cells. But even these cables do not connect to the neurons themselves. Neurochemicals complete the job of carrying information between the cells.
The existence of these pathways means the brain can be changed and molded – almost like a muscle. As patterns of behavior develop over time, the synapses regulating those particular behaviors become stronger. Likewise, the synapses governing infrequent activity weaken.
Sex is one of those behaviors that is subject to patterns. This is why certain sexual habits seem to quickly find a pathway on which to proceed, giving those actions the sensation of ‘going downhill’ with little or no resistance. Those synapses have been strengthened by repeated activity.
So, for example, when a couple that has been sexually active breaks up, it is common for them, when they start dating someone else, to move quickly to a sexual relationship with their new partner. The pattern has been established, and it seems “natural” to head in that direction.
Bonded by sex
There’s even more going on, however. In Hooked the scientific case is laid out that much of our sexual nature is actually brain-based, even while the actual sexual act is carried out in the genital region.
The activity of three chemicals is powerfully related to human sexuality: dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin.
Dopamine is a chemical that produces good feelings in the brain.
“The official term for what dopamine does is ‘reward signal’ – that is, when we do something exciting, dopamine rewards us by flooding our brains and making the brain cells produce a feeling of excitement or of well-being,” according to McIlhaney and Bush.
In fact, Hooked suggested that infatuation – the giddy feelings accompanying the early stages of a romantic relationship – may very well be dopamine related as well. That’s because tender glances, holding hands, hugging and other romantic gestures release dopamine. That is part of the “thrill” of a relationship that makes someone unable to sleep when he or she is “in love,” or unable to think about anything else besides their beloved.
“However, sex is one of the strongest generators of the dopamine reward,” they said. “For this reason, young people particularly are vulnerable to falling into a cycle of dopamine reward for unwise sexual behavior – they can get hooked on it.”
According to Robert E. Rector in The Harmful Effects of Early Sexual Activity and Multiple Sexual Partners Among Women, when young people have their first sexual experience before age 16, they will usually wind up having more sexual partners than if they had waited until they were older than 20.
“Sexual behavior for this young group, once it has commenced, appears almost compulsive,” said McIlhaney and Bush. “This certainty correlates with neuroscientific findings that sex has an addictive effect on the brain.”
Oxytocin and vasopressin
Another neurochemical is oxytocin. A woman’s brain is flooded with oxytocin during labor, childbirth and breast-feeding, which creates a bond between the mother and infant.
But this neurochemical is also released during romantic moments between a woman and a man. “When two people touch each other in a warm, meaningful, and intimate way, oxytocin is released into the woman’s brain,” said McIlhaney and Bush. “The oxytocin then does two things: increases a woman’s desire for more touch and causes bonding of the woman to the man she has been spending time in physical contact with. This desire for more touch and the bonding that develops between a man and a woman often lead to the most intimate of physical contact, sexual intercourse.”
Sex results in even greater amounts of oxytocin flooding the woman’s brain, “causing her to desire this same kind of contact again and again with this man she has bonded to, producing even stronger bonding.”
The male counterpart to oxytocin is called vasopressin, which, according to McIlhaney and Bush, “seems to have two primary functions related to relationships – bonding of the man to his mate and attachment to his offspring.”
Breaking up is hard to do
It is easy to see that God has provided neurochemical “help” to married couples in order to make the marital bond strong and thus provide a secure and stable environment for the raising of children.
The dopamine “rush” during sex keeps a husband and wife coming back for more – helping to cement the relationship. And oxytocin and vasopressin make the bond even deeper.
No doubt this is part of the meaning behind God’s statement in Genesis regarding marriage, that the man and woman “shall become one flesh” (2:24).
This bonding power of sex, insisted McIlhaney and Bush, “is real and almost like the adhesive effect of glue.”
However, that “glue” is intended for sex within marriage. Engaging in sex outside the parameters established by God brings pain and destruction.
Here are only three dangers:
1. Bonding with the wrong person
Hooked makes it clear that both oxytocin and vasopressin are “values-neutral.” The release of oxytocin, for example, “cannot distinguish between a one-night stand and a lifelong soul mate. [It] can cause a woman to bond to a man even during what was expected to be a short-term sexual relationship. … This can lead to a woman being taken off-guard by a desire to stay with him even if he is possessive or abusive.”
This is true for adulterous affairs, too. Sex winds up bonding two people together even though their love is supposed to belong to a spouse.
In an article in Psychology Today, neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak argued that “the oxytocin attachment system is pernicious. Sleep with someone enough and it is difficult not to become attached to him or her. This is why so many conventions proscribe adultery – precisely because the girlfriend now might become the wife later, leaving the first family in the lurch.”
2. Painful breakup cycles
Who has not loved and lost – even without sex as part of the relationship? It is one of the most painful realities of life.
According to McIlhaney and Bush, however, sex makes a breakup even worse. “When a couple is involved in even a short-term relationship and breaks up and then each moves on to a new sexual partner, they are breaking an [oxytocin and vasopressin] bond that has formed,” they said. “This severing of the bond explains the incredibly painful emotions people often feel when they break up.”
3. Degradation of bonding ability
When young people – or those of any age – engage in casual sex or a series of sexual relationships, they are putting themselves through a continuous cycle of bonding and breaking up. This has the potential to damage the God-given ability to bond later.
“Their inability to bond after multiple liaisons is almost like tape that loses its stickiness after being applied and removed multiple times,” McIlhaney and Bush said.
Crucifying the flesh
The cultural implications are staggering. Every time we expose young people to sexual imagery we are releasing the tidal power of these brain-based chemicals. Early exposure to pornography – or simply sex on TV – may be opening sexual pathways in the brain way before other faculties (like self-control) can be engaged.
Likewise, when we encourage dating at younger and younger ages we are putting our children into situations – i.e., on dates – during which touch and smell and holding hands and kissing are kick-starting the chemical avalanche that was meant to lead to life-long bonding.
Is it any wonder why kids are having sex at earlier ages, or why even pre-teens seem to have become sexualized?
Moreover, is it surprising that so many Christian kids are having sex – fully aware that their parents have taught them against it and the Bible says it’s a sin?
This is part of the conundrum of human sexuality: We are not only spiritual beings but also physical – and our emotions and even our actions can be influenced by what is happening in our bodies.
However, as powerful as the forces in our bodies are, we are not animals. In terms of sex, we are not driven by mindless, instinctive urges but by desires and subsequent decisions. Animals have sex by instinct; humans have sex by choice.
The good news is that the Bible calls us to spiritually influence the body – and, we must assume, even the brain. What Scripture calls ‘crucifying the flesh’ or ‘denying self’ (Gal. 5:24; Rom. 8:13; Matt. 16:24) is the restraint of actions that displease God.
In turn, this weakens the synapses governing say, sexual experimentation, and it strengthens the synapses that allow more self-discipline.
Christian parents must begin to understand and then consistently communicate to their children the immense power of sexuality, because good intentions don’t stand a chance when a kid is confronted by that power.
God created the power of sex. He also provided the terms of its use. It’s time we understood both.
[BY ED VITAGLIANO, www.afajournal.org, October 2010, http://www.onenewsnow.com/Journal/editorial.aspx?id=1176498 ]