September 24


When (and How) Does Pleasure Become Addiction?

By Staff Writer

addictions, neurotransmitters

Golfer Tiger Woods checked into Pine Grove Behavorial Health and Addiction Services, a posh clinic in Mississippi, in January 2010 to get treatment for his sex addiction. But depending on who you ask, the affliction may not be a disorder at all.

Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles determined in 2012 that “hypersexual disorder” does in fact exist. They formulated criteria, including prolonged fantasies and urges, that determine whether or not a person suffers from the disorder.

Fast forward to 2013 and a different set of UCLA researchers came to a different conclusion. Their study published this past July in Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology, determined that the brain’s response to sex stimuli differed from that of a drug addict given a similarly relevant stimulus. For instance, a “sex addict” who casually comes across erotic images while viewing FiOS TV, will not experience the same neurological response as a drug addict. Dr. Nicole Prause, one of the study’s authors, told Psychology Today that if their methods were replicated, it would debunk all theories of so-called “sex addition.”

Addiction vs. Pleasure

A recent study conducted by Memorial University in Newfoundland determined that one in 20 Canadians can be classified as “food addicts.” Dr. Guang Sun, one of the study’s researchers, qualified the findings, saying some people can be addicts but not clinically diagnosed with the disorder. He also cited past studies that found brain images in obese food addicts to be similar to those of drug addicts.

Addictions and the habit-forming process therein are caused by high increases in dopamine when the stimulus is presented, according to researchers at Aarhus University’s Center For Functionally Integrated Neuroscience in Denmark. Professor Arne Moller, one of the study’s administrators, said compulsive gamblers have dopamine (the “happy” neurotransmitter) levels that are lower than the average person. When gambling irresponsibly, they experience a temporary increase in dopamine levels, which is why they continue doing it without thinking. Dr. Sun, citing previous studies, said the brain images of obese food addicts and compulsive gamblers are very similar.

Excessive sex, on the other hand, is more about pleasure than addiction. A study by the University of Alabama Birmingham, published in August, makes a distinction between “reward memories” and addiction. Researchers concluded that human brains have evolved to remember activities, and the pleasure that comes with them, that aid in survival. Sex not only feels good, but is tied to procreation. The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, also concluded that the evolutionary process (potentially inadvertently) attached pleasure to bad habits. Compulsive eaters suffer those effects, and not necessarily addiction, according to the study.

All About Dopamine

The one thing virtually all studies agree with is that low dopamine levels in the brain cause addictions and compulsions. Many addicts and pleasure-seekers either live with their problem without getting help, or take prescription drugs in hopes of curtailing it. But there are ways individuals can increase dopamine levels in their brains without a prescription. The Brookhaven National Laboratory says at least 30 minutes of exercise everyday stimulate brain activity, particularly dopamine absorption. Bananas are known to have a chemical very similar to dopamine, and should be a regular part of your diet. recommends daily supplements of vitamins C and E, both known to increase dopamine levels.

About the author

Our staff writers come from various backgrounds in the neuroscience, personal development, brain science and psychology fields. Many started out as with us as contributors!

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