Mental Rebooting: "Your Brain on Porn"...

post by Arkanj3l · 2011-10-15T17:14:25.956Z · score: 11 (43 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 38 comments

... or "How to Operate Your Limbic System", or "A Practical Guide to Superstimulus". That's how I see it, anyway.

Your Brain on Porn is a website mainly dedicated to exposing the addictive aspects of pornographyinterpreting this in light of the blind idiot god; and then forming a community around "rebooting", or prolonged abstinence that allows the brain to re-sensitize itself to, at the least, non-fetishistic sexual pleasure. By consistently NOT accessing whatever circuit is driving one's, well, drive, one sends this loop into atrophy. Eventually, one becomes able to quit. And then one finds alternatives.

Here is why I find this site so valuable: frequently during the arguments the site owner sets up, he doesn't just bring up pornography as the culprit here. To form his clauses he draws upon research on  addictions to junk food, or video games, and then tries to draw parallels to porn's effects: the escalating need of novelty due to rapidly declining pleasure response.

So I don't think it stops with porn. For me, any superstimulus is a bad superstimulus, despite the fact that some sirens are more necessary to listen to than others. It could be worth reflecting on what would actually count as a superstimulus; and then asking if one would benefit from a long hiatus from that stimulus. I'm not sure how long that cycle would be, but many "rebooters" proclaim seeing effects after three weeks, up to three months. It might not be enough to simply manage akrasia, as there could still be a chronic sensitivity problem in place. That would require time.

Here's what I thought of, so far.

Superstimulus List:

Replacements:
  • Touch. If you really need to show some love,  Karezza  is popular amongst those who have rebooted.
  • Meditation and N-Back. Since this really does require mental discipline, it would be worth practising these attention-management strategies.
  • Exercise.
  • Fasting. (In small doses,  it's probably healthier than you think  and, broadly speaking, also results in some sort of re-sensitization. [scroll down])
Potential Benefits:
  • Reduction of social anxiety. (Socially dominant monkeys have a greater density of dopamine receptors in the striatum than their less-dominant counterparts. I'm not saying that abstaining from porn will turn you into the CEO of a corporation with three girlfriends and a gimp -- I wish! -- but it sure as hell wouldn't hurt.)
  • Clearer focus. (This may come from lack of wont than an actual greater ability to focus, which is fine.)
  • Greater motivation.
Think of it like this: if all your adaptive needs are fulfilled, what incentive is there for your body to maximize your fitness? For all  it  knows, you've done a great job: you are now in the dreaded Comfort Zone.
Abstinence puts one outside of the realm of comfort, but not to the point of putting one in harm's way. It requires no "push", just self-awareness; something I would consider as the lowest hanging fruit of self-improvement.
None of these lists are exhaustive. The whole principle could be unsound; I am only a third into  just trying it  and this excludes Internet use management.

38 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Nisan · 2011-10-15T19:22:53.277Z · score: 22 (26 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm confused because this article seems to talk about porn consumption, sexual pleasure, masturbation, male orgasm, and ejaculation as if they are all the same thing. Depending on one's sex and lifestyle, these things might coincide; but it's worth distinguishing them when you're considering changing your behavior.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-15T17:58:41.794Z · score: 20 (26 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm skeptical that this is really about superstimuli per se, mostly based on the replacements you offer.

Meditation and exercise are very much addictive and often superstimuli themselves. Their (non-fun) benefits are questionable.

Also, I don't see what purpose karezza serves. Do you mean to masturbate without orgasm, or to use it as a sex variant? The first seems to me like just replacing one fetish with another, and the other seems like a really bad idea for a replacement because it doesn't supply the same thing as porn.

I'm also skeptical about the whole approach. I've experimented with longer abstinence from superstimuli myself, but I can't say it did me any good. It didn't change the need for stimulation, and so I just drifted from one "addiction" into another. I only made me miserable during the transition, but had no long-term effects. I'm way happier by embracing superstimuli. I now take care to have enough of them to limit the need for escalation.

Maybe I'm overly cynical here, but this seems to me more like a moralistic judgment (these stimuli are evil, but those are fine). It certainly was for me.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-10-15T21:38:13.535Z · score: 7 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe I'm overly cynical here, but this seems to me more like a moralistic judgment (these stimuli are evil, but those are fine). It certainly was for me.

Also, when you think about it, moralistic judgements are memes that evolved to deal with precisely the problem the author is talking about.

comment by scientism · 2011-10-15T18:49:16.525Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally take superstimuli to be things that command attention with reduced or no pay off relative to other activities. This as opposed to things that require attention and/or meet some need or goal. Obviously it's a continuum rather than a hard distinction. Porn is an obvious example of a superstimuli. As is television, nutritionally suspect yet delicious food, etc. I don't think either exercise or meditation are superstimuli. I feel bad on days I don't exercise and exercise can be addictive in that sense but it still takes sustained effort to keep to an exercise routine.

comment by gwern · 2011-10-15T23:24:32.749Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Meditation and exercise are very much addictive and often superstimuli themselves. Their (non-fun) benefits are questionable.

Eh? In what sense - on a bang for buck/hour basis maybe?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-16T00:54:52.007Z · score: 9 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think the (physical and mental) health benefits for exercise and meditation are largely overrated, and can be achieved by a very limited practice, and so provide not nearly enough activity to replace a superstimulus. Going beyond that hits diminishing returns very quickly.

Plus it's difficult to do them safely. Lots of exercise has risk of injuries, especially on the level that could compete with a superstimulus.

I also always cringe when people recommend meditation as a healthy alternative, especially because the kind of meditation they end up doing is a mixture of jhana practice and vipassana. Jhana has no plausible benefits besides being a basis for other techniques (and it's fun and addictive, of course), and vipassana is deliberately designed to cause breakdowns, not stabilize people. Mindfulness ends up as vipassana lite, with the hope that the practitioner never gets too deep into it to cause problems.

That's not to say that there aren't suitable forms of meditation for health purposes, but these rarely get used in practice, and so we have the crazy situation of non-ascetics using renunciation and dissociation practices.

comment by Logos01 · 2011-10-17T16:54:14.507Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think the (physical and mental) health benefits for exercise and meditation are largely overrated, and can be achieved by a very limited practice, and so provide not nearly enough activity to replace a superstimulus. Going beyond that hits diminishing returns very quickly.

Food consumption is healthy to a point and taken beyond that has a point of not merely diminishing returns in terms of health and vitality but actually becomes detrimental.

So long as you have clearly defined goals and you utilize exercise and/or meditation as tools toward those goals, I see them as a vital component of the instrumental rationalist's toolkit. Now, you really won't find those goals as something advocated in pretty much any culture or society dedicated towards those functions. Exercise buffs talk about "getting fit" when this carries all sorts of cognitive baggage conceptually. Try going to a gym and asking for a physical trainer and explaining that you want none of A) getting "ripped", B) "losing weight", C) "building stamina" -- but are simply there for longevity extension purposes through health maintenance. It's a fun exercise. The good ones can handle it. The co-exerciser off-the-street however painfully frequently cannot.

Meditation is even worse. I have found it an invaluable tool as part of an exercise regimen towards the maintenance of a facile metacognitive-state "induction" capacity (that is, switching on the light inside my own head and peaking at what's going on beneath all the cobwebbs, metaphorically/allegorically speaking). It also is useful in terms of maintaining a precise awareness of body signals in order to adjust -- as much as can be done with the conscious invocation of placebo effect anyhow -- certain physiological states such as levels of mental alertness, fatigue, pain, nausea, etc.. When viewed as an implement, I don't believe I'd be anywhere near as successful in my "instrumentality" as I currently feel I am. But the simple truth is that all of this I have basically had to develop on my own; it's practically impossible to avoid woo when delving into meditation.

comment by cousin_it · 2011-10-16T22:56:00.979Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I think the (physical and mental) health benefits for exercise and meditation are largely overrated, and can be achieved by a very limited practice

But that wouldn't be enough to improve my looks ;-)

comment by Arkanj3l · 2011-10-15T18:08:53.756Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't consider myself as morally prude, so no moralistic judgement was intended. I see where you're coming from when you put meditation and exercise as "superstimuli", while I didn't necessarily: that was a bias on my part due to...

...the angle from which I was approaching this research was mainly to find a way to tackle akrasia, lack of motivation and social anxiety. I figured that central to these activities was the pleasure circuitry of the brain, so in my dilettante's knowledge of neuroscience, I looked for a way of sensitizing this response. Abstinence from stimuli that was possibly hijacking my efforts was the only reliable way I found. Meditation and exercise would serve to aid the goals of increasing self-control, so I wouldn't fail at abstaining, and giving a healthy alternative that would get my mind off of these "hijacks", or limiters, or whatever word you want to use to neutrally frame things.

So, I guess you're right to say that this wasn't about superstimulus in and of itself. I apologize for the confusion.

comment by Arkanj3l · 2011-10-15T18:19:37.072Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, I understand why having "enough" could be a way of managing one's want of superstimulus, but the idea is that when you're addicted, "enough" is a moving target. The only way to become "un-addicted" would be to abstain, or at to least titrate downwards. If the thesis behind "Your Brain on Porn" is correct, then this period of rebooting is necessary if one is to properly manage one's addictions to a certain superstimulus, especially if the addiction is strong. Otherwise, there is always going to be some level of control that is taken away.

Karezza was touted as an alternative to full intercourse. I don't know much else.

comment by Arkanj3l · 2011-10-15T18:19:03.019Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, I understand why having "enough" could be a way of managing one's want of superstimulus, but the idea is that when you're addicted, "enough" is a moving target. The only way to become "un-addicted" would be to abstain, or at the least titrate downwards. If the thesis behind "Your Brain on Porn" is correct, then this period of rebooting is necessary if one is to properly manage one's addictions to a certain superstimulus, especially if the addiction is strong. Otherwise, there is always going to be some level of control that is taken away.

Karezza was touted as an alternative to full intercourse. I don't know much else.

comment by shminux · 2011-10-15T18:49:02.952Z · score: 18 (24 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You say "porn" like it's a bad thing.

There are some useful bits on that site, but it seems too one-sided (with the "porn is addictive and bad" bottom line already written) to be taken seriously. Neither of the authors has any formal training in neuroscience or psychology, which does not help their case, either.

comment by adamisom · 2012-12-11T05:54:27.006Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know this is old. What is really meant by "does not help their case, either" is "it hurts their case that they don't have formal training". I vehemently disagree. Not that I think formal training is bad. Just that I think giving emphasis to this indirect indicator of their competence is misleading, because there's plenty of direct evidence--if you read the site--that they 'know what they're talking about'.

comment by shminux · 2012-12-11T06:03:31.634Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

They have an agenda (prewritten bottom line), which effectively nullifies anything they say.

comment by adamisom · 2012-12-11T18:11:50.155Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is wrong.

If you discard the emotionally-laden word "agenda" (in my experience, its usage always indicates negative affect toward the thing with the "agenda"), what you're basically saying is this: Anyone or any organization that concludes that the evidence for something is strong and that it matters, and who consequently takes a stand---their conclusions should be thrown out a priori. You did say "effectively nullifies anything they say"--those are damn strong words. So what you're implying, AFAICT, is that you only listen to 'what someone has to say' if they don't come to a strong conclusion and become an advocate for change (despite that one would say you have a moral obligation to).

I'm disappointed to find this kind of thinking on LessWrong, to be honest, not least from one of the regulars.

Edit: specifically on the topic at hand, my initial response to yourbrainonporn.com is positive not only because of the comprehensive and well-cited posts I read on the homepage, but because of Gary Wilson's response (about halfway down) here: http://www.yourbrainrebalanced.com/index.php?topic=2754.0 -- It's clear that he really knows what he's talking about, even when the average neurologist doesn't. (I'm not saying I believe it's perfect--I can see motivated cognition going on, and am disappointed in the lack of mention of selection bias--but from what I can tell he is... (removes sunglasses).... less wrong than the average expert.)

comment by shminux · 2012-12-11T19:09:01.611Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That they have a bias is trivial to see. Every issue has multiple sides, and if someone only or predominantly presents just one side, they are clearly biased. This site fits this to a T. I challenge you to find any information on this site which details the benefits of porn. Compare this, for example. to the writings of Dan Savage, who frequently discusses porn, but gives a much more balanced view. He also has an agenda, of course, but it's not related to porn.

So what you're implying, AFAICT, is that you only listen to 'what someone has to say' if they don't come to a strong conclusion and become an advocate for change (despite that one would say you have a moral obligation to).

I don't listen to those who look for supporting arguments for the side they already picked, whether they post online or ring my door bell in a hope of converting me. I advise that you do not, either, but it's your call.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-15T18:20:55.416Z · score: 18 (22 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, any superstimulus is a bad superstimulus

It would be helpful if you were to define the word superstimulus (in the sense of "rationalist taboo").

I would define a human superstimulus as something that resembles a stimulus that existed in the human EEA - i.e. a distinct object or phenomenon that elicits a distinct evolved response in (a region of) the human mind - but which is much greater in extent that the stimulus as it existed in the EEA, and which brings about a response in the human mind that is commensurately great, such that the response would very probably have been maladaptive in the EEA (and may be harmful to some of an individual human's personal interests in the present day too).

Under this definition, pornography of whatever kind is certainly a superstimulus; for example, extremely few humans in the EEA would have seen anywhere near the number of many females "presenting" that a porn-addict is liable to see. Note however that you didn't define "pornography" either - given the wide variety of preferences in pornography that exist, that is a serious omission. You mention "non-fetishistic sexual pleasure", but plenty of porn is perfectly normal in a sense (remember that not all pornographic or quasi-pornographic material on the internet is of commercial origin).

Also note that under my definition, a vast range of socially acceptable and normal human experiences are also superstimuli. Nightclubs are superstimuli - never mind the music, just the number of girls of fertile age in one place. Walking on a city street is a superstimulus - seeing and walking past a stranger is surely a stimulus in the EEA. Driving a car is a superstimulus, given that fast motion is a stimulus. Und so weiter. This sheds an unfortunate light on your idea that all superstimuli are bad (rather than merely having good and bad sides) - unless your definition of superstimulus is substantially different to mine.

Finally, what about men who are genuinely hopeless with or repulsive to women? For them, in general does not "greater motivation" imply merely greater frustration?

comment by pedanterrific · 2011-10-16T06:38:03.745Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In case anyone else is in the dark, I added the definition of EEA to the Jargon page of the wiki.

(What's the etiquette for this kind of thing, anyway?)

comment by clyte · 2011-10-15T21:08:29.272Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps it would be good to add "chronic use of superstimuli" to the author's definition. The human brain evolved to handle some radical fluctuations, and even frequent temporary habituation. But chronic superstimulation appears to change brains, causing addiction processes. Can't see that a definition of pornography would be relevant in the least. Superstimuation is in the eye of the beholder. If it jacks up your dopamine such that your brain begins to dysregulate its standard dopamine response, then it's a superstimulus for you, even if your neighbor can watch with no lasting brain changes. Given the fact that heavy porn use is beginning to cause sexual performance problems in some guys, unattractive men may soon be in just as much demand as anyone else...provided they can get it up. Confidence and social presence are what make men attractive, and heavy porn use dampers both in many men. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201107/porn-induced-sexual-dysfunction-is-growing-problem

comment by [deleted] · 2011-10-16T02:40:18.290Z · score: 11 (15 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It could be worth reflecting on what would actually count as a superstimulus; and then asking if one would benefit from a long hiatus from that stimulus.

I think my primary objection to this idea is that I see no reason why you wouldn't just skip the first step. In general, for things you do on a regular basis, it's worth asking what would happen if you stopped for a while.

Edit: but also, having done so, it's worth skipping the third step and not calling yourself "mentally rebooted". It's kind of obnoxious.

comment by Armok_GoB · 2011-11-17T20:52:54.899Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about the opposite?

Kill of your taste buds with dangerous chilli and concentrated artificial sweeteners until cake and celery taste the same. Squick yourself out until your libido crawls into a corner to never ever come out again. Learn to love a genre of music that sounds just like tinnitus, then turn the volume up a lot. Oversaturate your brain with information until it just flows through you. Read about the most horrifying atrocities in history until your heart turns to stone.

Some of these are obviously silly. But less extreme versions of a similar principle with a bit of common sense added have seems occasionally useful in some contexts.

comment by stcredzero · 2012-06-17T23:17:25.402Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Learn to love a genre of music that sounds just like tinnitus, then turn the volume up a lot. Oversaturate your brain with information until it just flows through you.

From my perspective as a fan of acoustic music, many modern listening habits resemble your proposed over-saturation technique. People used to be surrounded by naturally occurring noises, or noises resulting from ordinary activity. Music was something to be sought out and treasured. With the exception of the rich and powerful, many people from the past would find the notion of tuning out mechanized "background music" bewildering and alien.

As a music teacher, I noted that there seems to be a portion of the populace that is unable to follow all but the very simplest melody, and is unaware of subtle nuances in the timing of beats. I wonder if this is simply parallel to the automation of other aspects of human culture. (Wonder Bread to artisan bread.)

comment by Armok_GoB · 2012-06-18T00:49:45.393Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yea. The hard question is if it's a good or a bad thing. Good consequentialism practice to actually figure that out rather than just siding with your own favourite genres tribe or moral ick reactions.

comment by stcredzero · 2012-06-18T03:37:22.946Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

siding with your own favourite genres tribe or moral ick reactions.

Wow, both of those strike me either as a stretch, or a sign there could be more consideration of the facts. The kind of sensitivities I'm alluding to easily cover a dozen genres of music. Ick reactions, if there are any, would be aesthetic, rather than moral. (And I do enjoy electronica as well as acoustic music.)

The sensitivity I speak of is grounded in empirical fact. You can measure, record, and analyze overtones of acoustic instruments. You can do the same for sensitivity to rhythmic nuance. Melodies and their modulation of tension and release are empirical fact as well. I think that cultural practices that reduce sensitivity to facts and awareness of reality are generally undesirable.

I think that's the same kind of insensitivity I faced as a child, when I observed interference fringes for the first time, and adults told me I was somehow off base.

Would a cultural loss of sensitivity to literary nuance be a good or a bad thing? Would a cultural loss of sensitivity to emotional nuance be a good or a bad thing? Sometimes the correct answer is found in the same direction the bias pulls to. I'm against amusia and unawareness, not electronica or specific genres.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusia

comment by Armok_GoB · 2012-06-18T16:52:49.236Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Good points all of it, you've though way more about this than I have.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2011-10-16T00:30:59.053Z · score: 8 (14 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me, any superstimulus is a bad superstimulus, ...

A superstimulus is Super!

The superstimuli isn't bad in itself, the problem is the potential down regulation of response or crowding out other values in a compulsive but non net value producing way. Blocking these negative effects, or rotating superstimuli to avoid these potential effects seems to be the ideal.

comment by stcredzero · 2012-06-17T23:18:57.950Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Rotating Superstimuli" - this has potential as a name for something.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-06-20T09:11:59.021Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I did a search. Nowhere but here. Unbelievable.

Quick! To the Batmobile and the USPTO!

comment by quentin · 2011-10-18T21:12:05.423Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So there are several issues that seem conflated to me. More specifically, should we:

  1. watch porn less
  2. masturbate less
  3. orgasm less

While the post superficially would be advocating (1), the justifications seem more in line with (3). Actually, I can get behind all three to some extent, and for different reasons. I just think they should be seperated. For instance:

  1. sex becomes more enjoyable due to resensitization to arousal cues
  2. sex is much more optimal than masturbation
  3. basically all of the reasons already given (energy, focus, motivation... hormonal stuff)
comment by Curiouskid · 2011-12-25T13:42:51.260Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Has there been any rigorous testing of this? Any CRTs?

comment by wnoise · 2011-10-17T23:27:59.369Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Karezza

I cannot help but be reminded of the following line:

"I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence." -- General Ripper, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

More seriously, what would be the equivalent for women?

comment by stcredzero · 2012-06-17T23:23:25.999Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

More seriously, what would be the equivalent for women?

Devices such as the Sybian? There is good reason to believe that this and other such stimulation aids are indeed examples of overstimulus. (Though I have never heard of addiction problems.)

comment by thelittledoctor · 2011-10-18T02:25:43.952Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Porn doesn't seem like a bad thing necessarily. Just as increasing hunger makes one more likely to snap and eat an overpriced, unhealthy burger from a street vendor, increasing intervals without some kind of sexual release make one more likely to dial up exes and/or tumble into bed with other ill-advised partners.

...Or so I heard.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-09T03:22:03.754Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

*

comment by Curiouskid · 2015-04-05T19:10:32.633Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, I did a bit of googling for counter-arguments. Here's what I found:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-stray/201307/your-brain-porn-its-not-addictive

http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/porn-addiction-healthy-research/

http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/5-reasons-you-need-watch-porn/

There were a few different studies that showed that it wasn't as bad as people thought.

comment by zslastman · 2012-12-23T11:56:55.717Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upvoting for the insight that tab explosions are superstimulating.

Also for the phrase "three girlfriends and a gimp", though suggest gender neutral rephrasing to "three gimps and a gimp".

Is anyone looking into this stuff and ADD?

comment by quentin · 2011-10-18T21:02:29.897Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
comment by MichaelHoward · 2011-10-16T20:23:24.381Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

If all your adaptive needs are fulfilled, what incentive is there for your body to maximize your fitness? For all it knows, you've done a great job: you are now in the dreaded Comfort Zone.

This deserves a post on it's own.