I’ve been reading a great book lately on brain plasticity, by Norman Doidge, called The Brain That Changes Itself.
It’s about the way in which brain mapping operates. Conventional wisdom of the ‘localizationist’ school says that that brain is hardwired from early childhood and once our mental map is set, that’s it. Our hands are controlled by one area of ‘cortical real estate’, our language use by another, and if there is any damage to that area, we lose use of the ability or body part that it was connected with.
Doidge, and many others of the ‘adult brain plasticity’ school, now argue that in fact brain plasticity extends throughout life and it is therefore possible to train areas of the brain to do new things even in old age. For example, if a stroke victim is forced to use his ‘unusable’ arm, after a while the brain map will change and neurons that were formerly being used for something else will start to link to that arm. This has been tested, repeatedly, and is now pretty much accepted as hard scientific fact.
But the book isn’t just about strokes, cerebral palsy, and brain damage. Doidge looks at the way mental disorders, addictions and also sexual kinks, operate. In terms of sexuality, he argues that areas of the brain are ‘mapped’ to respond to certain things – so for instance, a person may map their brain to respond to pain as pleasure, or to accept rough dominating treatment as love and affection.
Again, conventional wisdom was that this process of sexual mapping occurred in childhood and once a person’s sexual predilections were set there was no way of ‘getting the kink out’. Even the word ‘kink’ implies that most folks are a straight metal rod, but some are warped in childhood and after that, the kink is there forever. But for Doidge, the very existence of kink is proof of adult brain plasticity and he finds it remarkable that an adult brain is still so flexible that with the right training, it can take pleasure as pain.
Doidge also looks at pornography addiction and gives examples of adults who have spent so much time on the internet looking at kinky material that they have effectively ‘mapped’ their brain to be kinky. According to Doidge, kinks can be learned in this way, and also unlearned if the activity stops. The the porn industry has created an increasing tolerance in many users, so that they need more and more graphic – and violent – images in order to be stimulated – hence the current explosion of BDSM porn. Looking at such porn daily and getting small dopamine releases from each image creates the perfect conditions for brain mapping, he says.
In another section, Doidge argues that brain plasticity is competitive. For example, if I do not practice my guitar for six months, parts of the cortical real estate that hold the muscle memories I use will start to be colonized by skills that I am actually using in that period. The brain may be visualized as a coral reef with all sorts of different skills vying for a foothold on the rock below.
Basically this means that in terms of our brain and specific abilities or interests, we either use it or lose it. Even things as seemingly hardwired as walking could be unlearned if you did not do them for a long enough period.
I have three different responses to all of that.
First – it explains how training submissiveness works. I have seen this is my own life in various phases where Michelle and I were into a strong D/s dynamic. You can train the mind, for example, to feel a submissive rush of pleasure and obedience when you smell a certain smell or are talked to a certain way. Pavlov and the behaviourists knew it was true – now the neuro-psychologists know why. Your brain changes itself to make it happen, because you tell it to do so.
Second, it helps me to put into perspective my feelings about sexual frequency with Michelle. My desire to make sure that we have sex with a certain regularity has often seemed to be a simple matter of horniness or eagerness, but in fact, I am quite capable of refraining from sex for quite long periods, just so long as I can be assured that it will not change the underlying pattern.
My real concern is that things will slowly decline, through the gradual process of life getting in the way, to the point where once a week is normal, then once every ten days, once a fortnight, and after a while the brain will be mapped to accept this as normal – or hers will, and mine won’t.
Doidge writes that many adults do not exercise their brains to lean new skills or even to properly maintain existing ones. The huge increase in Alzheimer’s and the general weakening of functions in older life is not necessarily natural or inevitable, or hormonal, or biological. It happens to a great degree because if we don’t use it, we lose it.
I am sure that there are some people that do ‘sexcercise’ which strengthens libido and expands the amount of brain-space connected with sexual desire. I can’t see us doing that, because Michelle dislikes any notion that sex is a kind of work, and deliberately mapping the brain to be more sexually responsive would indeed be a kind of work.
But it is still nice to have a new perspective on precisely what I am concerned about. I’m not worried about not having a sex life now. But I admit I am a concerned about not having much of a sex life in fifteen years time.
My last response to reading Doidge is to question if I have always been kinky. When I first began this blog I assumed that I had kinks that were ‘latent’ and had come about in later life, after having been hidden in my twenties. I now accept the possibility that my kink has been learned, at last in part, through exposure to the blogosphere and the net in general. When I began this blog I thought it was going to be about the amazing sensations I had when I refrained from ejaculating for a while. It has turned into several other things over the years.
I’m not complaining – I like kinky stuff, it’s fun, and I am happy to be on the ride – but the notion of being ‘hardwired kinky’ now seems very questionable.
And all this raises the possibility that there are many folks out there who have mapped their brains to think they have an overwhelming and deep-seated desire for a particular kind of relationship, but in fact, they have trained themselves on the internet to have the desire, and it isn’t very deep-seated at all.