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Today, I’ve transcribed an insightful, provocative exchange between psychologist Jordan Peterson and neuroscientist Andrew Huberman on the topic of masturbation and mental health. The two public intellectuals discuss the pitfalls of masturbation through a neuropsychological lens independent of any moral considerations.
Check out the complete transcript and video below! The following two quotes capture some of the main ideas.
The point is this: masturbation and pornography are potently tapping into the dopamine system and can undermine the very processes, which I consider healthy processes, of finding a mate, dating, communication, eventually, if it’s appropriate, sexual interaction, etc.Andrew Huberman
You know you cannot get rats addicted to cocaine if they live in their natural environments. You can only get rats addicted to cocaine if they’re isolated rats in a cage. They won’t bar press for cocaine in the natural environment, and it’s because they have alternative sources of dopaminergic gratification. That’s very interesting.Jordan Peterson
For more, check out the complete archive of transcripts on pornography and sexual integrity.
Transcript of “Masturbation Has Dangerous Effects on Dopamine” Discussion Between Jordan Peterson and Andrew Huberman
Huberman: One of the absolutely pathologic situations for any animal or human is to be able to access repeated dopamine surges without effort or any pursuit that’s self-directed, or directed I should say. For instance, cocaine, a drug which potently increases dopamine, or methamphetamine, which potently increases methamphetamine, but doesn’t require any sort of adaptive action pursuit besides acquiring the drug and spending money on it…
Peterson: No sacrifice.
Huberman: No sacrifice. So what eventually ends up happening is the circuit that gets rewarded is only the drug-seeking behavior, and no other behavior will give the kind of potent dopamine release that cocaine or methamphetamine will, which is why they are so pernicious.
Peterson: Plus, they have that powerful reinforcing effect, right, so not only do you get that kick, but what’s reinforced by the dopamine release is the behaviors that were prior to the ingestion. And if all that is is the drug-taking behavior, that’s all that develops. You build that monster inside your head, so I can see where you’re going on the pornography.
Huberman: I was starting to get a lot of questions. I was kind of surprised. I thought, “Well, maybe I’m male, which is why they feel comfortable asking me.” But people were asking about pornography, and they were asking – I’ll just be direct. They were asking whether or not masturbation was bad. They were asking whether or not masturbation with ejaculation was particularly bad, and here’s my stance on this. I’m a biologist and a neuroscientist, not a psychologist. But what we know for sure is that if an individual repeatedly engages in this circuity – let’s say masturbation and pornography – with increasingly potent forms of stimulation that are on a screen, a couple of things happen.
First of all, what’s being reinforced? What’s being reinforced is a high dopaminergic response to watching other people engage in sexual behavior, which is very different than being in a first-person sexual experience. Right there, you know that what’s being reinforced is not actually any kind of improvement in communication skills…
Peterson: It’s voyeurism.
Huberman: It’s voyeurism. As these questions started to come in more and more, I realized there were a lot of undertones of people talking about fear of, or experiencing sexual dysfunction, which clearly pornography can lead to. Here I’m specifically talking about males. I actually don’t know the literature on females.
Peterson: Females don’t use visual pornography to the same degree, they use literal pornography.
Huberman: I see. So you start to think about what happens in the cascade, or arc, of sexual arousal and orgasm. What happens is that initially it’s parasympathetically dominant. Which means if someone is too stressed, they can’t engage in sexual behavior. The arousal response doesn’t occur, the erection is blunted. But the actual orgasm response in ejaculation is strongly associated with the so-called sympathetic nervous system, which has nothing to do with sympathy. It’s a kind of stress response, and then it reverses to a parasympathetic response. And then a hormone called prolactin increases dramatically after ejaculation in males.
What does that do? That blunts dopamine release and testosterone for a very long period of time, which makes sense if pair bonding — you know in our species anywhere, there’s this idea that then other molecules will be exchanged with partners, pair bonding, potential for raising mates, etc. [will take place]. Without getting in to a huge discussion about that, the point is this: masturbation and pornography are potently tapping into the dopamine system and can undermine the very processes, which I consider healthy processes, of finding a mate, dating, communication, eventually, if it’s appropriate, sexual interaction, etc.
Peterson: It’s undermine pair bonding. Here’s a question. If you’re seeking sexual release through pornography and you go through the whole cycle, and you get a prolactin release, do you bond with yourself?
Huberman: So this is very interesting. The biology explains it as what’s left there is a kind of open loop, a kind of an emptiness, because bonding with the self is a complicated notion. There’s a healthy version of that, of course, loving oneself, and self-referencing, and again, this is far more your domain than mine in terms of what a healthy self-relation is. But, in the absence of a real partner there, in the absence of a real sexual partner, there’s an open loop of neurochemicals and prolactin. Remember, dopamine goes up during pursuit, anticipation, then peaks, and then crashes below baseline after orgasm and ejaculation. So this kind of low that people fear is putting them into an amotivated state.
We can think of this if I were to expand on it, it’s this kind of neurochemical-psychological equivalent of making your home environment filthy for a while. Not actually putting you into this positive amplification of dopamine. So it depletes the dopamine system. It’s likewise in drugs of abuse and addiction — it eventually depletes the dopamine system. Initially, there’s a huge dopamine surge with drugs of abuse like methamphetamine and cocaine, but over time, people are using more and more to achieve what is not such a great high.
You even see this a little bit with consumption of energy drinks. Like people are taking more and more chemicals within their energy drinks, and they’re thinking about loud fast music. This kind of stacking of dopaminergic tools. Now that’s not as pathologic. There are some energy drinks I’ll occasionally drink, and I’ll enjoy them. I don’t think we need to be entirely afraid of pursuing or engaging in things that release dopamine. Obviously, healthy sexual behavior, food that we love, social engagement — all of these things can be dopaminergic. It’s the big peaks in dopamine that are not associated with any prior effort or organization of self that are particularly dangerous for the human being.
Peterson: You can see that that’s a cardinal danger of affluence. You know you cannot get rats addicted to cocaine if they live in their natural environments. You can only get rats addicted to cocaine if they’re isolated rats in a cage. They won’t bar press for cocaine in the natural environment, and it’s because they have alternative sources of dopaminergic gratification. That’s very interesting.
Huberman: The children of very wealthy people who are overindulged. I’ve seen it many times, and it is a very sad sight.
Peterson: Yeah, well they’re not optimally deprived. And that issue of optimally deprivation, that’s a killer issue for an affluent society.