July 6, 2008

The Coolidge Effect, Sexual Dysfunction

I'm sure Calvin Coolidge never thought he would be associated with a fundamental tenet of sexual behavior, but a story occurring during the 30th U.S. President's term (1923-1929) on a Midwest farm put him in the sexual behavior textbooks forever.

As the story goes President Coolidge was a visiting a farm with his wife. While the President was elsewhere, the farmer proudly showed Mrs. Coolidge a rooster that "could copulate with hens all day long, day after day." Mrs. Coolidge coyly suggested that the farmer tell that to Mr. Coolidge, which he did.

The President thought for a moment and then inquired, "With the same hen?"

"No, sir," replied the farmer.

"Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge," retorted the President.

So what exactly is the Coolidge effect? An experiment using a furry male rat and a harem of willing females has been used as the classic model.

When you drop a male rat into a cage with a receptive female rat, you see an initial frenzy of copulation. Then, progressively, the male rat tires of that particular female. Even without an apparent change in her receptivity he reaches a point where he has little libido-and simply ignores her. However, if you replace the original female rat with a fresh one, the male immediately revives and begins copulating again. You can repeat this process with fresh females until the rat nearly dies of exhaustion.

Dopamine, a neurochemical which floods the reward center of the primitive brain, reinvigorates the rat when a new female is presented. The reward center is located deep within the limbic system, the center of emotions, drives, impulses, and subconcious decision-making. When dopamine rushes into the reward center the urge to take actions that further our survival or pass on our genes is activated. Eating, sex, bonding with offspring, and taking risks are all actions associated with this response.

In reality we are all addicted to dopamine. It's not that you crave the ice cream, the winning lotto ticket, or a romp in the sack. You crave the dopamine, that short rewarding blast. All addictive substances and activities increase dopamine. It's the whole reason things are addictive (and orgasms are highly addictive, being compared to shooting heroin in brain scans). But like all addictive substances, dopamine doesn't give a lasting pleasure. As soon as dopamine successfully motivates a behavior, it drops off, awaiting the next opportunity to push you around.

This drop in dopamine is a trigger of the Coolidge effect (along with novelty itself). Following orgasm, instead of wallowing in bliss and feeding off of the thrilling anticipation as when your dopamine was high, you now feel flat, even needy. The orgasms themselves trigger this drop in dopamine. While dopamine is low you are very susceptible to anything at all that will raise it again, calorie-rich food, gambling, alcohol, shopping sprees, cocaine, internet porn, or sex.

One of the most effective ways to immediately regain this blast of feel-good neurochemicals is to find a new potential sex partner. Over time this new partner too will lose the shine and novelty is the only way to regain this blast (whips, chains, and handcuffs anyone?).

The Coolidge effect has been observed in all mammals tested and even is observed in females, who will flirt and present themselves more around a potential new male partner.

Evolutionarily, the effect makes good sense. A novel female provides a new set of genes to tap into, and by mixing genes with multiple members of the available gene pool, the male generates more biological diversity in his offspring increasing the overall likelihood of survival of any one group of his kids. Of course the motivation behind evolution is to continue to pass your genes on to the next generation, to survive, but today we don't live in an evolutionarily driven world. Our species has constructed a detailed and highly schematic representation of satisfying life, one that revolves around the pursuits of the individual as well as social acuity.

This leads to an interesting conundrum where our own biology drives and motivates us to perform acts that may cause us social harm, even instability. This sexual driven mechanism does not regard the value of a committed relationship entirely in the interest of propelling your genes onward. Love and intimacy have shown to be a powerful determinant of health, leading to speedy recoveries, longevity, reduced internal stress, and social satiety.  The drive away from love deprives the self of the social satisfaction of love.

The Coolidge effect is strictly a temporary fix that will ultimately leave you feeling depleted, with your new partner not able to satisfy you any more than your previous one. Love, on the other hand, is a long term social bond that should reciprocate satisfaction much more regularly than the chase for another mate. So the biological drive is subverting the social responsibility of monogamy, one that has to be reconciled within the individual. Young adults know this process very well, as they like to call it "settling down." The time when you start feeling the need to find a long-term mate and commit to the emotional rewards of a close partner, while leaving behind the old life of being promiscuous.

I think this is a really interesting feature of society that we have constructed upon ourselves. As we have bred the natural and wild instincts out of our domesticated animals (or muted them to satisfaction) we ourselves are domesticating our own biological mechanisms to fit the rules our society has deemed acceptable. The brain has to deal with this disconnect between pleasing the biological self (by having multiple partners) or pleasing the social self (by having a long-term partner).

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