When they could control themselves, they would not, and

When they would control themselves, they could not.

This old couplet may have relevance for all appetites. But it seems especially pertinent in the case of sexual appetite because of its supremacy. As Richard Dawkins wrote, genes are “selfish”. Their top priority is their own replication via offspring.

Sexual appetite’s powerful instinctual drive makes up part of every mammal’s “survival software package”. Yet keep in mind that lust didn’t evolve for anyone’s individual benefit or survival. Collateral damage is acceptable to our genes as long as our appetites improve their chances of spewing into the future. Think fragile relationships and unplanned pregnancies.

Like all such drives, sexual appetite works by narrowing attention to the job at hand – procuring sexual activity. How? By producing more insistent signals (sexual urges in the brain’s limbic system) than those coming from the pre-frontal cortex (the brain’s executive).

This temporary imbalance distorts perception and alters priorities. That’s its biological function. Of course, it’s also the reason pursuing lust (gluttony, greed, domination, etc.) can sometimes lead to regret. “What was I thinking?” Um…you weren’t, as least not with your customary set of priorities.

When they could control themselves, they would not

So, how could we control ourselves if we would? Turn down the limbic signals in relation to the volume of the executive signals.

For example, those who take up meditation often notice that it becomes easier to resist impulses. Their thinking is clearer. Their priorities shift in beneficial ways. Goals grow easier to achieve, and they think more expansively. In short, they increase their ability to exercise free will. In effect, they quiet their limbic squawking (drives) so they can “hear” their brain’s executive function better.

Sexual appetite can still present a challenge because our genes don’t give up easily. Most cultures therefore evolve rules around sex to try to keep their members from pursuing their sexual appetites to the point of creating chaos. (And perhaps to stem the flow of unwed, pregnant offspring returning to the fold….).

“Sin” muddies the picture

Unfortunately, in some cultures this effort to pass along hard-earned wisdom, and keep things on the rails, got tangled up with the unhelpful concept of “sin”. No one knew about limbic brains for most of human history, so some leaders appealed to divine authorities.

In any case, mores aren’t necessarily empty accidents of culture. For example, ancient Chinese Taoists, classical Greek philosophers, and historical rabbis all rigorously studied human nature. In light of modern-day findings about the mechanics of our unruly limbic systems their behavioural prescriptions and proscriptions frequently made sense.

In the absence of today’s neuroscience framework, simple “thou shalt not” admonitions arose, including the list of “deadly sins”. Of course, external rules are often clunky and unsatisfying, quite apart from producing undesirable shaming and ugly self-righteousness.

Yet untrammeled pursuit of of our appetites can certainly set up brain loops that turn destructive. Lust, alas, is particularly susceptible to this. One taste of intense sexual arousal, especially when reinforced by climax, and the brain screams, “This is it! Remember everything connected with This Event and repeat it as often as possible!” Brain circuits that evolved for this task roar into action, that is, strengthen their synaptic connections. Pursuit of sexual arousal becomes a top priority long-term. And anything associated with it can flip on this powerful response.

The binge trap

A nasty downside of lust is also present in gluttony. Bingeing leads not to satisfaction, but to less satisfaction. This is because the brain’s sensitivity to pleasure temporarily declines in the face of excessive stimulation.

Instead of merely producing satiety, as one would logically expect, bingeing can later set off the discomfort of a mini “withdrawal”, i.e., subconscious feelings of lack/anxiety/cravings. This fosters pursuit of more extreme stimulation (and often actions that we later regret). This explains why “if it feels good do it” and “chacun à son goût” are unfortunately only short-term strategies for managing sexual appetite. Their longer-term risks can curtail free will.

Unsurprisingly, research reveals that sexual stimulation appears to foster men’s risk-taking and cyber-delinquency, and reduce their self-control. It’s revealing some potentially disturbing evidence relating to women too.

In short, we could all use an instruction manual upon arrival on the planet. We would benefit from learning how our limbic appetites work, what their limitations are, and what behaviours keep them in balance – or push them out of balance. Rules of conduct ring hollow unless we learn why limbic brain balance matters, and how one achieves it (or erodes it). Many religious traditions offered the next best thing, however. Namely, practices that indirectly protect free will by helping to balance the brain: meditation, fasting, prayer, chanting, qi gong, and so forth.

When they would control themselves, they could not

Interestingly, today’s mental health experts and even religious authorities both seem focused on explaining the second line of the couplet (“when they would control themselves, they could not”) without regard to the first (“when they could control themselves, they would not”). These days, either “limbic brain impulses made me do it” or “humankind’s innate sinfulness made me do it”.

Yet the key to preserving free will lies in the choice alluded to in the first line of the couplet. Before we barrel down the path of trying to ease our cravings via more intense stimulation – that is, while our limbic brains are still in relative balance and our willpower still operational – we choose to exercise pleasures temperately. That is, we don’t pursue them to surfeit/excess/satiety. This strategy can ward off subsequent cravings and single-minded pursuit of relief. It can also protect our sensitivity to pleasure, making life’s joys more fulfilling.

Moderating sexual appetite

It has long been known, and widely ignored, that learning to cultivate sexual desire carefully benefits us if we want to think more clearly and act consistently with our loftiest ideals. Spoiler alert: repression and celibacy aren’t ideal methods for tribal pair bonders like humans.

Intriguingly, some quite sex-positive Asian cultures hit upon the potential in the careful cultivation of sexual desire. Think sexual tantra and Taoist “dual cultivation”. Western observers have tripped over this insight now and then as well: karezza, l’étreinte réservée, and some say even the courtly love tradition.

Over the millennia, various related techniques have turned up, including: learning to circulate excess sexual energy to ease sexual cravings and invigorate the entire body; orgasm-free lovemaking (surprisingly soothing once you get the hang of it); harnessing the power of attachment cues (eye gazing in the courtly love tradition); and so forth.

Practitioners report that it’s easier than expected to experiment with these techniques. Apparently, they’re even pleasurable after the initial discomfort of “withdrawal” from orgasm passes. Possible side effects reported: increased sensitivity to pleasure (both sexual and otherwise); less emotional reactivity; reduced consumerism (a consequence of feeling more whole and less depleted); more expansive thinking; more harmonious relationships; a stronger sense of brother-sisterhood with the rest of humanity; and healthy libido without tyrannical urges.

A powerful fulcrum

Perhaps sexual desire acts as a powerful fulcrum. Lust used thoughtlessly can incline us toward chaos. Repressed, it suffocates creativity and intimate, life-giving unions. Used carefully, might it turn out to be a stable springboard to clarity and more enlightened choices? Choices that are less distorted by artificial rules of behaviour, more spontaneous and inspired, and more aligned with the common good?

It seems worth experimenting with this quirky possibility.