Updated: Nov 13
Paco, a Spanish bar manager in his 30’s has discovered the meaning of life. Well, his life. When I first met Paco, he immediately enraptured me, a fantastic character, full of sporadic energy and in possession of a faulty social filter. He would lean across the bar, telling me tales of his sexual exploits and dispensing serious advice on masturbation techniques, in particular I remember a detailed description of a Japanese love egg that aids the solo sexual adventurer on his journey to momentary paradise. A line of unserved customers grimaced. Paco was a goldmine for a writer, there were several characters bubbling away behind his eyes, but as we got to know each other, I stopped seeing him as simply a writing project and started to be concerned for his well-being. We exchanged advice, spoke about our dreams, the mysteries of life, love and beer and we tried to make sense of it all, as you only can in a bar. Then one day, Paco was gone.
His replacement looked and sounded exactly like Paco, but this guy would drink water or juice, didn’t smoke, wasn’t packing any weed, he was more efficient, people actually got served. I watched him with unease, eventually he leant across the bar conspiratorially and said “I have to tell you something man. This shit is unbelievable.” I was relieved, Paco had come back to me. It was bound to be some lurid details of a late night liason or a new technological breakthrough in bishop bashing. But no, the light in his eyes told a different story, he was on day 21 of the ‘nofap challenge’ and he couldn’t get enough adjectives into one sentence to describe how superb, amazing and fantastic his experience had been. “I’m full of energy man, I set my alarm for 06:00 and jump out of bed” he told me “I can’t wait to start the day, I just feel great.”
Nofap for the uninitiated is a community based website for people struggling with porn and masturbation addiction, the motto “Get a new grip on life” encourages those affected to release themselves from the slavery of instant gratification and enjoy the genuine biological by-products. I grew up pre-internet and so my introduction to pornography was analogue. I did what all 90’s teens did and found scraps of porn in the woods. Until one week myself and a group of friends discovered an abandoned collection of Razzle, Mayfair and the like tied up with string. We imagined the back story, a disgruntled wife discovering the library and the ‘me or them’ ultimatum, man X driving tearfully into the woods, a deep breath before he released his treasure, knowing that a future generation would thank him. We divided up the stash, I didn’t see my friends for about a fortnight, when we finally reconvened we had all sprouted whispy hairs on our upper lips and our biceps were forged from steel, we were something like men. This rite of passage is utterly denied the young men of the digital age, when a machine in your pocket has access to all your desires and worse. Internet porn is unique as it keeps your dopamine frothing over at the click of a mouse. However, we need novelty, there is a reason for the multi-tab salami slapping session, we fail to be stimulated by the same images over a period of time, this is known as the Coolidge Effect. The brain is more stimulated and releases a greater dopamine hit when exposed to new or novel ‘potential mates.’ When emotional states (anxiety, shame, shock, surprise) are added to the chemical mix, which “not only elevate dopamine, but each can also boost stress hormones & neurotransmitters (norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol)” according to research papers on the website www.yourbrainonporn.com. What’s more disturbing is “over time a porn user’s brain can mistake feelings of anxiety or fear for feelings of sexual arousal” which explains “why some porn users escalate into ever more shocking or anxiety invoking porn – as they need that extra neurochemical jolt just to become sexually aroused, or to reach orgasm.” Paco reflected sadly that he would spend hours in bed with his previous girlfriend, unable to reach orgasm unless he replayed porn scenes in his head, making him effectively absent from the real life experience.
We no longer use our imaginations, we ,in fact, prefer the unreal over the real as the chemical release provides a greater instant gratification, however the long term effects are devastating. When compared with drugs, alcohol, gambling and other addictions, porn addiction is unique. The orgasm is part of an ancient reward system related to survival and the passing on of our genes, it is natures greatest reward. But perhaps, it is part of a greater problem. This impulsive behaviour may start with masturbation, it may not, but it is clearly part of an interlinked web of vices. Once our bodies become familiar with receiving dopamine hits, the cycle begins, we find ever new and novel ways to be rewarded, be it social media likes, coffee, something sweet, a cigarette, drugs or alcohol. Many men train themselves to live this way, with no understanding of medium or long term benefits. The polemic to this problem is ‘delayed gratification’ a vital skill that allows us to achieve great things, in the future. Sometimes we must sacrifice something now to receive our reward later on, be it time, a social experience, money or something small like a sugary snack. Those infuriating phrases such as ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’ actually contain a kernel of wisdom. For example, the Stanford Marshmallow experiment in which psychologist Walter Mischel would offer a child a marshmallow, or the possibility of two if they waited for 15 minutes. The child looks at the juicy marshmallow in front of them right now and their brain says ‘eat it!’ To overcome this instinct they must imagine a greater reward in the future, this is essentially how we invented time, don’t eat this season's seeds over the harsh Winter and in Spring there may be an abundance. The same is true of generational delayed gratification, sacrifices that benefit others in the future.
It is easier to trick yourself into happiness now, or the approximation of it, but dopamine is not conducive to happiness. Furthermore, happiness is not a goal that we should pursue in of itself, it is a by product of achieving things of genuine value. It is in fact the anticipation of reward that provides the real pleasure, coupled with novelty the experience rewires the limbic brain and creates a supernormal stimuli. A supernormal stimuli is the effect of an artificial and exaggerated thing upon the brain, where we prefer the artificial to the real. In the tests done by Nikolaas Tinbergen he discovered that birds would prefer to feed the larger, exaggerated mouths of fake baby birds. Perhaps, this can help explain exaggerated body augmentation such as breast and buttock implants. The problem is that at the end of a porn related supernormal stimulus, there is nothing more than a ruined sock. Pursuit of real life goals out strips falsified rewards in so many ways, when applying yourself to something real, the journey itself provides continuous smaller, but genuine, dopamine hits as well as the many outlier benefits of achieving anything real.
And so, Paco through a growing resentment for his static vehicle and lack of real life reward decided to try the ‘nofap challenge.’ What’s one thing that you can do or change about yourself that would show you that you’re in control? For him it was discarding the false reward of internet porn like a used tissue. It turns out that just one change is all that is needed to trigger a domino effect. He unplugged the network of instant gratification at one point and the whole grid went down and the real Paco came back online. He started to question his choices, to be conscious and care for himself and his outcome, to visualise himself in the future enjoying the rewards of today’s sacrifice. It was difficult to stop being so impulsive, but in a way the ‘pinch’ helped, those damned phrases are right again ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ With a new found lust for life instead of falsified dopamine hits, he began to look at other areas he could improve. He asked himself ‘what’s something that I have always wanted to do?’ He had always wanted to learn hypnotism. So he did. He had become a student of delayed gratification, he sat and watched hours of videos, read books and made notes. He was pleased with himself, with the enormous change, with his dedication and resilience. But it wasn’t enough, why learn something and not put it to use? He overcame his anxiety and hit the streets, approaching random groups of people and explaining he was a hypnotist in training. The first three or four times it didn’t work and he exited the scene in a graceful run. He persisted, no longer would he quit at the flick of a wrist.
The last time we met, Paco was on day 80 something of nofap, we spoke about his future plans which include travel, creating his own business (he is learning the secret of ‘making money’), meditation and self-hypnosis while all the time he sipped his juice and glowed Buddha-like and satisfied.
Nofap saved a life. If we are honest, most of us have some kind of dopamine related vice, this is the generation of instant gratification after all. I challenge you to try for yourself one of two things, both amount to a simple choice. Go nofap for 30 days, or try Morgan Spurlock’s 30 day challenge, add one thing and subtract another from your life for 30 days, which is the amount of time it takes to program a habit. Show yourself what you’re capable of, like Paco, it might just change your life.