50 Shades of Grey Matter

How to tame your lusty brain

Posted Oct 26, 2012

In the first six weeks, over ten million people – mostly women – bought copies of E.L. James’ novel, 50 Shades of Grey. And as they read each erotic passage, millions of neurons get instantly turned on, driving us to seek more and more of the pleasurable neurochemicals that are being released.[i]  This biological impulse is embedded in every human being.  

 According to the animal studies of Jaak Panksepp, the primary emotion that is being stirred by erotic images and thoughts is lust, and it is driven by a very different neurochemical system than the ones that govern feelings of love, nurturance, and caring.[ii]

 Lust is the easier emotion to arouse, but without the complex feelings of kindness and trust, lust easily turns into a one-night stand for both animals and humans.  But 50 Shades brings another primary emotion to the surface, which Panksepp has shown to be essential in the building of social bonds.  It’s the “play/joy” circuit, and when you combine this emotion with the neurochemicals of care (another primary emotion), sex becomes sensual and lust turns into love.

 Pure lust involves testosterone, and too much generates aggressiveness that easily turns the recipient’s pleasure into fear. With fear, stress chemicals like cortisol are released in the brain and the famous flight-or-fight response is triggered. 

 In 50 Shades, Ana (the main character) constantly battles with the competing urges of approach-and-avoidance, emotions that are controlled by the most ancient parts of the mammalian brain. But Christian Grey (the wealthy male character who fears close intimacy and attachment) tries his best to be gentle and kind.  These genuine displays of affection stimulate the caring circuits of the brain which allow the couple to slowly build a mutually loving relationship.

 On one hand, human emotionality – especially when it comes to sex and love – is fairly simple:  Sensuality releases dopamine, and this motivates our brain to seek more, even to the point of addiction.  Then, with the addition of neurochemicals like oxytocin and vasotocin (released within the care circuits) help us to build long-lasting relationships filled with kindness, compassion, and trust.

 On the other hand, when it comes to human consciousness, there is nothing more complicated than love. The dopamine-rich pathways of pleasure and lust give rise to self-reflective awareness in the frontal lobes, and this is where our imagination kicks in, dreaming up “50 shades” of elusive feelings that make relationships so mysteriously joyful and frustrating. 

 The solution to this quagmire of lust and love is also hinted at in the novel, for Ana constantly engages in an inner dialogue with her emotional voices.  As researchers at the Universityof Torontohave found, this “inner voice helps us to exert self-control by enhancing our ability to restrain our impulses.”[iii] In fact, higher frequencies of inner speech are associated with lower levels of psychological distress.[iv]

This inner speech of everyday consciousness is documented in our book, Words Can Change Your Brain, and if we simply take a few minutes each day to observe this chattering mind, we quickly reach a place where our own inner wisdom – our intuition – guides us to place of serenity and peace.  And this is where true love for one’s self takes root, a cornerstone for building healthy relationships with others.

Our advice: when it comes to stimulating the circuits of neurological love, make sure you talk about every nuance of your sexual, sensual, and erotic experience.  By all means experiment with feelings of playful passion – for playfulness is emotion that helps us to build social empathy – but temper your lust by consciously developing feelings of deep caring and understanding of each other.  After all, we all have emotional wounds from previous relationships, but if we take the time to respect each other’s boundaries, we can begin heal our fears and hurts.

In our next column, we’ll explore the nature of inner speech and how this, when combined with the pleasure centers of our brain, gives rise to phenomenon of human consciousness. For more information, see Words Can Change Your Brain (Newberg & Waldman, 2012, Hudson Street Press), and for strategies for improving communication, visit www.MarkRobertWaldman.com.


[i] “Individual differences in nucleus accumbens activity to food and sexual images predict weight gain and sexual behavior.” Demos KE, Heatherton TF, Kelley WM. J Neurosci. 2012 Apr 18;32(16):5549-52.


[ii] Panksepp, Jaak. The Archeology of Mind. Norton, 2012.


[iii] “The voice of self-control: Blocking the inner voice increases impulsive responding.” Tullett A. M., Inzlicht M. Acta Psychologica (Amsterdam). 2010 Oct; 135(2):252–56.


[iv] “The phenomena of inner experience.” Heavey C. L., Hurlburt R. T. Consciousness and Cognition. 2008 Sep; 17(3):798–810.

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