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4 Ways Sex Can Affect Brain Synapses


Sex can be a hot or taboo topic among many young adults. Some people feel strongly about when they should start being sexually active, and others may feel uncomfortable with even having a conversation that includes the word sex. Having candid conversations about the topic of sex has the potential to invite conversations about concerns or questions people may have about engaging in or waiting to be sexually active. Whether a person is preparing to have a conversation about the topic of sex or wants to make an informed decision, it is helpful to understand the effects sexual activity has on synaptic connections in the brain.

What sex does to the synapses:

  • Creates a superhighway. Sexual activity turns a synapse connection from a trickling stream into a superhighway. When synapse connections are strong, they want to be used.
  • Develops a habit. Sex creates strong patterns—habits—in our brain by molding our synapses. Once you become sexually active, the synapse connections that help you restrain from sexual activity weaken, and the connections that encourage sexual activity to strengthen. Your brain gets trained to accept sex as normal. This is great for marriage, not great when dating.

In situations when sex is incorporated into the dating process, sex can have some significant adverse effects.

  • Damages ability to bond. In their book, Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children, Freda McKissic Bush and Joe McIlhaney explain, "when this sex/bonding/breaking-up cycle is repeated a few or many times—even when the bonding was short-lived—damage is done to the important, built-in ability to develop significant and meaningful connection to other human beings." As a result, we end up training our brains not to bond with people.
  • Normalizes short-term relationships. Our brain becomes molded to accept short-term relationships as the norm. It becomes harder to establish and maintain the long-term, healthy relationships needed for stable marriages and families because the neurological pattern has been established to break up after a short time.

Good News

If you're feeling overwhelmed about the adverse consequences of sex in the dating process...there is good news! Not only does God offer forgiveness, but also God designed the brain to heal and rewire after periods of abstinence. Synapse connections can atrophy over time in a way that resets the brain to allow for heightened bonding once again and to no longer normalize short-term relationships.

Talking with young adults about sexual activity can be uncomfortable. The Relationship IQ blog post "Talking About Sex With Young Adults" discusses helpful tips on engaging in conversations about this topic.

Discover more ways to talk about how sex affects the brain, by referring to the module What about Sex? from the rIQ Curriculum.