Book Review: Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction By Gary Wilson

For quite a few years now Gary Wilson, best known for his TEDxGlasgow talk, “The Great Porn Experiment,” has collected and published information about the use and effects of pornography on his YourBrainOnPorn.com (YBOP) website. In August 2014 he published a new e-book, also titled Your Brain on Porn, culling information from both YBOP and a wide array of porn-related research. With this work, Wilson has compiled a thorough and accurate report on the ways in which pornography is utilized and the negative consequences it sometimes has on users – especially those whose usage has progressed to the level of compulsivity and/or addiction. Unlike most of the scholarly research that he cites, Wilson’s writing is eminently readable, peppered throughout with first-person accounts of porn use and its consequences.

Book Review: Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction By Gary WilsonIn terms of problematic porn use, Wilson is absolutely on target with Your Brain on Porn, though he seems to forget that the vast majority of people who use pornography do so without becoming addicted or experiencing difficulties, just as most people who drink alcohol or experiment with addictive drugs do so without becoming addicted or facing consequences.

Early on Wilson writes, “[Internet porn addiction] represents a turning of the reward system from a very healthy type of reward, that of forming a genuine and intimate connection with another, into a type of reward that removes the user from social contact and often leaves him feeling lonely and ashamed rather than connected and supported.” For the unfortunate users of pornography who do become addicted, this is absolutely the truth. Porn addicts are among the most lonely, isolated and shame-filled of all addicts – not just because they’re addicts, but because they’re addicted to something that is very hard to talk about with family, friends and even therapeutic professionals. (This is probably why so many of the people who struggle with compulsive porn use seek support and advice anonymously through online venues like YBOP.)

Of course, as most porn addicts are well aware, a growing sense of shame and diminished self-esteem (and the isolation that usually follows) are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to porn addiction consequences. Other common issues, all of which are thoroughly discussed by Wilson at various points in the book, include:

  • Porn-induced erectile dysfunction
  • Inability to reach orgasm (anorgasmia) and/or decreased sensitivity in the penis
  • Diminished libido with real-world partners but not with porn
  • Real-life sexual indifference and/or aversion
  • Devaluation of real-life partners
  • Uncharacteristic fetishes
  • Depression, anxiety, stress and social malfunctioning
  • Reduced gray matter in the brain
  • Memory, concentration and impulse-control problems

Wilson aptly notes that many of these issues stem from the supernormal stimulation that “tube sites” provide. In short, the endless and constantly changing array of sexual imagery available on tube sites increases the dopamine surge of sexual excitement to abnormal levels and, over time, the porn user becomes acclimated to this. When that supernormal acclimation occurs, normal levels of dopamine, such as the dopamine bump caused by a single in-person partner, become less and less enticing. For this reason tube sites are sometimes referred to as the crack cocaine of porn addiction.

Wilson notes that porn poses risks beyond supernormal stimulation. He writes, “First, it’s easy to access, available 24/7, free and private. Second, most users start watching porn by puberty, when their brains are at the peak of plasticity and most vulnerable to addiction and rewiring.” He then notes that for young people the effects of pornography addiction are usually more profound and harder to overcome. On this topic he writes, “This might be because the older men did not start out wiring their sexual responses to screens, and still possess well-developed ‘real partner’ brain pathways, or brain maps.” In other words, younger porn addicts typically do not possess the hardwired desire for real-world partners that older porn users were able to develop in adolescence (because there was no Internet when they were young).

Happily, Wilson does not focus entirely on the problem. The final portion of the book looks at healing and recovering from pornography addiction. For the most part, he says that porn addicts must simply walk away from porn and porn substitutes. He notes that when this occurs the brain typically resets itself within a few months (meaning consequences like porn-induced sexual dysfunction, loss of interest in real-world partners and uncharacteristic fetishes will diminish or disappear over time).

Wilson also notes that many of the people who seek to recover from porn addiction experience a genital “flat-line” for many months. This is quite scary for many recovering porn addicts who, when they flat-line, fear that they will never again be interested in sex. More than a few porn addicts have relapsed in response to this fear, going back to porn just get the proverbial “rise” once again. Happily, with this new information from Wilson these porn addicts’ anxiety about an extended period of sexual disinterest might be lessened, thereby reducing their potential for relapse.

All told, Your Brain on Porn is an excellent and easy-to-comprehend look at porn use and its many potential consequences. This book is highly recommended for both porn addicts and sexual addiction treatment specialists.

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