Your Brain on Porn

Regardless of the moral stance one may take on pornography, the education and awareness of what porn does to the brain is sadly lacking and society as a whole remains generally ignorant to the truth about the physical and psychological effects of porn use. There is a damaging misconception that the decision to view online pornography is a simple matter of sexual morality. We can justify it in any number of ways to evade guilt, but guilt is not the great offender here. And guilt, while it may be oppressive or inconvenient, is not sufficient cause to avoid something that seemingly everyone else is doing and enjoying.

When porn is understood more as an illicit, highly addictive drug, and apart from the morality discussion, we see we are dealing with a very different entity indeed. What is most concerning in the context of the discussion on pornography and masturbation is the actual brain damage inflicted by porn and the risk it presents to the viewer for a host of negative and potentially damaging outcomes.

And the same was once said of things such as cigarettes. Originally thought to be harmless, people not only smoked liberally, but many were even convinced that the smoking of cigarettes conferred significant health benefits. Decades later we cringe at how wrong we were. Campaigns were initiated to educate the public about the real dangers of smoking and the ease with which an addiction is developed. Online pornography is not so different. In it we have a silent, but significant threat. Appearing harmless or at least neutral, we fail to see and promote education and awareness of the danger of pornography.

But what are these dangers, specifically? Is this just taking a prudish or puritanical stance? What could be so wrong with looking at a little online sex? But would you ever say, is there anything wrong with smoking for a few years? Is there anything wrong with trying cocaine or heroin a handful of times? Most rational adults wouldn’t even suggest one of these scenarios, and certainly not to young men and women, those who are highly impressionable with their youthful, sponge-like brains primed to absorb all that they see and hear.

When it can be shown that online pornography operates on the brain in a manner that is analogous to illicit drugs, our ears perk up with concern. When we understand that Internet porn is not only highly addictive, but that it actually writes new pathways in the brain governing the individual’s sexuality, sexual tastes and sexual boundaries, it becomes a conversation worth having. If we understood the cognitive damage of Internet pornography, might we not reconsider such a laissez-faire attitude and approach?

Online pornography, like all other addictive substances and behaviors, hits the brain at its most sensitive and irresistible spot—the reward center. Dopamine floods the brain and the user feels the pleasurable high. And this soothing, chemical security blanket comforts the user in a way that he or she will not want to eliminate or be without for long. The behavior is repeated, or the substance is sought and ingested anew, and the high is revived. And in the process, the brain is physically beginning to change. It takes very little time or effort for the brain to understand that in the presence of some danger such as emotional upheaval, anxiety, discomfort or traumatic memories, that soothing behavior or substance of choice can provide exactly the remedy that is needed to restore emotional equilibrium. Porn is capable of filling that need.

And while many assume that in order for an addiction to form an addictive substance is required, addicts and addiction specialists know that it is not—it is the brain response, the dopamine rush, that guarantees that the individual is going to want it again and again, and in ever increasing quantities. Porn viewing, though not a substance, produces those same brain responses. If the viewing is accompanied by masturbation and orgasm (as it often is), the chemical/hormonal response is all the more complex and powerful and the desire to repeat the behavior far stronger.

Internet porn is referred to as a supernormal stimulus and this is part of what drives the compulsion. It mimics something that we have evolved to know we need to do in order to perpetuate the survival of the species (procreation). A supernormal stimulus, however, has no connection to any sort of reality in nature or anything we have evolved to deal with it. The brain starts to think it needs this stimulus, but is actually completely unprepared to handle it.

Like junk food, the Internet and online porn have more capacity to lead to an addiction than drugs. How is this? The explanation lies in that they each involve a supernormal stimulus that correlates to normal human needs—food and sex. Drugs aren’t a natural human need; while they have clear addictive potential, far fewer people actually become addicted to them. Highly novel sex and ultra-palatable foods, however, are an easy lure because our brains and our bodies already know that we need and want them.

According to Gary Wilson of Your Brain on Porn: “These supernormal versions of natural rewards can override our brain’s satiation mechanisms—the ‘I’m done’ feeling—because concentrated calories and fertilization opportunities are your genes’ top priorities.”

In short, because the highly stimulating and novel imagery encountered in online pornography is completely outside of our evolutionary experience, the brain doesn’t know what to do with it. What it does know, however, is that it wants more. The cravings start immediately and the individual feels called to pursue a primal urge.

But men have, for generations, enjoyed racy pictures of women. Pornography is certainly not a new phenomenon. Why such an uprising over Internet porn? Why the concern with addiction and compulsion?

The pornography encountered on the Internet is, in no way, the pornography found in a magazine. Magazine images are static and fixed and while they stimulate arousal, they are in no way analogous to the brain overload that accompanies the viewing of Internet pornography. And the quick and easy access of porn online—worlds of sexual bliss all available at the click of a mouse—leads the user to rapidly escalate to kinkier, more shocking, hard core porn. These are options not afforded by a magazine.

Online porn fakes the brain into believing it is encountering “endless novelty.” And this is alluring because evolutionarily, the brain is wired to crave a steady stream of new partners and to desire to fertilize them all. With porn, the evolutionary dream comes true. Though online porn certainly isn’t sex, the brain isn’t always able to distinguish the sexual images from real opportunities to procreate. All it knows is that it wants it and porn tricks the brain into believing it is getting it.

You see, porn addiction causes the same sorts of brain changes as in all addictions. Continued viewing begins rewriting pathways in the brain that will come to dictate what the viewer believes he or she needs in order to experience arousal and climax. The user, just like the alcoholic, experiences stress, disturbance or disappointment, and begins to crave the porn fix to release the pressure. And just like the drink, it appears to work, at least for a time. But soon the addict is unable to handle life without the high achieved by viewing Internet porn. Like any addiction, porn stimulates the brain’s reward center, and as the individual is pursuing the images and going after the high, he or she is experiencing the satisfying rush of dopamine and the pleasure chemicals and hormones that accompany masturbation and orgasm. Classic addiction patterns play out.

And as in the case of any addiction, tolerance builds. The user needs more pornography to satisfy the craving and seeks porn in ever increasing novelty and severity. Tastes quickly escalate to more and more hard core imagery, often including violence.

This escalation of the porn tolerance also effects a change in sexual tastes in the bedroom. While normal sexual intercourse was once pleasing and fulfilling, once the Pandora’s Box of Internet porn has been opened, it is hard to get excited by that which now seems pretty “vanilla.” This can cause a strain in relationships when the porn viewing partner begins desiring more excitement and edge in regard to sexual relations. For the non-addict partner, this can be troubling, uncomfortable and disturbing. With time, the addict may experience an inability to achieve arousal or orgasm during regular sex, as well as other forms of sexual dysfunction.

A last disturbing mental effect of prolonged porn use is an altered perspective on women and sexual violence. Because of the flood of images of women in degrading situations, men may begin to view women and their worth quite differently than before their porn use began. The frequent viewing of violent sexual scenarios tied with pleasure can also alter perspectives on rape and sexual violence, eroding the viewer’s sense of sexual morality and making it harder to hear the word “no” and believe it.

The viewing of online pornography is no innocent, occasional activity. Perhaps even more than an illicit drug, it has the power to become a life-controlling addiction, claiming the mind and body of the addict. If you or a loved one suffers from a porn addiction, please don’t delay in seeking the help you need. You are not alone and there is hope for reclaiming your body and your mind.

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