Porn on the Brain

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Would we be happier without online pornography?

porn on brain

A few years ago, men from all over the world began arriving in my website’s forum complaining that they were unable to stop using Internet porn. Google had sent them—perhaps because my site shares information about the effects of sex on the brain. My site, however, is about relationships, not recovery. Yet their obvious distress, and porn’s impact on their relationships, motivated me to welcome them. As I listen, these visitors support each other in the struggle to leave porn behind.

Often they report dramatic changes as porn use recedes: more energy, increased social confidence, better concentration, greater gains from workouts, stronger erections, a return to earlier sexual tastes, increased optimism, and more enjoyment from life’s subtler pleasures. In short, many men are happier without Internet pornography.

Their experience has shown me that porn’s chief danger isn’t obvious to most users. It arises from intense stimulation of the reward circuitry of the brain—a portion of the ancient “mammalian brain,” which lies under the newer neocortex (rational brain). The reward circuitry governs emotions, mating, eating, motivation, and all addictions. It runs on a neurochemical called dopamine, the “gotta get it!” neurotransmitter.

Novelty-on-demand (slot machines, video games, porn videos) is often so enticing for this primitive part of the brain, that compulsion becomes a risk. Moreover, our brains evolved to light up not only for novelty-on-demand, but also for the genetic bonanza of sex with a novel partner.

Therefore, Internet porn, which offers new partners begging for ejaculate at each mouse click, registers as so rewarding that the brain easily rewires itself to focus more and more attention on these perceived opportunities. This can swiftly reorder the user’s priorities.

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Our brain’s reward circuitry evolved foremost to drive us toward sex and food. We seem to be especially vulnerable to superstimulating sexual arousal and junk food. Junk food has helped make 64 percent of Americans overweight (and half of those obese).

And now that free, streaming videos are available privately in endless supply, how many are using porn? (Hint: last year a Montreal professor had to revise his study about the effects of porn. He couldn’t find any male “porn virgins” on a major university campus.)

“The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor,” explains psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself. Porn users are seduced into pornographic training sessions that meet all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps, namely, rapt attention, reinforcement, and dopamine consolidation of new neural connections.

Some users (such as musician John Mayer) substitute porn for intimate relationships or friendly interaction, learning life skills, and so on. Their reward circuitry no longer perceives the latter as worth the effort. After all, this part of the brain can’t reason. It weighs options according to which release the most dopamine.

Paradoxically, it’s while someone is recovering from intense stimulation that he’s most likely to want more intense stimulation. This primitive mechanism evolved to keep us on task when something especially stimulating (“valuable”) is around. It works by numbing the pleasure response for a time (by weakening the effects of dopamine), so we look around for more.

This, by the way, is why drug addicts need more and more to get the same effects. This device probably worked just fine for spreading genes when receptive, novel mates were scarce. Today, however, the brain mistakes each enticing 2-D hottie as a prime opportunity to pass on genes. A porn user can feel as if his duty is never done.

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Overstimulated men report growing numb to life’s subtler pleasures, such as the charms of real partners. At the same time, they can be hypersensitive to the sexual stimuli their brains associate with “relief.” For many, the pursuit of more stimulating materials becomes mandatory to relieve the misery of feeling as if some key ingredient of their happiness is missing—and it is. Brain changes have temporarily dimmed their capacity for enjoyment.

It is not unusual for men caught in this cycle to feel anxious, socially ill-at-ease, moody, despairing, and apathetic. Until they reboot their brains, life seems meaningless, but for the single-minded pursuit of hotter stimuli. As one man put it:

With the magazines, porn use was a few times a week and I could basically regulate it. ‘Cause it wasn’t really that ’special’. But when I entered the murky world of Internet porn, my brain had found something it just wanted more and more of…. I was out of control in less than 6 months. Years of mags: no problems. A few months of online porn: hooked.

Often users don’t realize what they’re passing up until they give their brains a chance to return to equilibrium. For some, the lengthy withdrawal required to achieve this can be so agonizing (shakes, insomnia, despair, cravings, splitting headaches) that they feel trapped.

For example, in The Great Internet Porn-Off, 70 percent of contestants could not go without porn for two weeks. Nor can some officials of the Securities and Exchange Commission, it seems.

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A planet where computer literate men run a considerable risk of compulsive porn use won’t be as happy as it could be. People struggling to ease cravings for more and more stimulation generally have little time, sensitivity, or resolve for creativity, good causes, relationships, or nature’s pleasures. Yet the transformation in those who feel better without porn is inspiring. Consider these posts:

I feel again. I feel emotions again. My interest in women is heightened, my confidence is up and gives me motivation again. I’m 28 now and until the last couple of years I felt I had the maturity of a 15 year old. But as I heal and recover from this compulsion, I’ve felt emotions I’ve never had to deal with before. It has helped me grow up.

After a few days I noticed increased energy, increased attention, and higher self-esteem. After a month—although it took several tries to get there—those improvements were all through the roof. A couple of months later, I was having real sex. It is nice to get aroused by little things, like a revealing blouse or just a woman’s flowing, shiny hair and fragrance.

I am more at ease with myself and can look people in the eye, with kindness and a superhuman confidence. I had two women introduce themselves to me yesterday, shake my hand and HOLD IT. Wow. I was so comfortable talking to everyone. I wrote two pages of a script that went in an even deeper direction than I was aiming for. Exercising is through the roof.

I have so much more energy, I’m less moody, I have more enthusiasm and motivation for work, I don’t feel drained all the time, and I feel a deeper sense of connection with everything around me. But the biggest change it has made is in my relationship. My girlfriend and I feel much closer to each other already.

When it comes to sexually explicit materials, our society tends to get lost in debates about free speech, degree of obscenity, sexual repression, and harm to third parties. Maybe we should take a closer look at porn’s power to hijack brains.