Porn Addiction, Part Two: What Porn Does To Your Brain, the Science

November 25, 2011 — 26 Comments



An ongoing discussion about victory over sexual addiction.

The introduction here.

Part One, excuses and myths, here.

Part Three, the soul, here.

Part Three and a half, the soul, here.

Part Four: I’m Ready To Cut It Off. Here.

Part Five: Quitting Isn’t Enough. Here.

My podcast series “Cutting It Off” — here.

Why Do I Use Porn? Why Can’t I Stop? Here.

Every question submitted about porn on this blog, here.

**Updated: May 2013

For the podcast episode based on this post, click here.


The science behind porn addiction will not surprise you.  It can be easily mocked as apocalyptic research with an old-fashioned bias, but excuses to use porn are also biased by the hand down your pants. Objective evidence of pornography’s effects has one goal: to show how much porn screws up your brain. For some that will be enough to quit.

Obviously, something serious is happening in the neurology of a person who will not stop using porn.  Constant exposure to graphic, unreal, out-of-bounds sex doesn’t just go in one hand and out the other (bad pun). Like the heroin addict or the gambler or the alcoholic, several key things are happening.

Much of the following research is borrowed and not my own. Please keep in mind that the term “addiction” is a serious term and might or might not apply to you, but it’s worth investigating. I don’t mean to over-dramatize here or make a big show of scientific language, but porn use does have a particular undeniable effect on the brain.

Sources include Craig Gross’ Pure Eyes, Eyes of Integrity, and Dirty Little Secret, and William Struther’s Wired For Intimacy. I’ve read and re-read these important resources and highly recommend them to you.  There is also Michael Leahy’s Porn Nation, Mike Wilkerson’s Redemption, Tim Chester’s Closing The Window, and David Powlison’s tiny booklet Slaying The Dragon. Where possible, I’ve tried to research articles and current news behind pornography and the porn industry. And of course, there is personal experience with addiction plus countless hours spent with young and old porn addicts.


The Addict’s Path:

Neurological Pathway: A lot of pastors have been using this term to sound legit in their sermons about sex.  While more complicated than it sounds, a person’s behaviors are reinforced by continual action down a “path,” like walking through a grassy field and creating a way over time.  This sounds obvious with simple behaviors, but with porn addiction it feels more like a slide down a hill that keeps getting steeper.  There are also tons of reinforcers that are not immediately apparent to the addict which triggers the downhill slide.

Habituation. Over time you become used to your current stash of porn.  That’s why you hear dudes joke about “old porn” and how it’s “no good” anymore.  If you drink a bottle of beer everyday for a year, you get habituated to the alcohol.  Which then leads to

Escalation. You need more to get the same high. For heroin it’s a higher dosage.  For gamblers it’s higher stakes.  For drama queens, it’s increased chaos.  For the porn addict, it becomes more deviant forms of porn that leads to child pornography or S&M.  No one goes from drinking milk to doing meth in a day.  However, someone can go from softcore to illegal hardcore in as little as 72 hours.

Apathy. A junkie who is far gone into their addiction begins to lose their presence of mind.  He or she is not really there, instead just looking for the next fix. A once vibrant personality becomes dulled by obsession for the high, and everything else is therefore unexciting.  Conversations, relationships, entertainment, and even sexual intercourse drops below the threshold of excitement — soon nothing grabs your attention but the addiction.  Which leads to:

Desperation. A vibrant personality gets hollowed out to desperate methods. This is how you get addicts doing sexual favors and selling their family’s stuff to get the next hit: the personality has been hijacked.  There are brutal stories of pastors who began using porn and eventually spent upwards of $20,000 on prostitutes and strip clubs. 

With the more obvious things out of the way, here’s the scientific jargon.  Since these are all so complex, I’ll be simplifying and omitting some intricacies to streamline the information. 



**Update 3/4/12 –
A fascinating look at porn’s effect on the brain by Gary Wilson at TED Talks.
It confirms nearly everything written below.


Your Brain On Porn

Dopamine. Everyone has a reward-pathway system.  Any category of reward gives you pleasure — a hug, a movie, cookies, sex, video games, praise — which releases a chemical called dopamine into your brain.  Three parts of your brain are affected: the nucleus accumbens, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala.

Nucleus: Turns on the excitement and ecstasy.

Prefrontal Cortex: The reasoning/judgment center reinforces behaviors associated with the reward.  Liver and onions, no dopamine.  The smell of waffle cones at the ice cream shop, bam.

Amygdala: You might recall this from your high school science class.  The amygdala processes memories and emotions, so it makes links between both.  The particular shape and color of the ice cream shop can trigger dopamine all by itself.  If you had a bad experience at the ice cream shop, then the smell of waffle cones may bring up anger, sadness, or a bad mood.

Shooting up heroin vastly ups your dopamine levels  beyond a healthy level. You become habituated, the addiction escalates, and you move to apathy and desperation.  Nearly the same model of addiction happens with porn, to the point where even the color of your bedroom or the shape of your laptop can trigger all your reinforced circuits. 

The scary part is that unusual dopamine levels slow down the prefrontal cortex (reasoning) by stealing all other reward pathways.  That’s why when you’re in the middle of porn, it feels almost impossible to stop: your reasoning is dead.  The constant repetition of climaxing to porn rewires the brain to pursue the dopamine surge.  You’ve deprived all other rewards of their dopamine value.  It’s literally a chemical imbalance. 

Not to sound overly dramatic, but the addiction causes a slow destruction of your brain’s sensitive physiology.  In other words, addiction causes a physical change in the user’s brain. If you’ve been addicted to porn and try to quit for a while, you’ll notice classic withdrawal symptoms like sweating, confusion, foggy thinking, and porn “calling your name.” The first week that I quit, as silly as it sounds, my hands would shake when I thought about using.

Substance addicts who quit using quickly show evidence of regrowing brain matter and neurons particularly in the prefrontal cortex.  It can take anywhere from sixty to ninety days to recalibrate these reward pathways, and up to a year to be functionally normalized.


In simpler terms:

Porn addiction steals “joy” from other areas of your life.  Since it vastly impacts your value on rewards, it becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy things that you once did.  Your reasoning also becomes dull since you’re so doped up on self-serving pleasure.  You may think you have it under control or that it somehow enhances you as a person, but physiologically the evidence shows there are damaging changes in your brain. It’s not merely psychological or spiritual: your brain rewires itself.

If you can imagine a sound mixer for a live band, then imagine that while the volume of your pursuit of porn goes up, all the other volumes — family, friends, future, church, hobbies, socializing — get turned down. Even if we assume you are just an animal with no higher purpose, then porn addiction makes you less than functional. 


So what’s all this mean? 

When I teach, I try to stay away from discussing too many consequences because guilt does not change people for the long term.  But with porn, you really need to know the consequences.  I’ve actually calculated how much time I’ve wasted just looking at porn in my fifteen year addiction, and it amounts to almost two years (that’s straight, so assuming I do not eat or sleep or work).  The consequences of porn addiction, or any addiction, are too serious to ignore.

While I do expect to give you more good news about overcoming porn, here’s the bad news:

No matter what people say or how they rationalize, the research shows an undeniable link between porn addiction and physiological damage.  At the very least, even casual porn addiction causes noticeable personality changes and unproductive behaviors.




For the podcast episode based on this post, click here.




Next Installments:

Porn and Your Faith




For more, purchase my new book on Amazon!

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26 responses to Porn Addiction, Part Two: What Porn Does To Your Brain, the Science

  1. 

    So much information and you make it easy to understand and interesting! I hope you get LOTS of traffic you and your subject deserve it!

  2. 

    Would you please discuss the following thoughts as you have time:
    1) How does television fit into porn, soft or otherwise. Not just the shows but the commercials.
    2) How does need for a more progressive high relate to someone who stops and then is in a committed marriage. E.g. the memories of images, fantasies, activities.

    Specifically, useful material and sources for discussing this in an intelligent way would be great. This is not a comfortable subject but I would agree it is a necessary one.

  3. 

    This is definitely something that needs to be talked about. There are too many people not discussing it when there are so many people secretly struggling

    • 

      This is nothing to be shy about, since you can discuss it online, Just do it. (Nike) , in todays world, advertisement is all about S.E.X , marketing has a little do to with it too, so does engineering .. has to do it. The problem here is, we want to stop doing it like chimpanzees .. and do it like morden humans.. timely.

  4. 

    People really need to hear this. Thank you!

  5. 

    Reblogged this on amberdover and commented:

    I just had to send this out. I have known so many people who ruined their marriages with this stuff and just didn’t know how to function in a normal relationship. I’ve read so many serial murder cases where the person had a porn addiction that escalated until they acted on it. That’s why so many people are surprised that this nice person can do something so evil. Sin starts small and then it GROWS. What’s done in private always comes to the surface eventually. So I encourage you to take this seriously and if you know anyone who has this addiction please send them this article. So many people deal with this…preachers…husbands….even women. We are all sinners in need of God’s grace. luv and prayers friends! ~Amber

    • 

      Amber, thank you for so kindly commenting and reblogging multiple posts. I’m really humbled by your passion and interest in these tough topics.
      You’re really an encouragement and I’m glad we’re doing Kingdom Work together!

  6. 

    Yes, it can ruin a marriage:(

  7. 

    A really good series J.S.! This information shall help many people!

    • 

      Thank you! I’ve considered putting it into book format. Though there are probably enough books out there.
      Feel free to use or distribute anything I’ve posted here!

  8. 

    Thanks, I’ve given up porn, and started putting myself out there more.. Have had a couple of one-nite-stands so far, which has gone ok. Lots of real emotions involved though, which has been a bit more difficult, but at least it’s ‘real’ if you know what I mean. Only downside is I might have herpes now, but I can’t be totally sure because it turns out there isn’t always obvious symptoms. (I have been using protection, but found you can still get it anyway, from skin-to-skin contact apparently.) I didn’t know that before :-(
    Also had one broken condom, but the girl took the morning after pill, so hopefully that will turn out ok.
    Anyway, I still recommend putting yourself out there, and give up the porn because it can have consequences even if you don’t realise it.

  9. 

    maybe we should give porn addicts dopamine antagonists while watching porn, then dopamine agonists while they are involved in some actual form of social intimacy. reverse the reversed pathway.

  10. 

    Thank you for so much vast information. I congrulates u for your victory over porn.
    I have been suffering from the same addiction & self destructive thoughts. I am off porn for 25 days (higest since 10years).
    what advice would u like to give me, because i sometimes feel that craving & anger?

    • 

      Hey friend: I was actually considering doing a multi-part podcast on how to quit porn with a little more detailed info, plus my own personal journey. Be on the look-out for it!

  11. 

    Hi.. Thanks for your kind advice & suggestions about porn addiction.I quiet pornography & mastubration for nearly 2and a half months, today i had a relapse. During those 2.5 months i was preparing for MD Medicine , i worked hard for the exams. I was expecting myself to get selected for the test. Result was declared & i fall 1 point short. This leads to depression & relapse and that vicious cycle again. Now i am depressed with low self esteem . I need help. Help me plz…

  12. 

    Excellent, excellent post! Out of my own hard experience I would add this: watching porn is like getting a tattoo on your brain. Once in your head, it is really, really hard to get rid of. Even years later, I still flash back occasionally.

  13. 

    I want help, really enjoyed the information

  14. 

    Great. God sent. Timely. Breaking the prison walls. God bless you man of God.

  15. 
    ABDULAHI SHUAIBU November 18, 2013 at 1:36 am

    THAT WAS A GREAT INFORMATION ON PORN IT HELP ME ALOT. MANY PEOPLE IN AFRICA ARE FACING THE PROBLEM OF PORN ADICTION. HOW CAN YOU HELP US WITH SEMINAR TALK ON PORN & MASTUBATION? FROM NIGERIA.

  16. 

    Google is to be blamed

  17. 

    To irfan027

    I have an advice for you. If the stress due to exam is too overwhelming, try taking a break and do exercises you enjoyed. For example, jogging, playing basketball or soccer. Running is the best. Please don’t watch porn to de-stress. Because even if you pass your MD medicine test but you continue to watch porn, it will still ultimately ruin your career. That happens to me. When I was a student, I studied real hard but watches porn. I do get decent grade but my perspective was distorted by porn. Overtime, it erodes my confidence and I feel weird and withdrawn. Family life, social circle and career was affected.

    I strongly suggest you step out and engage in charitable projects. It can help you. And at the same time, you will have more friends. My turning point comes after I did this for some years. Hope this help.

    Regards
    Your Dharma brother

    • 

      Thank you dear, I compeleted my 3 month porn & mastrubation free journey. I feel confident,alive & full of energy. It is one of the toughest addiction to beat,these addiction could lead to Neurosis, OCD, I stand firm I survived. Thanks to my Lord. Hope u are doing better & thanks for your advice.

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