Porn: Hardwired for Addiction

Joseph Maki

Porn is normal.  Porn is Healthy.  Porn is here to stay.  This is what “leading experts” tell us.  This is what is blasted through every screen we see.  We are, as political commentator Ben Shapiro so fittingly titled us, The Porn Generation.  Porn can accurately be said to be a part of our culture.  Who doesn't watch it?  I mean, you would be weird if you didn't, right? Somehow, the narrative of our culture has been turned upside down.  Somehow, obscenity has become freedom of speech.  Somehow, we have let the soul of our nation become corrupted with such an insidious rot, that it is a fulcrum point of American culture, economics, and thought.  


We all have heard that porn is addictive, that “it's just like Heroin!”  How is it addictive, though?  What does science have to say about porn?  Is it normal?  Does masturbating prevent prostate cancer?  Science is now pointing the finger at porn and telling us that porn is addictive and that this addiction is destructive.  So, how is Porn addictive?  


Over the course of the past two decades, the field of neuroscience has comprised over 50 studies on the science behind porn addiction.  To understand this addiction, we need to understand some of the chemistry of how the brain works.  Our brains react to chemical stimulation.  One of its most powerful chemical stimulations is the “sex drive”.  When the brain experiences pleasure of any sort, it releases a chemical called dopamine.  Dopamine is what trains your brain to want things that give you pleasure.  Sunsets, laughing, the kiss of a lover, a burrito, new movies, chocolate cake, all of these things can trigger dopamine release.  Certain factors are involved in dopamine release, such as novelty, intensity, frequency, surprise, and shock.  


To better understand the basics of this addiction, let’s talk about the Coolidge Effect.  The Coolidge Effect is the scienctific experiment that showed novelty was important in sexual relations for mammals.  This study also showed how dopmaine plays an important role in the part of the brain that deals with sex.  Basically, neurons that fire together, wire together, and the brain is full of neurological connections and synapses that are transmitting and receiving information every second of your life.  


The genetic purpose of dopamine is to motivate you to do things.  The bigger the release of dopamine, the more your body will want that thing.  This is the same system that narcotics hijack and use to turn people into drug addicts.  For example, Triple Malt Ice Cream equates to a big blast of dopamine, a bowl of lettuce… not so much.  In the words of Gary Wilson, author of Your Brain On Porn, “Dopamine is the barometer of which you determine the value of any experience.”  Dopamine, in using these releases, helps rewire the brain so that it will lead to that same stimulation again.  So dopamine is, more or less, our brains bloodhound for good experiences.  It's the anticipation, if you will.  It attaches to the neurons in our brains and fires to trigger the release of endogenous opioids, which is like our bodies natural way of “feeling good”.  (Bear with me on the big sciencey words.)  Pleasure in the brain seems to be due to a huge release of these opioids.  It may help to think of opioids as “liking” and dopamine as “wanting”.  There is no irony that dopamine (the wanting) is actually the stronger of these two systems and produces at a much higher rate than opioid release.  Lets just call this the hole in the soul of humanity, always wanting more without satisfaction. 


One of the key aspects of an addiction is that wanting and cravings increase when actual pleasure or possession of the substance decreases.  Once again, in the words of Gary Wilson, “addiction can be described as wanting, run amuck.”  So, one of the most important parts of this wanting is what neuroscientists call the “Novelty Factor”.  Novelty obviously means new,  and dopamine always searches for “new” experiences for stimulation.  New movies, new cars, scrolling mindlessly through your social media news feed.  That's dopamine at work in your brain, trying to find that next political article to trigger you.  


So, how does the Novelty Factor work with porn?  To illustrate, when Australian scientists repeatedly played the same clip of porn for test subjects, they observed that the erotic stimulation of the subjects lessened with each viewing of the same material.  Furthermore, the study showed that with each viewing, there were decreased levels of dopamine (want).  After 18 viewings of the same erotic material, they introduced new material in the 19th and 20th videos, and dopamine levels skyrocketed again.  Therefore, novelty plays an important part in porn addiction.  It has been proven that porn addicts will need to eventually watch more porn, and to keep the dopamine levels on the uptick, increase the variety of porn watched.  Over time, this can sadly lead to increasingly cruder and stranger fetishes. 


 Let's explain the difference between the two forms of porn, known as static porn and tube porn.  In the beginning, we had only Playboy mags, which the last generation recounts stealing from parents to look at and masturbate to.  This form of porn, which is categorized as static porn, was actually less detrimental to brain chemistry than the current type of live video porn, often referred to as tube porn. Tube porn was virtually inaccessible in the previous era, and at least involved heavy amounts of shame or posed a great risk of downloading viruses onto your computer.  Also, there was a significant financial cost associated with it.  So, it was easier to pick up your Playboy mag from the gas station.  Tube porn, on the other hand, is a super dopamine producer.  The more one watches it, the more novelty they need to experience.  In turn, this produces higher and higher levels of Dopamine that is needed for brain rewiring to take place. 


In today's world, an infinite variety of pornographic novelty can be experienced on one's own cell phone.  Accessibility to porn is universal and free, and we are putting cell phones into the hands of increasingly younger generations.  The novelty triggers for dopamine are not only “newness”, but  surprise, shock, shame, and anxiety, which trigger the release of stress chemicals such as cortisol.  Stress chemicals can actually enhance dopamine production.  This brain activity is classified as super normal stimulation.  To illustrate, this sort of stimulation is heightened by an already natural inclination for sexual novelty when viewing porn.  For example, if we think of the brain as a computer, this is where the software issues end, and actual physical hardware issues begin.  The brain is actually physically rewired to change its understanding of what sexual experience is.  The rewiring involves everything a porn user is doing when trying to achieve climax while watching porn, like body posture, light of a monitor or phone screen, or even being alone in a room.

Porn can re-teach your brain what a sexual experience is.  Frequency of viewing porn intensifies the problem, as we have seen.  Full addiction has dangerous results that can be broken down into two separate issues:

  1. It has negative effects on normal, natural sexual stimulation with a partner. 

  2. The addict will be compelled to search for increasingly intense stimulation. 

Therefore, this retraining of how the brain interprets sexual experience can lead to the rest of your hardware not functioning properly.  A study has recently shown that 25% of erectile dysfunction cases are now below the age of 40.  In 1988, another study was done on, shall we say, the ordinary way of sexual satisfaction by both men and women after porn consumption.  Porn use strongly impacted self-assessment of sexual experience. After consumption of pornography, subjects reported less satisfaction with their intimate partners—specifically, with these partners’ affection, physical appearance, sexual curiosity, and sexual performance proper.  Tube porn use rips out the individual from an activist in the sexual act.  They become a passenger observing and taking their pleasure from the display of two other individuals.  Now, as we said before, this effect can be more and more detrimental to individuals the younger they start viewing porn.  A study showed that 98% of young men and 62% of young girls are exposed to porn before the age of 18.  That means statistically most of you reading this article have looked at porn at one point or another (before you were 18).  In the words of Matt Fradd, author of The Porn Myth:


“When I go to speak at Catholic and Christian universities about porn addiction, people always say, well you are preaching to the choir. Well my response is: yes I know, but the choir is watching porn.”


Everything in the environment that sets the scene for porn viewing will become the things that tell the brain it’s time for sexual experience.  Brains can be trained so that the pressure exerted on sexual organs, screen light, posture and being alone can all become triggers for sexual experience.  As a result, when the time comes for actual intercourse, the porn addict will either be completely unarroused or unable to reach climax.  This is referred to as, in most cases, Porn Induced Erectile Dysfunction.  We don't realize it, but a porn user masturbating alone in their room is retraining every nerve in their body to respond to a specific set of circumstances.  


The younger the exposure to porn, the more detrimental the effects are.  Destructive tendencies such as social anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, sexual desensitization, proclivity towards dating violence, and proclivity towards sexual abuse have been proven to be caused by adolescent exposure to pornography.  As much as it has become a political hot topic, the spread and popularity of “rape culture” could find a very compelling argument if it was correlated to the spread and popularity of pornography.  Most porn users are viewing these super stimulates before any first real encounter with a sexual partner.  In multiple studies on grey matter (your physical brain), frequent porn viewing has shown to actually reduce the size of grey matter.  Yes, porn can actually make your brain smaller, having detrimental effects on short term memory and concentration.  Brain fog and lack of impulse control are also proven to be symptomatic of early exposure to porn. The younger the exposure, the more extreme its effects.

Child Pornography has become some what of a hot topic in recent news.  But in 2002, in the Supreme Court case Ashcroft Vs Free Speech Coalition, the porn industry pushed for the legalization of CGI Child Poronography.  The settlement resulted in adult porn stars that looked like children could play roles in scenes that might insinuate adolescence.  This was all done under the guise of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.  The obscenity laws were first changed in the 1974 case Miller Vs California.  The laws went from that of "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value".  That battle lies within our courts, and we are losing ground. 


But how does one get to viewing child pornography?  This is not an overnight habit. It’s a matter of novelty, as previously explained.  A study that was done on porn users reported that 55% of hetrosexual men that viewed porn regularly started to watch gay porn, and 40% of homosexual men that viewed porn regualry viewed straight porn, not because either was actually gay or straight, but it was the only thing that would get dopmaine to release in their brain.  In a study conducted between July 2009 to July 2010, neuroscientists Dr. Ogi Ogasa and Dr. Sai Gaddam discovered that out of four hundred million porn related web searches, “youth” was the most popular search.  This is what Professor Dan Allender calls the “Pedophilic Drift”.  In the brain's search for more and more novelty, it will lead the porn user to the darkest extremes of human depravity for the pure and simple fact that it just needs something new.  The porn addict will be ashamed and disgusted at what they are viewing, but the brain’s crave for dopamine will push them past previous reservations as shock, anxiety, and shame all add to these super stimuli.  The brain is now addicted and out of control, rampant to feed an insatiable appetite for the most extreme and taboo. 


What is the answer to this?  Well, stop watching porn.  In almost all cases, addicts have their deviant sexual tastes return to normal within a few months of quitting.  Is it easy?  No.  Many experience a period called the “flat line”, which is a time when sexual arousal becomes non-existent in any form as the brain tries to rewrite its own circuitry and make sense of the mess that is the wiring in its frontal cortex.  Strange fetishes and unbeatable expectations that porn viewers place on their partners will dissipate with time.  It is possible to make a full recovery.  It is possible to heal.  Casual porn can easily lead down a very dark path if it is not nipped in the bud.  


Interestingly, related studies have shown that internet addiction and video game addiction can have all the same addictive effects on the brain.  Yes, your cell phone can literally make you more stupid.  Scrolling mindlessly through a social media news feed will trigger dopamine release in an attempt to find something to satisfy the hunt for a post that will capture all but 3 seconds of your attention.  Be wary, limit your screen time.  And if you are suffering from porn addiction, or know a loved one that is suffering from porn addiction, there are resources for you at the end of the article.  It's a serious issue, and also a topic filled with shame and secrecy.  It destroys marriages and individuals.  It is corrupting our youth.  It's one of the real diseases that's destroying our culture.


The intent here was not necessarily to make a moral argument against porn and mastrabation.  Since we are preaching to the choir, yes, we all know these things are wrong.  The hope is that this article can equip you with some knowledge to shoot down those flaccid arguments for porn, and also hopefully to warn you of the dangers of it.  We are all surrounded by porn.  It is what the modern marketing world utilizes to sell products.  Is it any mistake as we become further and further desensitized that our entertainment becomes more intense, more explicit?  The market is simply trying to keep the interest of our over-fried brains. 


 A lot of talk of child trafficking and human exploitation are being thrown around now in the media, however, this is just a symptom of the disease.  We seldom realize that when our dopamine is firing on all pistons, clicking on a link to a porn website supports the industry pushing for the legalization of CGI generated child pornography.  These are NOT political hot topics.  They are real moral and medical issuies that find their root in pornography.  We can fight this, but it needs to be fought in our own souls first.  We need to protect our children from it and be conscious of what we are filling our minds with.  Maybe pick up a book instead of your phone to check instagram posts.  There are organizations out there dedicated to fighting the spread of porn.  There is also software and apps that are being developed such as Covenant Eyes, or Net Nanny, that can help you keep an eye on what is going on in your home and also hold you accountable if you are trying to recover.  Porn addiction is real, and it’s killing the modern mind.  As saint Paul Says in his epistles, “let it not be named among you.” (Eph. 5:3)


Exercise, journaling and cold showers are often prescribed for those trying to beat their addiction.  A fit mind and fit body lead to a fit soul.  Be Courageous.  Fight against the weaker self.  Stay on the path.  And don't let your dopamine drivers lead you around by the nose.  We have a free will.  We have the ability to choose, and we are also given the grace to resist.  So, keep fighting.


Resources:

  1. https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/ Founded by Gary Wilson. This website as well as his book Your Brain on Porn, is an intensive study of almost all the resources listed in this article. Very enlightening, and also provides community support from others trying to kick the habit. 

  2. The Porn Myth, by Catholic Australian author Matt Fradd. Matt has been a champion for fighting against the porn industry. His website has numerous resources not only related to porn addiction but the spiritual life. 

  3. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1988.tb00027.x

  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29333966/

  5. https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/rebooting-porn-use-faqs/can-porn-use-affect-memory-and-concentration/

  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California#cite_note-Miller-1

  7. No Stone  by Maureen C Ferree, is profound insight into the much overlooked female side of porn addiction and recovery. 

Restored by Matt and Cameron Fradd are stories about couples seeking to restore trust and love to their life during recovery from porn addiction.



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