It may sound crazy, but porn affects the brain in ways very similar to cocaine and other hard drugs. Studies have shown that porn stimulates the same areas of the brain as addictive drugs, making the brain release the same chemicals. And just like drugs, porn triggers pathways in the brain that cause craving, leading users back for more and more extreme “hits” to get high.

On the surface, cocaine and porn don’t seem to have much in common. One is purchased in seedy alleyways; the other is available virtually anywhere. One can quickly become an expensive habit while the other comes free with an Internet connection. And let’s be honest, Hugh Hefner doesn’t exactly conjure images of a cartel drug lord.

So where’s the similarity? Inside the brain.

In case you’re not a neurosurgeon, here’s a crash course in how the brain works. Deep inside your brain, there’s something called a “reward center.” [1] You’ve got one. Your dog’s got one. For mammals, it comes standard. The reward center’s job is to release “pleasure” chemicals into your brain whenever you do something healthy, like eating tasty food, doing a hard workout, or enjoying a kiss. [2] The “high” you get from that chemical rush makes you want to repeat that behavior again and again. [3] Thanks to your reward center, your brain is hardwired to motivate you to do things that will improve your health and chance of survival. [4] It’s a great system…normally.

The problem is, the brain can be tricked.

When addictive drugs are used, they give the brain a “false signal.” [5] Since the brain can’t tell the difference between the drugs and a real, healthy reward, it goes ahead and activates the reward center. [6] An important chemical called dopamine is released, which makes the brain start developing a craving for the fake reward. [7] As long as there’s a lot of dopamine floating around in the brain, the cravings will keep getting stronger, and the user will feel super-motivation to keep pursuing more of the drug. [8] Essentially, addictive drugs hijack the brain, turning it around and forcing it in a direction it was never meant to go. Instead of encouraging the user toward healthy behaviors, drugs lead the user into things that aren’t healthy at all, and can even be dangerous. [9]

Want to guess what else does that? Porn.

Researchers have found that Internet porn and addictive drugs have very similar effects on the brain, [10] and they are significantly different from how the brain reacts to healthy, natural pleasures like food or sex. [11] Think about it. When you’re munching a snack or enjoying a romantic encounter, eventually your cravings will drop and you’ll feel satisfied. Why? Because your brain has a built-in “off” switch for natural pleasures. “Dopamine cells stop firing after repeated consumption of a ‘natural reward’ (e.g. food or sex),” explains Nora Volkow, Director of The National Institute of Drug Abuse. [12] But addictive drugs go right on increasing dopamine levels without giving the brain a break. [13] The more a drug user hits up, the more dopamine floods his brain, and the stronger his urges are to keep using. That’s why drug addicts find it so hard to stop once they take the first hit. “[O]ne hit may turn into many hits, or even a lost weekend.” [14]

What else has the power to keep pumping dopamine endlessly into the brain? If you’ve ever sat in front of a computer screen for hours in a porn trance, you already know the answer.

Scientists have long known that sexual interest and performance can be increased simply by introducing something new—like a different sexual position, a toy, or a change of partner. [15] That’s because the brain responds to new sexual stimuli by pumping out more and more dopamine, flooding the brain just like a drug would. [16] And “new” is exactly what Internet porn sites provide: an endless stream of fresh erotic images delivered at high speed, in vivid color, 24/7. Before a user even starts to get bored, he can always give himself another dopamine boost just by clicking to something different, something more stimulating and hardcore than before. [17]

“It is as though we have devised a form of heroin, usable in the privacy of one’s own home and injected directly to the brain through the eyes,” is how Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, a researcher at Princeton University, described today’s porn. [18]

In fact, porn use follows a very predictable pattern that’s eerily similar to drug use. Over time, excessive levels of “pleasure” chemicals cause the porn user’s brain to develop tolerance, just like the brain of a drug user. [19] In the same way that a junkie eventually requires more and more of a drug to get a buzz or even feel normal, regular porn users will end up turning to porn more often or seeking out more extreme versions—or both—to feel excited again. [20] And once the porn habit is established, quitting can even lead to withdrawal symptoms similar to drugs. [21]

But there’s good news too. Even those with serious porn habits can break away and reclaimed their lives. Thousands have done in it, [22] and you can too. Click here to learn how.

Click For Citations

[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse: The Reward Pathway. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction/section-i/4-reward-pathway; Volkow, N. D., & Morales, M. (2015). The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell, 162 (8), 712-725. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.07.046; Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (8), 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013
[2] Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 374, 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480; Zatorre, R. J., & Salimpoor, V. N., (2013) From perception to pleasure: Music and its neural substrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 110, 2. doi:10.1073/pnas.1301228110; Hedges, V. L., Chakravarty, S., Nestler, E. J., & Meisel, R. L. (2009). Delta FosB overexpression in the nucleus accumbens enhances sexual reward in female Syrian hamsters. Genes Brain and Behavior, 8(4), 442–449. doi:10.1111/j.1601-183X.2009.00491.x
[3] Bostwick, J. M., & Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet sex addiction treated with naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 83(2), 226–230. doi:10.4065/83.2.226; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books. (106-108).
[4] Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. (75) New York: Henry Hold and Co.; Hyman, S. E. (2005). Addiction: a disease of learning and memory. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(8), 1414-1422. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.8.1414
[5] Stacy, A. W., & Wiers, R. W. (2010). Implicit cognition and addiction: A tool for explaining paradoxical behavior, Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6, 551-575. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131444
[6] Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 374, 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480; Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018; Volkow, N. D., & Morales, M. (2015). The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell, 162 (8), 713. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.07.046; Voon, V., et al. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors, PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419; Georgiadis, J. R., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2012). The human sexual response cycle: brain imaging evidence linking sex to other pleasures. Progressive Neurobiology, 98, 49-81. doi:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2012.05.004
[7] Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography addiction—a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 3, 20767. doi:10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767; Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(8) 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013; Salamone, J. D., & Correa, M. (2012). The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, 76, 470-485. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021
[8] Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; Volkow, N. D., Wang. G. J., Fowler, J. S., Tomasi, D., & Telang, F. (2011). Addiction: Beyond dopamine reward circuitry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(37),15037-15042. doi:10.1073/pnas.1010654108; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. (108) New York: Penguin Books.
[9] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography addiction—a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 3, 20767. doi:10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767; Kauer, J. A., and Malenka, J. C. (2007). Synaptic Plasticity and Addiction: Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8: 844-858. doi:10.1038/nrn2234; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. (106-109) New York: Penguin Books; Hyman, S. E. (2005). Addiction: A Disease of Learning and Memory. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(8), 1414-1422. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.8.1414
[10] Voon, V., et al. (2014). Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviors, PLoS ONE, 9(7), e102419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102419; Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013
[11] Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6, 17. doi:10.3390/bs6030017
[12] Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 374: 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480
[13] Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiological Advances from the Brain Disease Model of Addiction. New England Journal of Medicine, 374: 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480; Volkow, N. D., & Morales, M. (2015). The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell, 162 (8), 712-725. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2015.07.046; Yanofski, J. (2011). The Dopamine Dilemma—Part II. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(1), 47-53. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3036556/
[14] Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059
[15] Dewsbury, D. A., (1981). Effects of novelty of copulatory behavior: The Coolidge effect and related phenomena. Psychological Bulletin, 89(3), 464-482. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.89.3.464; Wilson, J. R., Kuehn, R. E., and Beach, F. A. (1963). Modification in the sexual behavior of male rats produced by changing the stimulus female. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 56, 636-644. doi:10.1037/h0042469
[16] Negash, S., Van Ness Sheppard, N., Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(6), 698-700. doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123; Banca, P., et al. (2016). Novelty, conditioning, and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 72, 91-101. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017
[17] Park, B. Y., et al. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6: 17. doi.10.3390/bs6030017; Negash, S., Van Ness Sheppard, N., Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. The Journal of Sex Research, 53(6), 698-700. doi:10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123
[18] Satinover, J. (2004). Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Hearing on the Brain Science Behind Pornography Addiction and Effects of Addiction on Families and Communities, November 18.
[19] Pitchers, K. K., et al. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434-3442. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013; Angres, D. H., & Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54, 696–721. doi:10.1016/j.disamonth.2008.07.002; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books; Paul, P. (105). Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co. (75).
[20] Banca, P., et al. (2016). Novelty, conditioning, and attentional bias to sexual rewards. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 72, 91-101. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.10.017; Zillmann, D. (2000). Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27(2), 41–44. doi:10.1016/S1054-139X(00)00137-3
[21] Angres, D. H., & Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month, 54, 696–721. doi:10.1016/j.disamonth.2008.07.002; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. (106-107) New York: Penguin Books; Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2002). The Mind of an Addicted Brain: Neural Sensitization of Wanting Versus Liking. In J. T. Cacioppo, et al. (Eds.) Foundations in Social Neuroscience . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (565–72).
[22] See, e.g. Your Brain on Porn. (2010, December 5). Rebooting Accounts. Retrieved from https://yourbrainonporn.com/rebooting-accounts; NoFap. Success Stories. Retrieved from https://www.nofap.com/forum/index.php?forums/success-stories.24/

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