A lot of people are convinced that there’s no such thing as porn addiction. But science has disproven the old belief that for something to be an addiction it has to involve a substance physically put into your body, like cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. Excessive Internet porn bears all the signs, and dangers, of a true addiction.

Is pornography addiction even a thing?

There’s an ongoing debate right now in the media, and even in academic circles, over whether compulsive porn use is truly an addiction. Part of the problem is simply that people don’t agree on exactly what the word “addiction” means. [1] But Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the United States’ National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is convinced that porn addiction is real. She even suggested changing NIDA’s name in order to recognize “addictions such as pornography, gambling, and food.” [2]

In fact, research shows that of all the forms of online entertainment—like gambling, gaming, surfing, and social networking—porn has the strongest tendency to be addictive. [3]

Doctors and scientists used to believe that in order for something to be addictive, it had to involve a substance that you put into your body, like cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. [4] But once scientists started to look inside the brain, it changed our understanding of how addictions work. [5] What’s important, we now know, is not necessarily what gets inside the body or how it got there, but rather what reactions does it trigger in the brain. Cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs bring foreign chemicals into the body in a myriad of ways: sniffed, injected, drunk from a glass, or lit on fire and smoked. Porn and other behavior addictions like gambling, on the other hand, brings no new chemicals or substances into the body that weren’t already there. But, these behaviors initiate strikingly similar processes inside the brain like substance addictions, and that’s what makes them potentially addictive. They hijack the brain’s reward pathways. [6] (See How Porn Affects the Brain Like a Drug.)That’s what every addictive substance and habit does. [7]

Porn may enter through a different “how” and be a different “what,” but it ultimately does the very same things. [8]

See, your brain comes equipped with something called a “reward center.” [9] Its job is to motivate you to do things that protect and promote your survival—things like eating to stay alive or having sex to produce babies. [10] The way it rewards you for doing those things is by flooding your brain with dopamine and a cocktail of other “pleasure” chemicals each time you do. [11]

But your brain doesn’t always reward you for the right things. For example, it produces higher levels of dopamine when you have chocolate cake than it does for whole-wheat bread. [12] Why? Because 3,000 years ago, high-calorie foods were really hard to come by, so when our ancestors found them, they needed to eat a whole bunch while they had the chance. [13] These days, a bag of Oreos is only as far as the nearest supermarket. If we gorged on them every chance we got, we’d have heart disease and a lot of other health problems.

Porn is basically sexual junk food. When a person is looking at porn, their brain is fooled into pumping out dopamine just as if they really were seeing a potential mate. [14] Sure, filling your brain with feel-good chemicals might sound like a great idea at first, but just like with junk food, it’s more dangerous than it seems.

When porn enters the brain, it triggers the reward center to start pumping out dopamine, which sets off a cascade of chemicals including a protein called DeltaFosB. [15] DeltaFosB’s regular job is to build new nerve pathways to mentally connect what you’re doing (i.e. the porn you watch) to the pleasure you feel. [16] Those strong new memories outcompete other connections in the brain, making it easier and easier to return to porn. [17] (See How Porn Changes The Brain.)

But DeltaFosB has another job, and this is why it’s nickname is “the molecular switch for addiction.” [18] If enough DeltaFosB builds up, it flips a genetic switch, causing lasting changes in the brain that leave the user more vulnerable to addiction. [19] For teens, this risk is especially high because a teen brain’s reward center responds two to four times more powerfully than an adult’s brain, releases higher levels of dopamine and produces more DeltaFosB. [20]

Overloaded with dopamine, the brain will try to defend itself by releasing another chemical called CREB [21] (It’s called CREB because no one wants to have to say its real name, “cyclic adenosine monophosphate response element binding protein!). CREB is like the brakes on a runaway reward center; it slows the pleasure response. [22] With CREB onboard, porn that once excited a person stops having the same effect. [23] Scientists believe that CREB is partly why viewers have to keep increasing their porn intake to get aroused. [24] That numbed-out state is called “tolerance,” and it’s part of any kind of addiction. [25]

As porn users become desensitized from repeated overloads of dopamine, they often find they can’t feel normal without a dopamine high. [26] Even other things that used to make them happy, like going out with friends or playing a favorite game, stop providing enjoyment because of the dulling effects of CREB. [27] They experience strong cravings and often find themselves giving more of their time and attention to porn, sometimes to the detriment of relationships, school, or work. [28] Some report feeling anxious or down until they can get back to their porn. [29] As they delve deeper into the habit, their porn of choice often turns increasingly hard-core. [30] And many who try to break their porn habits report finding it “really hard” to stop. [31]

If this sounds like the classic symptoms of addiction, well….the head of the United States’ National Institute on Drug Abuse agrees.

Citations
[1] Lewis, M. (2017). Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease. Neuroethics. 1-12. doi:10.1007/s12152-016-9293-4; Hall, P., (2014). Sex addiction—an extraordinarily contentious problem. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 29(1) 68-75. doi:10.1080/14681994.2013.861898
[2] Hilton, D.L, & Watts, C. (2011). Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective, Surgical Neurology International 2, 19. doi:10.4103/2152-7806.76977
[3] Meerkerk, G.J., Van Den Eijnden, R.J., & Garretsen, H.F. (2006). Predicting compulsive Internet use: it’s all about sex!, CyberPsychology and Behavior, 9(1), 95-103. doi:10.1089/cpb.2006.9.95; See also Korkeila, J., Kaarlas, S., Jaaskelainen, M, Vahlberg, T., Taiminen, T. (2010). Attached to the web—harmful use of the Internet and its correlates. European Psychiatry 25(4) 236-241. doi: 10.1016/j.eurpsy.2009.02.008 (Finding “adult entertainment” to be the most common reason for compulsive Internet use.)
[4] Holden, C. (2001). Behavioral Addictions: Do They Exist? Science 294(5544), 980. doi: 10.1126/science.294.5544.980
[5] 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; Olsen, C. M., (2011). Natural rewards, neuroplasticity, and non-drug addictions. Neuropharmacology, 61, 1109-1122. doi:10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.03.010; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449. doi:10.1038/nn1578
[6] ] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi:10.3390/bs5030388;
[7] Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018; 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
[8] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388; Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018; 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
[9] 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
[10] 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.
[11] 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
[12] Johnson, P. and Kenny, P. (2010). Dopamine D2 Receptors in Addiction-Like Reward Dysfunction and Compulsive Eating in Obese Rats. Nature Neuroscience 13: 635-641. doi:10.1038/nn.2519; See also Berridge, K.C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure Systems in the Brain. Neuron, 86, 646-664. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.02.018 (“[P]leasure can be thought of as evolution’s boldest trick, serving to motivate an individual to pursue rewards necessary for fitness, yet in modern environments of abundance, also influencing maladaptive pursuits such as addictions.”)
[13] Linden, D. J. (2011). Food, Pleasure and Evolution. Psychology Today, March 30.
[14] 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; Pfaus, J. (2011). Love and the Opportunistic Brain. In The Origins of Orientation, World Science Festival, June; Georgiadis, J. R. (2006). Regional Cerebral Blood Flow Changes Associated with Clitorally Induced Orgasm in Healthy Women. European Journal of Neuroscience 24, 11: 3305–3316. doi:10.1111/j.1460-9568.2006.05206.x
[15] 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; Nestler, E. J., (2008) Transcriptional mechanisms of addiction: role of DeltaFosB, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 363(1507) 3245-3255. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0067
[16] 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; 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; Hilton, D. L. (2013) Pornography addiction—a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience and Technology 3. 20767. doi:10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. (208-209) New York: Penguin Books.
[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; Nestler, E. J., (2015). Role of the Brain’s Reward Circuitry in Depression: Transcriptional Mechanism. International Review of Neurobiology, 124: 151-170. doi:10.1016/bs.irn.2015.07.003; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108.
[18] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388
[19] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388; 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; Nestler, E. J. (2008). Transcriptional Mechanisms of Addiction: Role of DeltaFosB. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363: 3245–56. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607320/; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 107.
[20] 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; Sturman, D., & Moghaddam, B. (2011). Reduced Neuronal Inhibition and Coordination of Adolescent Prefrontal Cortex during Motivated Behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience 31, 4: 1471-1478. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4210-10.2011; Ehrlich, M. E., Sommer, J., Canas, E., & Unterwald, E. M. (2002). Periadolescent Mice Show Enhanced DeltaFosB Upregulation in Response to Cocaine and Amphetamine. The Journal of Neuroscience 22(21). 9155–9159. Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/22/21/9155
[21] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388
[22] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388
[23] Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388
[24] 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
[25] 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; Nestler, E. J., (2015). Role of the Brain’s Reward Circuitry in Depression: Transcriptional Mechanism. International Review of Neurobiology, 124: 151-170. doi:10.1016/bs.irn.2015.07.003; Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update, Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388-433. doi: 10.3390/bs5030388; Kuss, D. J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). Internet and Gaming Addiction: A Systematic Literature Review of Neuroimaging Studies. Brain Sciences, 2(3) 347-374. doi:10.3390/brainsci2030347
[26] 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; 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; Kalman, T. P. (2008). Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters with Internet Pornography. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. doi:10.1521/jaap.2008.36.4.593
[27] 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; 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
[28] 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; 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; Kalman, T. P. (2008). Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters with Internet Pornography. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. doi:10.1521/jaap.2008.36.4.593; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books. (110).
[29] 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; Kalman, T. P. (2008). Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters with Internet Pornography. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. doi:10.1521/jaap.2008.36.4.593; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books. (108).
[30] 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; Kalman, T. P. (2008). Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters with Internet Pornography. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. doi:10.1521/jaap.2008.36.4.593; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books. (110).
[31] 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; Kalman, T. P. (2008). Kalman, T.P. (2008). Clinical Encounters with Internet Pornography. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 36(4) 593-618. doi:10.1521/jaap.2008.36.4.593; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, (111).

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