Because of its addictive nature, in order to just feel some sense of normality, an individual usually needs an ever increasing dosage of porn. The material that they seek out also evolves. Over time, their appetite pushes them to more hardcore versions to achieve the same level of arousal.


 

Have you ever wondered how pornographers that charge for their material stay in business when there’s so much porn available for free? As Wendy Seltzer—an attorney and fellow at Yale Law School—explained, the answer is actually pretty simple: once porn users get hooked, they’ll want more and more. “Seeing [free porn] just whets their appetite for more,” Seltzer said. “Once they get through what’s available for free, they’ll move into the paid services.” [1]

Fortunately for pornographers, that pattern isn’t likely to change any time soon since the reason it happens is built into the brain.

Pornography researchers have found that users acclimate to the porn they watch—they get used to it, and it stops being exciting or arousing. Why? Because their brain’s pleasure response has gotten numb. [2]

When a person is aroused by porn, their brain releases a chemical called dopamine that makes them feel pleasure. [3] As the dopamine goes through their brain, it leaves behind a pathway created by a protein called iFosB (pronounced delta fos b) [4] that connects feeling aroused to looking at porn. [5] Basically dopamine is saying “this feels good; let’s remember how to get back here,” and iFosB goes to work building a brain pathway to make it easier for the person to do that again. [6] When this happens with healthy behaviors it is a good thing, but when it happens with unhealthy ones it can lead to trouble.

The problem is, when a person consistently looks at porn, their brain is constantly being flooded with a high level of dopamine. A healthy brain isn’t used to that, so the brain responds by getting rid of some of its dopamine receptors, which take in the dopamine that’s released so that the brain knows it’s there. [7] With fewer receptors, the user can’t feel the dopamine’s effects as much—and suddenly the porn that used to excite starts seeming boring. [8]

Many leading brain researchers now believe that once a porn user’s brain starts cutting back on dopamine receptors, to get the same excitement and arousal they used to feel, many porn users need an even larger surge of dopamine; to get it, they have to look at more porn, look at porn more often, or look at more hardcore material. [9] You see, it’s not just arousal that gets dopamine pumping. The brain also releases it when it sees something novel, shocking, or surprising. [10] That’s why consistent porn users often find themselves looking for harder and harder images. [11] On top of that, because they’ve built up such a high tolerance to arousing material, to feel excited many users have to combine sexual arousal with the feeling of aggressive release. [12] That’s why so much of hardcore porn is full of images of women being physically harmed. [13] It’s also the reason that many porn addicts quickly find themselves looking at things that used to disgust them or that they used to see as morally wrong. [14]

On top of needing harder material, many porn addicts find themselves craving porn more and more often. [15] That’s because while they’re overloading their brain with dopamine, they’re also building up higher levels of iFosB. [16] The more iFosB, the more the user’s brain drives them to look at porn, even if they don’t like the material they’re looking at. [17]

As the addiction deepens, users not only become more impulsive, making it more likely that they’ll give into their cravings, [18] but also whenever they encounter a stressful situation, they’re more likely to feel like they don’t have any way to deal with the stress other than by turning to porn’s temporary distraction. [19]

And the more they turn back to their habit, the deeper the brain pathways that lead back to using become, making it harder and harder to break the cycle. [20]

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[1] Schwartz, J. P. (2004). The Pornography Industry vs. Digital Pirates. New York Times, February 8.
[2] Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., and Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with DeltaFosB as a Key Mediator. Journal of Neuroscience 33, 8: 3434-3442; Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 105; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 75.
[3] Hedges, V. L., Chakravarty, S., Nestler, E. J., and Meisel, R. L. (2009). DeltaFosB Overexpression in the Nucleus Accumbens Enhances Sexual Reward in Female Syrian Hamsters. Genes Brain and Behavior 8, 4: 442–449; Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108; Mick, T. M. and Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is a Brain Disease and It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
[4] Nestler, E. J. (2003). Brain Plasticity and Drug Addiction. Presentation at Reprogramming the Human Brain Conference, Center for Brain Health, University of Texas at Dallas, April 11.
[5] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721.  Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108.
[6] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767.
[7] Hilton, D. L., and Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/) Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Mick, T. M. and Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
[8] Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; 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.
[9] Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; 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.
[10] Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 75; Caro, M. (2004). The New Skin Trade. Chicago Tribune, September 19; Brosius, H. B., et al. (1993). Exploring the Social and Sexual “Reality” of Contemporary Pornography. Journal of Sex Research 30, 2: 161–70.
[11] Layden, M. A. (2010). Pornography and Violence: A New look at the Research. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 57–68). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute; Cline, V. B. (2001). Pornography’s Effect on Adults and Children. New York: Morality in Media; 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; NoFap Survey http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/updy4/rnofap_survey_data_complete_datasets/
[12] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 112.
[13] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 112.
[14] Paul, P. (2010). From Pornography to Porno to Porn: How Porn Became the Norm. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 3–20). Princeton, N.J.: Witherspoon Institute.
[15] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108.
[16] Nestler, E. J. (2008). Transcriptional Mechanisms of Addiction: Role of DeltaFosB. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363: 3245–56. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607320/)
[17] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108.
[18] Mick, T. M. and Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955.
[19] Goldstein, R.Z. and Volkow, N. (2002). Drug Addiction and Its Underlying Neurobiological Basis: Neuroimaging Evidence for the Involvement of the Frontal Cortex. The American Journal of Psychiatry 159: 1642–52.
[20] Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721.