On the surface, cocaine and porn don’t seem to have a lot in common but studies are showing that viewing pornography tricks your brain into releasing the same pleasure chemicals that drugs do. What’s more is your brain actually begins to rewire itself because of this artificial stimulation. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. Read more to learn how it works.


 

On the surface, cocaine and porn don’t seem to have a lot in common. One is purchased in seedy alleyways; the other is free to download. One habit can get expensive pretty fast, while the other is about the price of a high-speed Internet connection. Besides, Hugh Hefner doesn’t exactly conjure up images of a cartel drug lord.

So where’s the similarity? Inside the brain. [1]

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 pathway.” [2] You’ve got one. Your cat’s got one. For mammals, it comes standard. The reward pathway’s job is to help keep you alive by doing exactly what its name promises: rewards you, or more specifically, rewards you when you do something that promotes life, such as eating food or achieving something you’ve worked hard for. [3] And the way it rewards you is by releasing chemicals in your brain—mainly one called dopamine, but also others like oxytocin. [4]

Normally, these chemicals are really handy. They help us feel pleasure and to bond with other people, and they motivate us to come back to important activities that make us happy. [5] The problem is, the reward pathway can be hijacked. [6]

The way substances like cocaine and opioids make users feel high is by triggering the reward pathway to release high levels of dopamine without making the user do any of the work to earn it. [7] Want to guess what else does that? Porn. [8]

And that surge of dopamine is causing more than just feelings. As it goes pulsing through the brain, dopamine helps to create new brain pathways that essentially lead the user back to the behavior that triggered the chemical release. [9]

The more a drug user hits up or a porn user looks at porn, the more those pathways get wired into the brain, making it easier and easier for the person to turn back to using, whether they want to or not. [10]

Over time, the constant overload of chemicals causes other brain changes as well. Just like a junkie will eventually require more and more of a drug to get a buzz or even just feel normal, porn users can quickly build up a tolerance as their brains adapt to the high levels of dopamine that porn releases. [11] In other words, even though porn is still releasing dopamine into the brain, the user can’t feel its effects as much.

That’s because the brain is trying to protect itself from the overload of dopamine by getting rid of some of its chemical receptors, [12] which act like tiny catcher’s mitts that receive the dopamine released. With fewer receptors, the brain thinks less dopamine is there and the user doesn’t feel as strong a reaction. As a result, many porn users have to find more porn, find it more often, or find a more extreme version—or all three—to generate even more dopamine to feel excited. [13]

And once a porn user becomes accustomed to a brain pulsing with these chemicals, trying to cut back on the habit can lead to withdrawal symptoms, just like with drugs. [14]

While people often think of porn as something that’s been around forever, today’s version of porn is a whole new ball game. Thanks to the Internet, porn now mixes the most powerful natural dopamine release the body can produce with a cocktail of other elements—endless novelty, shock, and surprise—all of which increase the dopamine surge. [15] And because Internet porn offers an endless stream of variety, users can flip to a new image every time their high starts to fade, keeping dopamine levels elevated for hours.

Describing porn’s effect to a U.S. Senate committee, Dr. Jeffrey Satinover of Princeton University said, “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.” [16]

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[1] 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; Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; 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/) 
[2] 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/) Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; 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.
[3] Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Balfour, M. E., Yu, L., and Coolen, L. M. (2004). Sexual Behavior and Sex-Associated Environmental Cues Activate the Mesolimbic System in Male Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology 29, 4:718–730; Leshner, A. (1997). Addiction Is a Brain Disease and It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
[4] 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.
[5] Bostwick, J. M. and Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated with Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., 75; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 107; What Is Oxytocin, Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/oxytocin
[6] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 106; 
Kauer, J. A., and Malenka, J. C. (2007). Synaptic Plasticity and Addiction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 8: 844–858; 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.
[7] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 106; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
[8] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 106; 
Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
[9] Hilton, D. L. (2013). Pornography Addiction—A Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 3:20767; 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; 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; 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/) 
Miner, M. H., Raymond, N., Mueller, B. A., Lloyd, M., Lim, K. O. (2009). Preliminary Investigation of the Impulsive and Neuroanatomical Characteristics of Compulsive Sexual Behavior. Psychiatry Research 174: 146–51; 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, 107.
[10] 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, 102.
[11] 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.
[12] 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.
[13] 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.
[14] Angres, D. H. and Bettinardi-Angres, K. (2008). The Disease of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, and Recovery. Disease-a-Month 54: 696–721; Berridge, K. C. and Robinson, T. E. (2002). The Mind of an Addicted Brain: Neural Sensitization of Wanting Versus Liking. In J. T. Cacioppo, G. G. Bernston, R. Adolphs, et al. (Eds.) Foundations in Social Neuroscience (pp. 565–72). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.  
[15] 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.
[16] 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.