Frequent porn use tends to escalate. Because of porn’s addictive nature, viewers usually need an ever-increasing dosage over time in order to feel the same level of enjoyment, and they often have to seek out more extreme and hard-core forms of porn. Users can reach a point where they enjoy porn less and less, but want it more and more.

Have you ever wondered how pornographers who 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]

How can pornographers be so sure? The answer is right there inside the brain.

Like any potentially addictive substance, porn triggers the release of dopamine into a part of the brain called the reward center (a.k.a. reward pathway or system). [2] Basically, the reward center’s job is to make you feel good whenever you do something healthy, like eating a great meal, having sex, or getting a good workout. [3] The “high” you get makes you want to repeat the behavior again and again. [4] (See Why Porn Is Like a Drug) Your brain is hardwired to motivate you to do things that will improve your health and chance of survival. [5] Simple.

Well…not quite so simple. Researchers have recently discovered that the reward center is actually two different brain systems, a “Liking” system and a “Wanting” system, that work in different—sometimes opposite—ways. [6] Understanding how they work helps explain why porn can be habit-forming and why watching porn is often an escalating behavior.

Liking

The “Liking” system is a tiny portion of the reward center. [7] It provides the enjoyable feelings you get when you win a game, share a kiss, or experience any natural, healthy reward. [8] Unfortunately, it also lights up for counterfeit rewards like cigarettes, drugs, or porn, which is why addictive substances feel enjoyable at first. [9]

When something activates your reward center and you feel that intense high from the “Liking” system, your brain starts producing a chemical called CREB. [10] CREB acts kind of like a set of brakes on the reward system. [11] Normally it makes the pleasure fade and leaves you feeling satiated and ready to get on with your life. (See How Porn Can Become Addictive.)

But if the “Liking” system gets stimulated too much over time (as often happens with drugs or porn), CREB levels build up until your whole pleasure response goes numb. [12] Some researchers believe that an excess of CREB is the reason addicts experience tolerance, which means that they feel less enjoyment from the stimulant and need to use more of it to reach a high. [13] In fact, too much CREB floating around in your brain can dull the enjoyment of anything, which may be why addicts often feel bored, detached, and depressed. [14]

Wanting

The “Wanting” system is a much larger area in the reward center, and it causes the brain to rewire itself in response to intense pleasure. [15] With the help of a protein called DeltaFosB, the “Wanting” system builds new brain connections so you can remember the experience and repeat it later. [16] (See How Porn Changes the Brain.)

It’s called the “Wanting” system because those new nerve connections make you crave the pleasurable experience. [17] The more often the experience is repeated, the stronger those nerve connections become, and the stronger the cravings grow. [18] DeltaFosB is sometimes called “the molecular switch for addiction” because it reinforces cravings and, if it builds up enough in the brain, it can switch on genes that leave the user more vulnerable to addiction. [19]

DeltaFosB doesn’t just make you remember the pleasurable experience itself; it also forms connections to details associated with the experience. These associations (called “cues”) are found with all kind of addictions. [20] For a smoker, a cue may be the smell of cigarette smoke. An alcoholic may develop pathways triggered by the sight of a bottle or the voice of a drinking buddy. Cues can be anything the brain associates with the experience. For a porn user, it may be the memory of a porn scene or a place or time of day he can be alone with a computer. For an addict, the whole world starts to seem like a collection of cues and triggers leading them back to their addiction. [21] Gradually, the porn pathways become sensitized, meaning they are easily triggered by the cues that are all around. [22]

Wait! Didn’t we say that CREB dulls the nerves, making them less sensitive? Now we’re saying that DeltaFosB makes them more sensitive. Well which is it?

Actually, both. Remember, we’re talking about two differents brain systems. With repeated exposure to porn, the “Wanting” system grows more sensitive to the cues that cause cravings. At the same time the “Liking” system grows less sensitive to pleasure. That’s the awful irony of any addiction: the user wants it more and more, even while he likes it less and less. [23]

Porn is an escalating behavior because as some users develop tolerance, the porn that used to excite them starts to seem boring. [24] Predictably, they often try to compensate by spending more time with porn and/or seeking out more hardcore material in an effort to regain the excitement they used to feel. [25] Many users find themes of aggression, violence, and increasingly “edgy” acts creeping into their porn habits and fantasies. [26] But no matter how shocking their tastes become, you can bet there will be pornographers waiting to sell it to them.

If you are already feeling yourself pulled into more and more porn, take heart! You can quit porn and replace it with healthy habits. Click here to learn how you can get help. Your brain can start to heal, and you can regain the ability to fully feel and enjoy your life again. Thousands already have. [27]

Citations
[1] Schwartz, J. P. (2004). The Pornography Industry vs. Digital Pirates. New York Times, February 8.
[2] 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; 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; 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
[3] 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
[4] 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).
[5] 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.
[6] 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; 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., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; 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
[8] 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. Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books. (106-108).
[9] 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; 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; 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; 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
[10] 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; Nestler, E. J., (2005) Is there a common molecular pathway for addiction?, Nature Neuroscience, 8(11) 1445-1449. doi:10.1038/nn1578
[11] 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; Nestler, E. J., (2005) Is there a common molecular pathway for addiction?, Nature Neuroscience, 8(11) 1445-1449. doi:10.1038/nn1578; Paul, P. (2007). Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Henry Hold and Co., (75).
[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; 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; 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; 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;
[13] 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; Wang, Y., Ghezzi, A., Yin, J. C. P., & Atkinson, N. S. (2009). CREB regulation of BK channel gene expression underlies rapid drug tolerance. Gene Brains Behavior, 8(4) 369-376. doi:10.1111/j.1601-183X.2009.00479.x
[14] 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
[15] 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;
[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; 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(1507) 3245-3255. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0067
[17] 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; 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
[18] 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
[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] 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; Saunders, B., Yager, L. M., & Robinson, T. E., (2013) Cue-Evoked Cocaine “Craving”: Role of Dopamine in the Accumbens Core. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(35), 13989-14000. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSI.0450-13.2013
[21] 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; See also Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, (104). (Describing how, for porn addicts, their fantasies overshadow their actual sexual lives, leaving them “increasingly dominated by the scenarios that they had, so to speak, downloaded into their brains.”)
[22] 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; 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., (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
[23] 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., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction. American Psychologist, 71(8), 670-679. doi:10.1037/amp0000059; Gola, M., Wordecha, M., Marchewka, A., & Sescousse, G. (2016). Visual Sexual Stimuli—Cue or Reward? A Perspective for Interpreting Brain Imaging Findings on Human Sexual Behaviors. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10: 402. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2016.00402; 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
[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; 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
[25] 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). 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
[26] 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). 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] 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/; Bronner, G., & Ben-Zion, I. Z. (2014). Unusual masturbatory practice as an etiological factor in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual function in young men. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 11, 1798-1806. doi:10.1111/jsm.12501

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