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How Watching Porn Can Change Your Brain

By April 5, 2017 April 11th, 2017 No Comments

For many people, watching porn is something they separate from the rest of their life. It may seem like someone’s porn-watching life and real-world life are isolated from each other, but that’s not how it works. Our brains don’t exactly compartmentalize what gets us aroused online versus what we like in our real lives. It isn’t that simple.

Let’s break down the science behind why a porn viewer’s life is influenced by what they watch: humans, and other mammals all have a “reward pathway” wired into their brain. [1] Part of the reward pathway’s job is to promote healthy living by rewarding you when you do something that either keeps you alive (e.g., eating) or creates a new life (e.g., sex) [2], or enriches your life with good experiences and relationships. [3]

The way it rewards you is by pumping chemicals, especially a feel-good one called “dopamine,” through your brain. [4] Dopamine makes you feel great, but its effects are more than short-lived. While you’re enjoying that good feeling, it’s also building new pathways into your brain connecting together the different parts of the experience you had so you can remember to repeat that action or activity. [5] That’s why the types of behaviors we link our pleasure response to tend to become habits and stick around and become part of our every day life or experiences. When this chemical learning process happens with healthy behaviors, it helps us live healthy lives. But the reward process doesn’t pick and choose between our healthy and unhealthy behaviors— it also works with secretive and unhealthy behaviors, and can lead someone to have less than healthy habits.

Related: Why Porn Is Re-Wiring Your Brain And Ruining Your Sex Life

When a viewer watches porn, they might think they’re just being entertained. In reality, their brain is busy at work building pathways between whatever’s happening on their screen, and their feelings of arousal. [6] Here’s where it gets tricky: The kind of porn a viewer watches can—and usually does—change over time. [7] So as their brain continually wires together what they’re seeing online with feeling aroused, what turns them on in real life can change, too. [8]

Here’s an example of a research study that tells us how watching porn isn’t just an isolated activity, and how it can trickle into multiple aspects of a viewer’s life. In a recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Communication, there is solid evidence that viewing pornography increases the likelihood of physical and verbal sexual aggression in a viewer’s interactions. Yikes.

The researchers sought out to answer one question: Is pornography consumption correlated with committing actual acts of sexual aggression? They performed a meta-analysis (collecting data from numerous studies done by different researchers to show one particular finding) of 22 studies from 7 different countries. Their findings?

“[Porn] consumption was indeed associated with sexual aggression in the United States and internationally, among males and females, and in cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Associations were stronger for verbal than physical sexual aggression, although both were significant. The general pattern of results suggested that violent content may be an exacerbating factor.”

Seeing as violent porn genres are gaining acceptance and popularity, this doesn’t surprise us. For those who have studied the correlation between pornography and sexual violence, these findings only make the case more concrete. Science and research have constantly shown that it is difficult for even non-violent porn viewers to be uninfluenced by what they watch.

Many viewers don’t start out with the violent or aggressive content. In a 2012 survey of 1,500 guys, 56% said their tastes in porn had become “increasingly extreme or deviant.” [12] Because consistent porn viewers’ brains quickly become accustomed to the porn they’ve already seen, they typically have to constantly be moving on to more extreme forms of pornography to get aroused by it. [13] Boredom can set in from watching the same stuff over and over, so a viewer’s tastes evolve and progress. As a result, many porn viewers find themselves eventually getting aroused by things that used to disgust them or that go against what they think is morally acceptable. [14]

Related: How Porn Twisted My Sexuality

And once they start watching such impractical and violent sex acts, these types of porn viewers are being taught that those behaviors are more normal and common than they really are. [15] One study found that people exposed to significant amounts of porn thought things like sex with animals and violent sex were twice as common as what those not exposed to porn thought. [16] And when people believe a behavior is normal, they’re more likely to try it for themselves. [17] Still think that watching porn and real life can be totally separate?

Research has also found that watching degrading and abusive porn increases viewers’ dominating and harassing behavior to the opposite sex, [18] and leaves the viewer feeling less compassion for rape victims. [19] Frequent porn watchers are also more likely to express attitudes supporting violence against women [20]—which is especially scary since those who support sexual violence are more likely to commit that kind of violence in real life. [21]

Related: Study Shows Porn Viewers Are More Likely To Be Sexually Aggressive

Clearly, not everyone who looks at porn is going to turn into a rapist.  The research isn’t telling us that every porn viewer is a sexual aggressor, though the reality is that studies have shown that even watching porn casually has the power to start changing ideas and attitudes, [22] and changes to behavior often aren’t far behind.

The good news is a porn viewer’s brain can return back to normal after some time and effort. If we eliminate porn as our main source of these chemical releases, our brain will start looking for new ones. We need start to connecting to positive things in our life that will actually support our physical, emotional, mental and social health. These connections might start off small, but they will grow and eventually replace the old neural pathways. [23]

Porn can alter the brain and desensitize it to be okay with unhealthy behaviors. Unlike real, meaningful relationships, porn never satisfies; it only increases the appetite for more porn. Bottom line—watching porn isn’t a harmless activity. It has the potential to lead a viewer down a path they never intended to go.

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What YOU Can Do

Watching porn is damaging to the viewer’s brain and is creating harmful attitudes in our society. SHARE this article and raise awareness that porn kills love.

 

Citations

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss: Vol 1. Attachment.
New York: Basic Books.
[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] 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 [JE1] [JE2] [JE3] 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; 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, 107.
[6] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 109.
[7] 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/
[8] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 95.
[9] Pfaus, J. G., Kippin, T. E., and Centeno, S. (2001). Conditioning and Sexual Behavior: A Review. Hormones and Behavior 40: 291–321. (http://www.pphp.concordia.ca/fac/pfaus/Pfaus-Kippin-Centeno(2001).pdf)
[10] Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 109.
[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] NoFap Survey http://www.reddit.com/r/NoFap/comments/updy4/rnofap_survey_data_complete_datasets/
[13] 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] 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] Zillmann, D., and Bryant, J. (1984). Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography. In N. M. Malamuth and E. Donnerstein (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press.
[16] Zillmann, D., and Bryant, J. (1984). Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography. In N. M. Malamuth and E. Donnerstein (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press.
[17] Layden, M. A. (2004). Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science and Space, U.S. Senate, Hearing on the Brain Science Behind Pornography Addiction, November 18; Cline, V. B. (2001). Pornography’s Effect on Adults and Children. New York: Morality in Media; Zillmann, D., and Bryant, J. (1984). Effects of Massive Exposure to Pornography. In N. M. Malamuth and E. Donnerstein (Eds.) Pornography and Sexual Aggression. New York: Academic Press.
[18] Barak, A., Fisher, W. A., Belfry, S., and Lashambe, D. R. (1999). Sex, Guys, and Cyberspace: Effects of Internet Pornography and Individual Differences on Men’s Attitudes Toward Women. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 11, 1: 63–91; Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A.  (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.
[19] Milburn, M., Mather, R., and Conrad, S. (2000). The Effects of Viewing R-Rated Movie Scenes that Objectify Women on Perceptions of Date Rape. Sex Roles 43, 9 and 10: 645–64; Weisz, M. G. and Earls, C. (1995). The Effects of Exposure to Filmed Sexual Violence on Attitudes Toward Rape. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 10, 1: 71–84; Ohbuchi, K. I., et al. (1994). Effects of Violent Pornography Upon Viewers’ Rape Myth Beliefs: A Study of Japanese Males. Psychology, Crime, and Law 7, 1: 71–81; Corne, S., et al. (1992). Women’s Attitudes and Fantasies About Rape as a Function of Early Exposure to Pornography. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 7, 4: 454–61; Check, J. and Malamuth, N. M. (1985). An Empirical Assessment of Some Feminist Hypotheses About Rape. International Journal of Women’s Studies 8, 4: 414–23.
[20] Hald, G. M., Malamuth, N. M., and Yuen, C. (2010). Pornography and Attitudes Supporting Violence Against Women: Revisiting the Relationship in Nonexperimental Studies. Aggression and Behavior 36, 1: 14–20; Berkel, L. A., Vandiver, B. J., and Bahner, A. D. (2004). Gender Role Attitudes, Religion, and Spirituality as Predictors of Domestic Violence Attitudes in White College Students. Journal of College Student Development 45:119–131; Allen, M., Emmers, T., Gebhardt, L., and Giery, M. A.  (1995). Exposure to Pornography and Acceptance of the Rape Myth. Journal of Communication 45, 1: 5–26.
[21] 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.
[22] Bridges, A. J. (2010). Pornography’s Effect on Interpersonal Relationships. In J. Stoner and D. Hughes (Eds.) The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers (pp. 89-110). Princeton, NJ: Witherspoon Institute.
[23] Source: Lisle, Douglas and Alan Goldhamer. The Pleasure Trap. Summertown, TN: Healthy Living Publications.

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