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How Porn Can Affect the Brain Like a Drug

A deeper look into how the brain works reveals that addictions to harmful substances like tobacco have striking similarities to porn compulsion, including impaired decision-making.

By May 11, 2021August 26th, 2021No Comments

On the surface, tobacco and porn don’t seem to have much in common. Because of its well-known harmful effects, tobacco is kept behind the counter at the gas station and requires an adult I.D. to purchase. Porn, however, is available almost anywhere with an internet connection. Tobacco can quickly become an expensive habit, while a porn habit can be completely free.

But is a habit like smoking tobacco at all similar to consuming porn? The simple answer: absolutely, yes. The more complicated answer: still yes, but with a caveat. At a certain point, a direct comparison between the effects of drugs and the effects of porn starts to break down, as we’ll talk about later in this article. But at its core, if you understand the basic science of how addiction works, addiction to tobacco and addiction to pornography consumption are remarkably similar.Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 5(3), 388–433. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs5030388COPY Stark R., Klucken T. (2017) Neuroscientific Approaches to (Online) Pornography Addiction. In: Montag C., Reuter M. (eds) Internet Addiction. Studies in Neuroscience, Psychology and Behavioral Economics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-46276-9_7COPY De Sousa, A., & Lodha, P. (2017). Neurobiology of Pornography Addiction - A clinical review. Telangana Journal of Psychiatry, 3(2), 66-70. doi:10.18231/2455-8559.2017.0016COPY  And it all starts in the brain.

The reward center

In case you’re not a neurosurgeon, here’s a crash course on how a few parts of the brain work. Deep inside the brain, there’s something called a reward center. You’ve got one. Your dog’s got one. A monkey’s got one. The reward center’s job is to release a pleasure chemical called dopamine into our brains in response to behaviors that we perceive as positive, like eating tasty food, getting in a good workout, or enjoying a kiss.

Dopamine tells our brain, “Hey, this is a good thing! Keep doing this thing!” And it sends that message in such a powerful way, we become hardwired to do whatever things trigger this process. Normally, it’s a great system. The problem, however, is that this process can be hijacked.Costumero, V., Barrós-Loscertales, A., Bustamante, J. C., Ventura-Campos, N., Fuentes, P., Rosell-Negre, P., & Ávila, C. (2013). Reward sensitivity is associated with brain activity during erotic stimulus processing. PloS one, 8(6), e66940. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0066940COPY De Sousa, A., & Lodha, P. (2017). Neurobiology of Pornography Addiction - A clinical review. Telangana Journal of Psychiatry, 3(2), 66-70. doi:10.18231/2455-8559.2017.0016COPY 

When someone uses an addictive drug, that drug uses the same dopamine process as part of the high, flooding your brain with feelings of pleasure and positive reinforcement. Your hardworking brain then immediately starts doing its job: developing a preference for whatever produced those feelings and rewiring itself to find and experience those feelings again. This creates a feedback loop that leads us to develop and seek out preferred ways of triggering that flood of happy-making chemicals.Brand, M., Snagowski, J., Laier, C., & Maderwald, S. (2016). Ventral striatum activity when watching preferred pornographic pictures is correlated with symptoms of Internet pornography addiction. NeuroImage, 129, 224–232. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.01.033COPY De Sousa, A., & Lodha, P. (2017). Neurobiology of Pornography Addiction - A clinical review. Telangana Journal of Psychiatry, 3(2), 66-70. doi:10.18231/2455-8559.2017.0016COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Become An Escalating Behavior

Ironic, right? The very thing that is supposed to reinforce healthy actions and behaviors is being co-opted for a drug’s high—and that’s not even the worst part. The more the dopamine process is stimulated, the more it can begin to warp an individual’s perception of the world around them. Seemingly everyday items and situations—maybe particular smells, images, or places—can become triggers that spike the desire and cravings for whatever brings on the next high.De Sousa, A., & Lodha, P. (2017). Neurobiology of Pornography Addiction - A clinical review. Telangana Journal of Psychiatry, 3(2), 66-70. doi:10.18231/2455-8559.2017.0016COPY Rosenberg, H., & Kraus, S. (2014). The relationship of “passionate attachment” for pornography with sexual compulsivity, frequency of use, and craving for pornography. Addictive Behaviors, 39(5), 1012-1017.COPY Snagowski, J., Laier, C., Duka, T., & Brand, M. (2016). Subjective Craving for Pornography and Associative Learning Predict Tendencies Towards Cybersex Addiction in a Sample of Regular Cybersex Users. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 23(4), 342-360. doi:10.1080/10720162.2016.1151390COPY 

Want to know what else can spark this same process in the brain? You got it: porn.

Porn can trigger this process endlessly because it is endlessly available. Just like addictive products such as tobacco, porn can create pathways within the brain that lead to cravings, and those cravings can push consumers to search longer and more diligently for the same level of “high.”Laier, C., & Brand, M. (2017). Mood changes after watching pornography on the Internet are linked to tendencies towards Internet-pornography-viewing disorder. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 5, 9-13. doi:10.1016/j.abrep.2016.11.003COPY  What’s worse is that the amount of dopamine that floods the brain only increases with repeated consumption. Each time a consumer turns to porn, they increase their cravings for more. But as the consumer’s brain is gaining this increased desire, it’s losing something else.

Related: How Porn Can Change The Brain

Hypofrontality

Like we talked about earlier, your brain’s reward center is something you share with most mammals. Now let’s talk about the part of the brain that makes you uniquely human: the prefrontal cortex. While the reward center is largely responsible for wanting, the prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for putting the brakes on those wants when needed. Let’s say you’re watching Netflix late on a weeknight. When your reward center is firing, you might find yourself thinking, “Just one more episode, this show is so good!” But once your prefrontal cortex kicks in, you might think, “Hold on, it’s already after midnight, and I have school tomorrow—I should probably get some sleep.” Any time you weigh the consequences of a decision, put off instant gratification for a long-term goal, or think your way through a problem, you’re using your prefrontal cortex. And yes, while a hungry little reward center might be common to all animals on our little blue planet, a well-developed prefrontal cortex is a uniquely human advantage.Teffer, K., & Semendeferi, K. (2012). Human prefrontal cortex: evolution, development, and pathology. Progress in brain research, 195, 191–218. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-444-53860-4.00009-XCOPY 

Under normal circumstances, your prefrontal cortex would disrupt unhealthy patterns such as an escalating porn habit—and for many people, it does. Many will notice intensifying cravings and recognize the potential for an unhealthy habit, and change their behavior accordingly. But a sizable percentage of the porn-consuming population will struggle to understand the level of risk, or to control their impulses.Volkow, N. D., Wang, G. J., Fowler, J. S., Tomasi, D., Telang, F., & Baler, R. (2010). Addiction: decreased reward sensitivity and increased expectation sensitivity conspire to overwhelm the brain's control circuit. BioEssays : news and reviews in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, 32(9), 748–755. https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.201000042COPY 

Related: Why Porn Can Be Difficult To Quit

This impaired decision-making ability is known as hypofrontality. “Hypo” simply means “less than normal” and “frontal” refers to your prefrontal cortex. So as the name implies, hypofrontality involves decreased frontal control over the brain’s impulses. In some cases, brain scans have actually shown decreased frontal brain matter.Kuhn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption: The Brain on Porn. JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 827-834. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.93COPY  Hypofrontality is such a key part of the addictive experience, it’s considered one of the four main markers for addiction (the others being sensitization, desensitization, and dysfunctional stress).Volkow, N. D., Koob, G. F., & McLellan, A. T. (2016). Neurobiologic advances from the brain disease model of addiction. N Engl J Med, 374(4), 363-371. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1511480COPY 

In other words, for something to be considered addictive, it must be shown to cause hypofrontality. As of the time this article was published, over 150 studies have demonstrated hypofrontality in internet addiction, including more than a dozen studies that have demonstrated its presence in the brains of porn consumers.Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption: The brain on porn. JAMA psychiatry, 71(7), 827–834. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.93COPY Antons, S., Mueller, S. M., Wegmann, E., Trotzke, P., Schulte, M. M., & Brand, M. (2019). Facets of impulsivity and related aspects differentiate among recreational and unregulated use of Internet pornography. Journal of behavioral addictions, 8(2), 223–233. https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.8.2019.22COPY Reid, R. C., Karim, R., McCrory, E., & Carpenter, B. N. (2010). Self-reported differences on measures of executive function and hypersexual behavior in a patient and community sample of men. The International journal of neuroscience, 120(2), 120–127. https://doi.org/10.3109/00207450903165577COPY 

One interesting study, for example, was divided into two parts. In the first part, heavy porn consumers were shown to be less capable of valuing long-term rewards over short-term. But in a clever twist, the researchers divided those participants into two groups for the second part of the study. Half were asked to abstain from porn for two weeks. The other half were asked to abstain from their favorite food. Even though both groups were exercising self-control for two weeks, only those who abstained from porn improved their scores in their ability to appreciate long-term rewards, showing that porn uniquely affects consumers’ patterns of self-control. In other words, self-control was not the key factor—porn was the key factor. The implication is that porn consumption did not simply correlate to hypofrontality. Porn consumption caused hypofrontality.Negash, S., Sheppard, N. V., Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2016). Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. Journal of sex research, 53(6), 689–700. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2015.1025123COPY  So not only can porn create a feedback loop of cravings and desire, it can simultaneously decrease the brain’s ability to keep those cravings in check.Hilton, D. L., & Watts, C. (2011). Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective. Surgical neurology international, 2, 19. https://doi.org/10.4103/2152-7806.76977COPY 

The good news is, change is possible! Research and the experiences of thousands of people have demonstrated that the negative effects of pornography can be managed and largely reversed.Young K. S. (2013). Treatment outcomes using CBT-IA with Internet-addicted patients. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(4), 209–215. https://doi.org/10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.3COPY Nathanson, A. (2021). Psychotherapy with young people addicted to internet pornography. Psychoanal.Study Child, 74(1), 160-173. doi:10.1080/00797308.2020.1859286COPY  In fact, even in cases of serious substance and other addictions, research shows that the brain can heal over time with sustained effort.Pfefferbaum, A., Rosenbloom, M. J., Chu, W., Sassoon, S. A., Rohlfing, T., Pohl, K. M., Zahr, N. M., & Sullivan, E. V. (2014). White matter microstructural recovery with abstinence and decline with relapse in alcohol dependence interacts with normal ageing: a controlled longitudinal DTI study. The lancet. Psychiatry, 1(3), 202–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(14)70301-3COPY Yau, Y. H., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Gambling disorder and other behavioral addictions: recognition and treatment. Harvard review of psychiatry, 23(2), 134–146. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000051COPY Rullmann, M., Preusser, S., Poppitz, S., Heba, S., Gousias, K., Hoyer, J., Schütz, T., Dietrich, A., Müller, K., Hankir, M. K., & Pleger, B. (2019). Adiposity Related Brain Plasticity Induced by Bariatric Surgery. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 290. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00290COPY  Research also indicates that, while guilt can motivate healthy change, shame actually fuels problematic porn habits.Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A. (2011). The roles of shame and guilt in hypersexual behavior.18(1), 12-29. doi:10.1080/10720162.2011.551182COPY  So if you’re trying to give up porn, be kind to yourself and be patient with your progress. Because of neuroplasticity, the amazing human brain has the ability to change itself in both directions. Like anything, it takes time for the brain to recover, but daily efforts make a big difference in the long run. Think of it like a muscle that gets bigger and stronger the more you use it—the longer you stay away from porn, the easier it becomes. All it takes is practice.

Need help?

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