Get the FactsThe Brain

How Porn Can Change the Brain

Because of neuroplasticity, our brains constantly change in healthy ways that help us learn and complete tasks more efficiently. Yet, supernormal stimuli such as porn can trigger measurable changes that can influence our lives in unhealthy ways.

By May 11, 2021June 9th, 2021No Comments

We’ve all heard the phrase: “It’s just like riding a bike.” That phrase is supposed to remind us that our old skills are never more than a few minutes of practice away. And indeed, if you’ve ever geared up for a ride after many bike-less years, or picked up an old musical instrument, you know that beneath all of the awkwardness and rust, your old skills are waiting there, locked in your so-called “muscle memory,” waiting to be dusted off and taken for a spin. But how does this actually work? Why can we pick up old skills after such relatively small amounts of practice?

It all stems from the brain’s remarkable ability to change itself, also known as “neuroplasticity.”Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY 

The amazing plastic brain

Neuroplasticity, at its most basic level, refers to the brain’s ability to change. When you learned to ride a bike, your brain didn’t just logically process the steps involved in riding a bike, your brain literally, physically changed itself into a brain built for bike-riding. It can mold and shape itself, like playdough, as it responds to outside forces and experiences.Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY 

When we engage in an activity—particularly a pleasurable activity, and particularly if it involves repetition and intense focus—our brains alter themselves so that they’ll be better and more efficient at doing that activity the next time.Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY 

Our brains create what are known as “neural pathways.” The more we engage in an activity, the stronger the pathways associated with that activity become.Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., & Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural and drug rewards act on common neural plasticity mechanisms with ΔFosB as a key mediator. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434–3442. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013COPY 

Once formed, those pathways can become remarkably long-lasting and resilient. Pathways neglected or ignored, even for years, are still there, ready to be revitalized.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/bs5030388COPY  Hence the saying, “It’s like riding a bike.”

Delta-FosB: the chemical with the catchy name

But what is a brain pathway, really? Is some little road crew clearing brush and blazing trails in your brain? Yes—kind of.

What’s actually doing the trailblazing work in your brain is a little crew of brain chemicals, one of which is Delta-FosB. Your brain is made up of neurons that communicate with each other through synapses. Delta-FosB is one of the chemicals that creates neural circuits—i.e. “pathways”—to help those neurons communicate more quickly and efficiently.Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., & Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural and drug rewards act on common neural plasticity mechanisms with ΔFosB as a key mediator. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434–3442. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013COPY  Basically, what you experience as getting better and better at something, is actually your brain “rewiring” itself to become faster and more efficient at sending the same messages between the same neurons.

As we said, this process is greatly accelerated when you’re engaged in something pleasurable that entails a lot of repetition and a high degree of focus—a state sometimes referred to as being in “flow,” which is just a way of indicating that you’re not just learning something, you’re highly focused on something and you’re enjoying the experience of being highly focused.Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., & Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural and drug rewards act on common neural plasticity mechanisms with ΔFosB as a key mediator. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434–3442. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013COPY Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY  Whether you’re learning to play your favorite song on the guitar, practicing your jump shot, or perfecting that TikTok dance, those chemicals in your brain are hard at work reinforcing those pathways. But unfortunately, the same process of neuroplasticity happens when you practice unhealthy behaviors, too.

Throughout our Get the Facts articles, we discuss the ways pornography can be considered addictive—how consuming porn can lead to compulsive cravings and behavior, in some cases similar to those associated with substance abuse.

Related: How Porn Can Affect The Brain Like A Drug

We’ve also discuss how the brain changes—about the role of dopamine and how the reward center can be “hijacked.”Kühn, 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 Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY Pitchers, K. K., Vialou, V., Nestler, E. J., Laviolette, S. R., Lehman, M. N., & Coolen, L. M. (2013). Natural and drug rewards act on common neural plasticity mechanisms with ΔFosB as a key mediator. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(8), 3434–3442. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4881-12.2013COPY  In this article, we’re taking a closer look at another aspect of the rewiring that occurs when we look at porn, and that’s going to require us to learn another term from brain science: supernormal stimulus.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.0102419COPY 

“Supernormal?”

On its surface, “supernormal” is, at the very least, an oxymoron, and perhaps also the name of some very vanilla superhero who wears a lot of beige. “Supernormal stimulus” sounds like a good phrase to describe your parents’ favorite radio station, or a bran muffin. But the meaning is exactly opposite, and that name actually makes perfect sense. “Supernormal” refers to an exaggerated (i.e. “super”) version, or amount, of a “normal” thing, and was coined by a researcher named Nikolaas Tinbergen.Barrett, Deirdre. (2010). Supernormal stimulus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.COPY Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY 

In his most famous experiment, Tinbergen tested whether overwhelming a certain stimulus could change behavior. He created cardboard constructions of butterflies that were attracted to their mates by color and movement. He then painted these cardboard butterflies with more intense colorings and designed the cutouts to move at a more regular pace. When male butterflies were introduced to the cardboard, they did indeed try to mate with the fakes. Even when actual female butterflies were introduced to the same area, the male butterflies ignored them, continuing to prefer the intensely colored, regular-moving cardboard butterflies, even with living, breathing females close by.Barrett, Deirdre. (2010). Supernormal stimulus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Hurt A Consumer’s Partner

Tinbergen was able to show that when there is a preprogrammed, biological reaction to a certain stimulus, that stimulus can be overwhelmed and warped by artificial means. And just like butterflies, human brains have built-in physiological responses to certain stimuli.Barrett, Deirdre. (2010). Supernormal stimulus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.COPY  We feel hunger when we see food. We feel sympathetic and protective of things that appear helpless and small. We are drawn to certain physical traits we consider attractive.

None of this is new information. Advertisers and filmmakers have understood it for years. It’s the science behind some of your favorite photographs, illustrations, and movies, and the reason they appeal to you with such power. But remember! The fact that the butterflies were drawn to the fakes is only half of Tinbergen’s experiment. The second half is the scary part—even when real female butterflies were introduced into the environment, the males continued attempting to mate with the cardboard decoys.Barrett, Deirdre. (2010). Supernormal stimulus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.COPY Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY 

Just like the butterflies, if something artificially overwhelms one of these stimuli on a consistent basis, our expectations will change. It isn’t just that our brains prefer the supernormal stimulus; it’s that they can change themselves to expect it, and the old normal stimulus (also known as “real life”) suddenly seems less interesting by comparison.Pace, S. (2014). Acquiring Tastes through Online Activity: Neuroplasticity and the Flow Experiences of Web Users. M/C Journal, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.773COPY 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.0102419COPY  Have you ever been bored by an “action” movie from 50 years ago? Or been surprised that something was considered beautiful in another time? If you’ve ever been involved in a classroom discussion about how media can negatively affect our expectations around body image, you were likely discussing supernormal stimuli without even realizing it. Our brains change themselves.Barrett, Deirdre. (2010). Supernormal stimulus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.COPY  Our expectations, responses, and preferences can adapt to exaggerated stimuli, and we find ourselves less interested, even bored, by things that may have seemed more exciting in the past.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.0102419COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives

Similarly, pornography can shape how we view sexual situations by overwhelming our brain’s natural processes.Hilton D. L., Jr (2013). Pornography addiction - a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 3, 20767. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767COPY 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/bs5030388COPY 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.0102419COPY 

It can take our brains’ natural stimuli—our desire for intimacy and connection, our longing to feel strong or desirable in our relationships, our interest in a particular feature or activity—and give us more quantity, more exaggerated, and more “supernormal” versions of that thing, until it can override what we think is normal, warp what we perceive as exciting, and make real intimacy seem less interesting by comparison.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.0102419COPY 

This is why Doctors Simone Kühn and Jürgen Gallinat said that pornography affects the brain through an “intense stimulation of our reward system” ultimately making “pornography consumption more rewarding.”Kühn, 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 

Like it or not, porn consumption entails pleasure, focus, and repetition—the perfect recipe for a build up of Delta-FosB, and the creation of long-lasting pathways in the brain. It can also provide an overabundance of supernormal stimulus that can completely rewire what we find arousing, and what we desire and expect from sexual intimacy. These changes in our expectations can have tremendous implications for how we view others and how we view relationships.

Related: How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love And Intimacy

As with riding a bike, these pathways, once formed, can prove resilient and difficult to rewire, but there is always hope. 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  In fact, even in cases of serious drug 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. 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 is to do so. All it takes is practice.

Need help?

For those reading this who feel they are struggling with pornography, you are not alone. Check out Fortify, a science-based recovery platform dedicated to helping you find lasting freedom from pornography. Fortify now offers a free experience for both teens and adults. Connect with others, learn about your compulsive behavior, and track your recovery journey. There is hope—sign up today.

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