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Watching Porn Can Make Real Sex Seem Boring

Porn has the potential to completely rewire what we find arousing, and what we desire and expect from sexual intimacy in real life.

By August 16, 2022No Comments

Did you know that watching porn, especially watching a lot of it and often, can rewire the brain?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 

One way it does this is by exposing the consumer to what’s called supernormal stimulus.

“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.

Related: Consumers of Extreme Porn Tend to Prefer Porn to Real Sex

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.

Get The Facts

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 

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.

Related: How Porn Can Hurt a Consumer’s Partner

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 

Related: How Porn Can Harm Consumers’ Sex Lives

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 

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 

Store - General

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.

Related: How Porn Can Negatively Impact Love and Intimacy

These changes in our expectations can have tremendous implications for how we view others and how we view relationships.

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 Nathanson, A. (2021). Psychotherapy with young people addicted to internet pornography. Psychoanal.Study Child, 74(1), 160-173. doi:10.1080/00797308.2020.1859286Copy 

Fortify

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.

This is a selected excerpt from one of our Get The Facts articles. Click here to read the full article, “How Porn Can Change the Brain.”

Need help?

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