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Get the FactsThe Brain

Why Porn Can Be Difficult to Quit

When it comes to the topic of porn, one of the most common questions is whether or not it can actually be addictive. According to many addiction experts, it absolutely can be.

By May 14, 2021June 9th, 2021No Comments

Does the name “Pavlov” ring any bells for you? In case it doesn’t, here’s a refresher. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian researcher during the early 1900s who became famous for his laboratory full of dogs. That’s because one day he discovered that, at meal times, the dogs would salivate—not only when they saw their food, but when they first heard the footsteps of their caretakers. This discovery fascinated Pavlov, so he began to experiment. In the popular version of the story, Pavlov started ringing a bell every time he fed the dogs and, sure enough, they soon began to salivate whenever they heard the bell.

Since those famous Nobel Prize-winning experiments, the Pavlovian response—or “conditioning”—has become a basis for many psychological theories, not to mention a regular pop culture reference (“Mint, Dwight?”). In essence, what Pavlov discovered is that our brains can form subconscious associations between things, even if those things may seem unrelated. And once those associations are formed, they can produce powerful psychological, emotional, and physiological responses.

So what does all of this have to do with porn?

The science of Behavioral Psychology has come a long way since Pavlov’s discovery. We understand far more today about the associations our brains can create, and some researchers have theorized that certain kinds of Pavlovian Conditioning might help explain two of the great mysteries of addictions and compulsive behaviors: 1) Why do people continue to engage in these behaviors, even when the behaviors bring them nothing but emptiness or suffering? And 2) why is it so easy to relapse into these behaviors, sometimes even years after the person has stopped?

Can porn become addictive?

Now, before we continue, let’s address the elephant in the room—pornography addiction. To start, we want to be clear that not everyone who consumes pornography is “addicted.” In fact, experts have pointed out that while some individuals can become addicted to porn, the majority of porn consumers are not addicted.Willoughby, B. J., Young-Petersen, B., & Leonhardt, N. D. (2018). Exploring Trajectories of Pornography Use Through Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood. Journal of sex research, 55(3), 297–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2017.1368977COPY  While this article focuses on the science behind pornography addiction, keep in mind that many of the negative effects of pornography consumption can still affect consumers, regardless of whether their habits qualify as diagnosable addictions.

So what qualifies something as an addiction? According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is defined as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”American Society of Addiction Medicine. (September 15, 2019). Definition of addiction. Retrieved from https://www.asam.org/Quality-Science/definition-of-addictionCOPY  As many experts agree, pornography consumption is a behavior that can, in fact, qualify as an addiction in serious cases.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 

Because so much of addiction happens neurologically, some experts have determined four major brain changes common to addicted brains: sensitization, desensitization, hypofrontality, and a malfunctioning stress system.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  Spoiler alert: research confirms that each of these brain changes can be found in cases of pornography consumption.Mechelmans, D. J., Irvine, M., Banca, P., Porter, L., Mitchell, S., Mole, T. B., Lapa, T. R., Harrison, N. A., Potenza, M. N., & Voon, V. (2014). Enhanced attentional bias towards sexually explicit cues in individuals with and without compulsive sexual behaviours. PloS one, 9(8), e105476. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105476COPY 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 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 Jokinen, J., Flanagan, J., Chatzittofis, A., Öberg, K., & Arver, S. (2019). High Plasma Oxytocin Levels in Men With Hypersexual Disorder. Neuropsychopharmacology, 44, 114–114. Retrieved from http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-168967COPY  While each of these brain changes is discussed at length throughout our Get the Facts series, this article focuses primarily on sensitization and its presence in problematic pornography consumption.

What is sensitization?

According to one theory on the roots of addiction—the “incentive sensitization” theory—repeatedly engaging in addictive behaviors can create powerful memories and associations between the substance or behavior and the things that surround it.Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, wanting, and the incentive-sensitization theory of addiction. The American psychologist, 71(8), 670–679. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000059COPY  Because of those powerful associations, certain cues can generate intense psychological responses or cravings that can then pull the addict back to the substance or behavior. In everyday conversation, we sometimes refer to sensitization as the feeling of being “triggered.” For example, a former smoker may say with total sincerity, “I hate cigarettes. Cigarettes ruined my health. I hope I never see another cigarette in my life.” And yet if they experience certain “cues”—the smell of tobacco, the place where they used to smoke, or even just a certain time of day—they may experience sudden urges, which can be incredibly difficult to resist. These connections can sometimes last for years, even after quitting. This same sensitization process can happen with porn. In fact, dozens of studies have exhibited sensitization’s role in problematic porn consumption, including a number of studies that also illustrate the similarity between substance addiction and compulsive pornography consumption.Voon, V., Mole, T. B., Banca, P., Porter, L., Morris, L., Mitchell, S., Lapa, T. R., Karr, J., Harrison, N. A., Potenza, M. N., & Irvine, M. (2014). Neural correlates of sexual cue reactivity in individuals with and without compulsive sexual behaviours. PloS one, 9(7), e102419. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102419COPY Snagowski, J., Wegmann, E., Pekal, J., Laier, C., & Brand, M. (2015). Implicit associations in cybersex addiction: Adaption of an Implicit Association Test with pornographic pictures. Addictive behaviors, 49, 7–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2015.05.009COPY Gola, M., Wordecha, M., Sescousse, G., Lew-Starowicz, M., Kossowski, B., Wypych, M., Makeig, S., Potenza, M. N., & Marchewka, A. (2017). Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(10), 2021–2031. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.78COPY Snagowski, J., & Brand, M. (2015). Symptoms of cybersex addiction can be linked to both approaching and avoiding pornographic stimuli: results from an analog sample of regular cybersex users. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 653. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00653COPY Laier, C., Pawlikowski, M., Pekal, J., Schulte, F. P., & Brand, M. (2013). Cybersex addiction: Experienced sexual arousal when watching pornography and not real-life sexual contacts makes the difference. Journal of behavioral addictions, 2(2), 100–107. https://doi.org/10.1556/JBA.2.2013.002COPY Laier, C., Pekal, J., & Brand, M. (2014). Cybersex addiction in heterosexual female users of internet pornography can be explained by gratification hypothesis. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 17(8), 505–511. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2013.0396COPY 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.23(4), 342-360. doi:10.1080/10720162.2016.1151390COPY 

Related: How Porn Can Affect The Brain Like A Drug

One of the most interesting aspects of sensitization is the distinction it draws between the large and powerful “wanting” part of our brain, and the relatively small “liking” portion. In the case of porn, for example, repeated use can cause the “liking” part of our brain to become numb to porn’s effects (see our article on desensitization) even as the connections being formed by the “wanting” portion of our brain are becoming more and more entrenched. So, for example, a person who continually looks at porn when they’re lonely or bored, may find that loneliness or boredom trigger an intense desire to view porn, even as the porn itself brings less and less pleasure.

Related: How Porn Can Impact Mental Health And Fuel Loneliness

Combined with the other brain changes inherent to addiction, sensitization can make porn incredibly difficult to quit.

The good news, however, is that change is absolutely possible. Research and the experiences of thousands of people have demonstrated that over time pornography’s negative effects 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 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. 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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