Does Porn Really Change My Brain?

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by Annie Higgins, M.A., L.P.C.

Do you consider any of the following to be innocuous? Human-trafficking, objectification of women, violence, rape, incest, infidelity. I’m guessing the vast majority of us would answer that question with a resounding, “NO!” So why do so many people still believe that pornography, a behavior that often precipitates, accompanies, or fuels these atrocities is “harmless” or “okay in moderation?”

For those questioning my premise, let me remind you that pornography is prolific. Globally it is estimated to generate more than $90 billion annually (that’s billion, with a B!). Thankfully, empirical research is catching up to what many have known intuitively for years: finding that pornography is toxic on multiple levels—relationally, psychologically, physically, and socially. Though all of these deserve ample attention and education, the scope of this article is focused on one facet of the physical: the impact pornography makes on the brain.

In a recent publication by journalist Sam Black, entitled “The Porn Circuit” (available on covenanteyes.com, a website dedicated to Internet accountability and filtering), he describes the specific implications of pornography on the user’s brain chemistry. Black explains that the attachment created between a user and the pornographic image is incredibly strong because “masturbation and orgasm produce a fireworks display of neurochemicals, and repetition builds neural pathways that strengthen these behavior patterns.”

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in our brains that transmit signals from one brain cell to the next. Most people are familiar with the idea that behavior and emotions are affected by neurotransmitters, but it was not until recently that science has been able to track which specific brain chemicals play a role in this process.

When a person (male or female) uses pornography in combination with masturbation, these are some of the neurotransmitters and resulting behaviors and/or emotions that are involved:

Dopamine is the “feel good” hormone that focuses attention and propels people to action, and without dopamine we would not feel motivated to do much at all. Unfortunately, repeated porn use can short-circuit this process so that the only thing we feel motivated to do is get the next “fix” from porn.

Testosterone increases sexual arousal and desire in both men and women, but men have higher levels. This neurotransmitter is slower to dissipate in men; therefore, men who regularly use pornography can cause their own chemical imbalance.

Norepinephrine triggers sexual arousal and “burns” emotional experiences into our memories, whether it is a rewarding sexual experience with one’s spouse or an illicit sexual image. Therefore, repeated porn use can make it difficult to stay engaged with a real-life partner.

Oxytocin and vasopressin are both called “bonding hormones” because they make us feel close and connected with our sexual partner. However, with pornography use, these chemicals can cause the user to feel more connected to an image or fantasy situation than to their real-life partner.

Serotonin is released after climax and stimulates feelings of calm, wellbeing and satisfaction. This is also part of the reward circuitry of our brains and produces the “release” that so many people associate with orgasm.

This is not an exhaustive list of all of the neurochemicals involved in the “fireworks display” that reinforces the porn user to keep going back for more, but it’s clear that the impact on the brain and emotions creates quite a potent and enticing elixir. I believe that this “elixir” is a God-given gift within a marriage because all of the neurochemicals involved in the sex act lead you to feel more connected with your spouse and to desire frequent sexual intimacy. However, porn use totally hijacks this magnificent gift by taking it outside the confines of marriage and actually leads to a litany of problems, including decreased sexual satisfaction within marriage.

Scientific research has also concluded that ongoing porn use can damage the cingulate cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps to control ambition and willpower, as well as moral or ethical decision-making ability. (William Struthers, Wired for Intimacy).

Additionally, Delta-FosB, a protein that accumulates in the brain after repeated exposures to stimuli, affects the nucleus accumbens of the brain, which helps regulate pleasure responses. This is the same protein that makes cocaine addiction so powerful and difficult to overcome. Recent research has found that repeated porn use creates a buildup of Delta-FosB, which stimulates genes to intensify cravings for porn. It can take as many as eight weeks of complete abstinence to flush the entire amount of the protein out of the brain. The Delta-FosB protein can lead to lifelong damage to one’s genes, to the dopamine system, and lead to greater susceptibility to addictions in the future. (prolife365.com/hijacked-by-porn)

Though the neuroscience behind porn use and “addiction” is compelling, it is not a hopeless battle. Far from it! My hope is that the “take away” from this message is that porn use can (and often does) lead to many of the same types of issues as a chemical addiction, so it needs to be dealt with in a similar fashion. What does that mean? It means that it is nearly impossible to do it alone! You cannot “will” your way out of porn use any easier than you can “will” your way off of a drug. It is vital to find safe people who can provide support, guidance, and accountability to help you end the destructive cycle that porn creates. It is a battle that is worth fighting, but must be done with help!

If you, or someone you know, struggles with porn use, please do not hesitate to contact one of our skilled professional counselors to help break the cycle.

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