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Understanding Pornography

obormottel Tuesday, 17 March 2015

There are massive efforts underway to educate the public on the affects of pornography on people who use it often.

Social Consequences:

Morality in Media ( has summed up some of the recent research on the topic:

  • Lawyers surveyed claimed that "an excessive interest in internet pornography" was a significant factor in 56% of their new divorce cases (American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers)

  • More than 50% of those engaged in "sexual Internet interactions" had lost interest in sexual intercourse; a third of their partners had lost interest as well

  • Addiction to pornography has resulted in 40% of addicts losing their spouse, 50% suffering considerable financial loss, and 33% losing their jobs

Biological Effects:

Morgan Bennett, a JD candidate at Pepperdine University School of Law, reports some important research on the topic ( from which we excerpted the following discussion.

In light of the new brain science, the relevant scientific community (the American Society of Addiction Medicine,, which used to believe addiction was primarily a behavior, recently redefined addiction as primarily a brain disease revolving around the neurological rewards system.

Internet pornography's powerful force on the neurological reward system clearly places it within this new definition of "addiction." Some might argue that many substances and activities-such as TV, food, shopping, etc.-can cause addiction-forming chemicals in the brain, yet we certainly don't want the government regulating how much TV we watch, how often we shop, or how much we eat. While there are plenty of people with addictions to TV, food, and shopping, Dr. Hilton ("Pornography Addiction a Supranormal Stimulus Considered in the Context of Neuroplasticity", July 2013, Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 2013, 3: 20767 - ) argues that sexual images are "unique among natural rewards" because sexual rewards, unlike food or other natural rewards, cause "persistent change in synaptic plasticity." In other words, internet pornography does more than just spike the level of dopamine in the brain for a pleasure sensation. It literally changes the physical matter within the brain so that new neurological pathways require pornographic material in order to trigger the desired reward sensation.

Think of the brain as a forest where trails are worn down by hikers who walk along the same path over and over again, day after day. The exposure to pornographic images creates similar neural pathways that, over time, become more and more "well-paved" as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. Those neurological pathways eventually become the trail in the brain's forest by which sexual interactions are routed. Thus, a pornography user has "unknowingly created a neurological circuit" that makes his or her default perspective toward sexual matters ruled by the norms and expectations of pornography. These "brain trails" are able to be initiated and "paved" because of the plasticity of brain tissue.

Norman Doidge, MD-a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and author of the bestselling, The Brain That Changes Itself-explores the impact of neuroplasticity on sexual attraction in an essay in "The Social Costs of Pornography". Dr. Doidge notes that brain tissue involved with sexual preferences (i.e., what "turns us on") is especially malleable. Thus, outside stimuli-like pornographic images-that link previously unrelated things (e.g., physical torture and sexual arousal) can cause previously unrelated neurons within the brain to learn to "fire" in tandem so that the next time around, physical torture actually does trigger sexual arousal in the brain. This in-tandem firing of neurons creates "links" or associations that result in powerful new brain pathways that remain even after the instigating outside stimuli are taken away.

Tolerance in pornography's case requires not necessarily greater quantities of pornography but more novel pornographic content like more taboo sexual acts, child pornography, or sadomasochistic pornography. Sexual arousal is the result of testosterone, dopamine, and norepinephrine surges, whereas the transcendence and euphoria experienced during orgasm are related to the release of endogenous opiates. While pornography activates the appetitive system by way of dopamine, an orgasm caused by pornography does not release endorphins, which are the chemicals that make us feel satisfied. By contrast, endorphins are released after an orgasm caused by having sex with a real human being.

This lack of satisfaction, combined with the brain's competitive plasticity, causes the brain to require more and more novel and extreme images to get the same chemical result as before. While the addictive effects of internet pornography are similar to a combination of addictive chemical substances, internet pornography's effects go beyond those of chemical substances.

For instance, "mirror neurons" in the brain enable us to learn by watching a behavior and copying it. Professor Struthers writes ( that, because of mirror neurons, "Viewing a pornographic [video] creates a neurological experience whereby a person vicariously participates in what he is watching." This uniquely interactive addiction is enabled by the combination of stimuli upon both the brain and the body; in Struthers' words, porn use "involves the visual system (looking at porn), the motor system (masturbating), the sensory system (genital stimulation), and neurological effects of arousal and orgasm (sexual euphoria from chemical opiates like addictive dopamine in the nucleus accumbens and reduced fear in the amygdala)."

Another aspect of pornography addiction that surpasses the addictive and harmful characteristics of chemical substance abuse is its permanence. While substances can be metabolized out of the body, pornographic images cannot be metabolized out of the brain because pornographic images are stored in the brain's memory. While substance abusers may cause permanent harm to their bodies or brains from drug use, the substance itself does not remain in the body after it has metabolized out of the body. But with pornography, there is no timeframe of abstinence that can erase the pornographic "reels" of images in the brain that can continue to fuel the addictive cycle. In sum, brain research confirms the critical fact that pornography is a drug delivery system that has a distinct and powerful effect upon the human brain and nervous system.

More akin to cocaine than to books or public speeches, internet pornography is not the sort of "speech" the First Amendment was meant to protect from government censorship. Those who read books or listen to ideas can use their conscious minds to reason through the assertions and information. But, as Dr. Doidgeputs it, "Those who use [pornography] have no sense to the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it." Indeed, they have no idea that pornography is developing "new maps in their brains."