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Your Brain on Porn: The Surprising Side Effects

Sex. The largest, most profitable business across the globe. As of 2015, roughly half of Internet content is porn or porn related material. 13,000 adult videos are produced every year – a little over twenty-five times the 507 produced by Hollywood. At $13 billion annually, the porn industry makes more money than the NFL, the NBA, and the MLB combined. Mothers and psychologists everywhere are shedding a tear.

The research and studies regarding how porn affects the brain are not nearly as publicized as they deserve. Porn is often an uncomfortable and sensitive subject, and “porn addiction” holds negative connotations and skepticism. Unfortunately, addiction to watching pornography parallels the brain chemistry involved drug or alcohol addiction in more ways than we expect. Here are some of the ways watching porn might have a larger detrimental effect than you think:

The Imitation Game

Sexual material activates mirror neurons, the neurons responsible for imitating behavior, in the main brain. Mirror neurons trigger arousal when the brain is exposed to sexually explicit content. When this arousal is acted upon through masturbation or some other sexual activity, hormonal and neurological responses create fixation on the object on the screen. The connection the viewer has to his or her sexual partner is compromised by the fixation on this object.

Men are biologically prone to increased sexual interest that results from new partners. With the unlimited amount of novel “pornstars” on the internet, the porn industry is a goldmine for novel sexual objects. Although viewers are not physically engaging with the men and women on the screen, the novelty can decrease the sexual attraction they feel for existing partners.

Porn Addiction

Sadly, too much of this arousal is a straight path to addiction. Dopamine is the brain chemical behind reward-driven learning. You might know it as the chemical responsible for addiction to substances like cocaine, sex, and methamphetamines. Surprisingly, arousing imagery releases more dopamine than sex with a consistent partner because of the novelty mentioned previously.

The more erotic imagery an individual is exposed to, the less satisfaction he or she gains from familiar sexual partners. Thus, “porn addiction” is just as real as drug addiction. Overstimulation of imagery results in desensitization, where dopamine receptors are no longer satisfied and require longer or more frequent pornography viewing. Prolonged exposure to born can lead to social anxiety, depression, and negative self image. So put the laptop down and pick up the phone to call your significant other.

Too Much Porn = Smaller Brain

If addiction isn’t enough grounds for convincing you to stop, maybe a shrinking brain will be. A study conducted in 2014 found that certain areas of the brain are smaller and have fewer connections in males that watch pornography than those that do not. The striatum, a key part of the brain associated with reward-driven learning, is the part of the brain that responds to sexual cues. Frequent porn viewers have lower activation of reward centers and smaller grey matter volume in areas associated with reward-driven learning and motivation.

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Grey matter is one of two types of tissue that make up the central nervous system. It is responsible for transferring information to the brain and damage to grey matter is irreversible. Alcoholism and depression cause the same shrinking, giving a sense of the extremity of this effect. For the sake of the size of your brain, use the money you’re spending on a porn subscription for a vacation with your spouse.

Go with the Flow

You may have experienced it during overtime of your soccer championship game, while having “the talk” with a loved one, or in the final seconds of the SAT. “Flow” is the state of deep concentration in which neuronal pathway formation is strongest. It occurs when we are completely and utterly absorbed in the task that we are partaking in. Flow is the feeling we experience when it feels like “there’s nobody else in the room.” Memory formation is at it’s peak – details and conversations that occur during flow can be recalled years later.

Unfortunately, watching porn is a gateway to the “flow” zone. Without being aware of it, the viewer is forming powerful neural connections with each new image and video. These visuals become ingrained in the viewer’s mind so that he or she recalls them years later. Unfortunately, the false expectations that these visuals create may limit an individual’s sexual libido and leave them unsatisfied in real-life situations. For the sake of your future sex life, stick to books instead of browsing pornography at 3 a.m.

Aggression

Paul Wright, a researcher and assistant professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, found disturbing evidence through a meta-analysis of several pornography studies conducted on college students. Wright found that, in experimental settings, both violent and nonviolent pornography viewing increased the probability of heightened aggression in males. Almost all forms of pornography showed bivariate correlations with rape and rape proclivity.

 In a study conducted in 1994, hard-core violent and rape pornography showed significantly higher levels of association with sexual coercion and aggression. Soft-core pornography showed a negative association with rape and rape proclivity, but a positive correlation with sexual force.It is important to note, however, that some males are more prone than others. Existing hostility towards women, narcissism, and a background of domestic violence put men at more risk for sexual aggression. Because of the ethical dilemma involved in conducting field studies, the research here is less conclusive than that mentioned above. Scientists, however, have come to the consensus that porn creates a sexual ideal that, more often than not, objectifies women.

If this article is means enough to try to quit or reduce the time you spend on PornHub, my work here is done. Yours, however, is far from it. Porn is an addiction – quitting requires just as much effort and motivation as alcoholism or drug addiction. Fortunately, there are resources available for this purpose.Accountability software such as Covenant Eyes blocks porn on your computer and your smartphone. If you choose to do so, it will also provide a weekly report of your Internet browsing to another trusted individual. Just like a drug addiction, overcoming porn addiction is no walk in the park. Confiding in someone you trust and taking baby steps is a huge part of taking care of yourself through the process. While it’s no easy feat, your brain and your sex life will thank you.

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Zoe Tierney, B.A. Psychology
Zoe Tierney, B.A. Psychology

Zoe Tierney currently resides in Palo Alto, California. She is a Creative Writing Minor and a Psychology Major with an emphasis on Social Psychology and Child Development at Colgate University. After University, Zoe plans on attending graduate school with the intention of entering the field of adolescent psychology as a counselor or occupational therapist.

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