PORN-THE NEW NORM: RE-WIRING OF THE BRAIN

 

Research studies now show that pornography consumption doesn’t just change how an individual thinks about sex, it completely changes how one’s brain operates. Overstimulated brains need more intense stimulation to trigger sensors. This need for a more intense stimulation will continue to grow if a brain isn’t restored to normal levels of sensitivity.

Your Brain on Porn: How Porn Consumption Changes Your Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity  is the first brain-scan study published on porn users in JAMA Psychiatry.  The study found several brain changes that correlate with levels of porn consumption.

porn-addiction-brain-scan

This image reveals the physical changes that take place in a brain. Subjects exhibit less gray matter in the striatum with increased viewing of pornography. Less gray matter in the striatum is indicative of less reward activity and a decline in dopamine signaling (desensitization).

Each brain has a collection of neural structures that regulate and control behaviors that induce pleasure. These structures form a brain’s reward system. Psychologist and lead author of the “JAMA Psychiatry” journal study, Simone Kühn, finds men who watch large amounts of sexually explicit material have brains with smaller reward systems. Additionally, the study suggests that regular consumption of pornography can wear out these reward systems.

A brain on porn is a dangerous, damaged thing–and even more dangerous when possessed by an adolescent.

Our sexualized culture underestimates the potential impact porn can have on a teen. It’s no longer a question of IF your child will be exposed to or view porn, but when. All too often in my practice, parents upsettingly express their child views porn against their wishes. I begin by asking these parents if they have held discussions about sex and healthy sexual relationships with their children. Most often, the response is a resounding “No”.

Charles, age 11 is asked: What is sex? When you slap her face, pull her hair, sometimes spit on her or choke her out,  and you gotta make her scream.

Parents must recognize that ongoing conversations about sexual intimacy are vital as children’s brains continue to grow and mature. If pornography is a child’s first form of sex education, we can expect a distorted understand of healthy sexual relationships.

What impact does watching porn have on the wiring of sexual response?

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If pornography can rewire sexual responses and alter brain chemistry in adults, what other effects can it have on adolescents whose sex education first occurs through porn? I would expect some level of difficulty of understanding healthy connections, intimacy, or monogamy as porn does not promote healthy, loving relationships nor human connection. However, pornography WILL help you child learn sexual pleasure, albeit along side degradation, humiliation and power control. Without parental or other adult guidance, children will be led to believe that pornography accurately reflects sexual intimacy in real life. Rising sexual abuse is less surprising when you realize that children are growing up with Internet porn as their sex ed teachers.

What happens when these teens with distorted views of sexuality enter sexual relationships? Young porn viewers are at risk of suffering both psychological and physiological consequences. Sex addiction experts report young men struggling to maintain normal sexual function and difficulties with intimacy in their relationships. Therapists, such as psychotherapist Matt Bulkley of the Youth Pornography Addiction Center, are recognizing Internet pornography as having a significant factor for those seeking counseling for sexual problems. Bulkley explains, “In some cases, erectile dysfunction is the result of the brain being trained to be aroused by pornography”.

Gary Wilson, author and developer of  YourBrainOnPorn.com provides the latest studies and information on porn and the brain. The website also explores topics relating to neuroscience, behavioral addiction, and sexual conditioning.  According to Wilson, dopamine sensitivity peaks at age 15 and teen brains can react up to four times greater to exciting images than adults. His article,  “Why Shouldn’t Johnny Watch Porn if He Likes?” provides necessary insights to understand how—compared to adult viewers—younger brains are more susceptible to the dopamine and thrill-seeking effects of pornography. Wilson explains that young viewers of Internet pornography are more likely to suffer long term physiological and psychological damage that persist into adulthood due to exposure during brain development.

Adolescents tend to have a high capacity for spending long hours viewing pornography and their undeveloped brains are especially vulnerable to pornography’s negative side effects, including addiction. Continuous responses to pornographic images create a need for more and more dopamine. The dopamine need becomes more intense over time and requires increasingly intense images to provide equivalent dopamine effects.

porn-is-addictive

Regular pornography consumption eventually leads to the brain’s desensitization to its effects. Pornography stimulates the same area of the brain that houses rewards, motivation, and pleasure. New studies are finding that regular consumption of porn rewires the brain as it requires more and more dopamine-inducing content to experience pleasure.

“We assume that subjects with a high porn consumption need increasing stimulation to receive the same amount of reward. Existing psychological, scientific literature suggests consumers of porn will seek material with novel and more extreme sex games. That would fit perfectly the hypothesis that their reward systems need growing stimulation”

Kühn S, Gallinat J. Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption The Brain on Porn. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(7):827-834. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.93

There has been an increase in studies published since pornography has become more easily accessible and readily available on the Internet. Studies have found “associations between youth exposure to pornography and subsequent sexual aggression, permissive sexual norms and gender role attitudes, earlier sexual behavior, lower levels of sexual satisfaction, higher preferences for certain body types, negative attitudes towards monogamy, participation in group sex, and higher numbers of sexual partners”. Essentially: adolescents and pornography don’t mix.

Research and studies on the potential harms of pornography don’t come without debate. One major argument these studies face is that they don’t consider all of the important and individual circumstances in which porn is being consumed. These factors can include genres of pornography consumed, settings where pornography is consumed, the purpose of consumption, whether or not the consumption was consensual, and other identifiable differences of individual consumers. All of these factors, and more, can alter the impact of pornography on the individual consumer.

As a clinician working with victims of sex crimes, I see the validity of these arguments. Adolescents can consume pornography from a multitude of devices and locations, with friends or dating partners or by themselves, for education or entertainment.

Adolescents viewing porn with others may even reenact the scenes they watch. I have witnessed many victims report their perpetrators coercing or forcing victims into sexual acts seen in pornography. Victims have recounted watching specific scenes in pornography with their perpetrators followed by forced reenactment.  This leads me to believe it highly plausible that a rise in pornography consumption could be a contributing factor to sexual violence. The multitude of circumstances leading to pornography consumption and its subsequent effects is why most parents are adamant in having their children abstain from it.

In the past decade, porn has risen from an expensive and surreptitious pastime hidden away in the darkest corners of video stores to an acceptable piece of  mainstream culture. Access to pornography is easy as the click of a button——no payments required, no ages restricted. The average age of first porn exposure is 11 years old, and 93% of boys and 62% of girls are exposed to Internet pornography before the age of 18.

With increasing acceptance and accessibility came an increasing level of violence in pornographic content. This upsurge has lead to desensitization, normalization an increased desire for more graphic, abusive, unsafe, and illegal sexual practices—all of which are unsafe and unsuitable for adolescents. New studies and findings have shown that pornography use can also desensitize some users to themes of violence. The more exposure to pornography one endures, the more tolerant one becomes of violent themes.

Results from two different studies, including one published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2014, found that regular viewing of pornography dulled an individual’s response to sexual stimulation over time. A 2011 study published in Psychology Today revealed that dopamine spikes are an indication that those viewing pornography required increasingly extreme sexual stimuli in order to trigger arousal.

As stated earlier, pornography doesn’t change thoughts and beliefs, it physically alters the brain. The 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry produced the first-ever brain scans of those who watch porn. The study found that “the level of changes in the brain correlated with the amount of porn a person watched — the more they watched, the lower the activity was in their brain’s reward centers after sexual images were flashed on a screen”. Our parents were, in fact, onto something when they told us that watching too much television would rot our brains—it just happens to sexually explicit television.

A 2014  Cambridge University study found that “sex addicts who watched porn from an early age had three regions of the brain that were more active than their counterparts who were not addicted to sex”. These three areas of the brain included the ventral striatum (processing reward and motivation), dorsal anterior cingulate (anticipating rewards and cravings), and the amygdala (processing the significance of events and emotions). These human operating systems are now functioning with heavily altered hardware.

As a clinician, I have worked with many patients who have reported that their ongoing pornography viewing initiated with them seeking videos, images, and fantasies that they once they found repulsive. My patients revealed that these once disgusting and shameful fantasies ultimately became what they needed for satisfying sexual stimulation. Pornography involving genital torture, gang rape, and even child pornography is sought after as a result of no longer being stimulated by less violent and criminal sexual acts. Consequently, clients report to me that they find themselves seeking to physically engage in these fantasies and have difficulties finding pleasure in less extreme sexual engagements.

The cited research findings ultimately reveal that excessive consumption of pornography, especially that which begins at younger ages, has dire consequences on the human brain. Viewing X-rated images desensitizes viewers to sexual stimuli, causing an increasing need for more and more intense and extreme stimuli to reach the same dopamine-induced pleasure once attainable before pornography consumption began. In a world where parents rarely have a choice in how or when their children will be exposed to pornography, it is important to intervene through early and ongoing educational conversations. If parents are not proactive, pornography will become their child’s sex education class.

Finding the right resources to discuss this sensitive topic with maturing adolescents can be surprising difficult. A science teacher having trouble navigating these same conversations helped develop “Things You Didn’t Know About Porn” in an effort to help other parents and teachers become more knowledgable about the potential adverse effects of watching pornography. Scientifically based and non-religious, “Things You Didn’t Know About Porn” describes some potential pitfalls of porn use in simple, easy to understand terms. Drawing parallels between junk food and porn, “Things You Didn’t Know About Porn” explains how and why these activities can “train” the brain and lead to unhealthy habits and compulsions. This lets youngsters make more informed choices about all potentially addictive substances and activities.

Things you didn’t know about porn – part one 
Things you didn’t know about porn- Part two 
Thing you didn’t know about porn- Part three

Visit “Your Brain On Porn” for a more historical approach on the effects of pornography on the brain. The author of Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction explains the evolutionary forces behind porn’s appeal, how the brain changes in response to supernormal stimulation, and what makes today’s Internet porn different from static porn of the past.

Gary Wilson’s TED Talk “The Great Porn Experiment” provides an even timelier resource examining the effects of Internet porn on viewers.

View this safe-for-work YouTube video to learn even more on the science behind pornography addiction.

Finally, you can watch the 2015 American documentary Hot Girls Wanted on Netflix to learn more about young adult pornography.

 

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