Pornography addiction is much more involved than just wanting to look at nude videos and pictures. It has a deep connection to our learning process and the chemicals in our brain. Your brain on porn is much more complicated than you think.
In this article we will look at a specific chemical called dopamine and explore how it affects our brains when we use pornography.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical located in the brain that is closely tied with emotions and actions. Its primary function is to carry signals between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain as a neurotransmitter.
What dopamine is best known for–and what we are most interested in–is its association with the reward center of our brain. It is considered to be the major player in reward-motivated behavior.
Dopamine is responsible for those feelings of excitement about getting something new, or doing something that you love. It is the chemical that signifies happiness and enjoyment.
Dopamine is typically considered to be responsible for learned behaviors, but new research suggests that dopamine is involved with ongoing actions as well. We usually consider dopamine when talking about reward-based behavior (classical learning), when our actions depend upon the type of reward they promote. When a reward produces dopamine we feel good, and thus, we are more likely to repeat the action to continue feeling good.
So How Exactly does it Work
Every time we do something, whether it is watching tv, eating food, playing games, etc., our brains release chemicals that dictate how we feel towards that specific action. Our brains then categorize these events as good or bad based upon what chemical is released. When something tastes good, or feels good, dopamine is released which encourages us to seek that action again. This can also be called natural reinforcement.
Natural reinforcement works simple enough. When we have a good snack, our body produces a good amount of dopamine, but when we have an incredible snack, our body releases an incredible amount of dopamine. So, naturally you will want the incredible snack over the good snack.
Think about it, diets aside, would you rather eat some raisins or a fudge brownie with a huge scoop of ice cream?
It should be pretty apparent then, that dopamine plays a huge role in our decisions. Especially those things that give us immediate satisfaction. We typically only consider dopamine to be behind our learned behaviors and not something that is actively assisting in decisions. However, there is some interesting research that has come out this year that might alter that idea.
The Salk Institute performed a study this year which investigates the effects of dopamine on the decisions of mice. The study tracked mice as they made decisions requiring triggering two different levers to get a reward based upon how long the levers had disappeared for. If the triggers disappeared for for 2 seconds the mice were rewarded for pushing the left trigger and at 8 seconds they received a reward from the right trigger.
The scientists realized that the mice were quickly picking up when to switch sides to get the treat. Using real-time brain scans the scientists were able to discern that the mice were making the decisions in correlation to the dopamine release. This suggests that dopamine is involved in ongoing decisions as opposed to the initial learning process.
“We are very excited by these findings because they indicate that dopamine could also be involved in ongoing decision, beyond its well-known role in learning” –Christopher Howard
To test their findings, scientists used some brain-altering devices to change the level of dopamine in real time to try and cause the mice to make a different decision than they normally would. They found that they could force the mice to go whichever direction they wanted to by simply altering the amount of dopamine in their brains.
The idea that dopamine is actually aiding decision-making helps explain what happens during addiction or when we choose behaviors which counteract our beliefs, especially at the risk of negative feelings (guilt, shame, etc.). These findings also suggest that altering the dynamic relationship between dopamine and actions would allow addicts to have better control of their actions.
The craving for dopamine is so strong that it can overcome our body’s defense mechanisms against performing unrewarding behaviors. This is why many men and women (yes women do watch porn as well) will continue to watch pornography even though they know that is wrong or why a drug addict will continue to use even at the expense of their own health.
Pornography and Your Brain
So what happens in your brain when you, your husband, child, significant other, best friend, or anyone else uses pornography?
To start, let’s just state plainly that sexual activity produces large amounts of dopamine. Our bodies are simply wired that way. Sex, masturbation and viewing pornography will ALL cause our brains to produce dopamine, and ultimately crave more of it.
We can become addicted to pornography for precisely that reason. Regular use of pornography will eventually lead to a craving for the dopamine that comes from using it.
The real issue with pornography and dopamine is that pornography is so accessible thanks to the internet. To understand this we must consider the Coolidge Effect, which states that over time, sexual desire will decrease with a single mate and increase with a new one. According to this theory, sexual desire increases from a “newness” factor.
Now, bring pornography into the equation. We have an affinity to want “new” things because they produce more dopamine–more excitement–and with pornography the options for new people is endless. John Mayer actually commented on this, saying:
There have probably been days when I saw 300 [women] before I got out of bed .Internet pornography has absolutely changed my generation’s expectations. You’re looking for the one photo out of 100 you swear is going to be the one you finish to, and you still don’t finish. Twenty seconds ago you thought that photo was the hottest thing you ever saw, but you throw it back
In doing that, we train our bodies to become dependent upon finding a new, exciting “mate” that will meet or exceed our current expectation in order to have the dopamine released. It is no longer enough to simply have sex or be committed to a single woman when pornography is viewed in excess. It creates a relationship where the only thing arousing is novelty. This can then create an issue when an individual attempts to stop watching porn. Porn withdrawal is a real issue and can cause major fluctuations in ones behavior.
This is why many pornography addicts experience porn-induced erectile dysfunction and why many men desire to have more sex but are not aroused by their spouse. They have trained their body to be more aroused by an image than a person because the “novelty” image will lead to an increased dopamine response compared to the alternative.
Pornography literally changes our brain to desire more pornography, just like drinking soda will make you want more soda, or that having candy will make you want more candy. Our brains become “wired” to have pornography and to seek it out.
In conclusion, knowing that your impulse to view pornography has a strong tie to the way your brain is wired will help with the recovery process. Quitting pornography isn’t just about abstaining from it, but is about rewiring your brain to stop craving those dopamine hits.
To get there we need to view our recovery like a health challenge. Simply eating a healthy diet for six weeks doesn’t make you healthy just like abstaining from pornography for six weeks doesn’t make you recovered. Rebooting your brain will take time and dedication to restore your life to a state where pornography isn’t a part of it anymore. A good first step is stopping the habit, but fixing the issue will take time.
In a later article we will dive headlong into the process of quitting pornography and what it takes to actually reboot your brain.
Also, learn how to protect your kids from porn.