Internet porn—used regularly and often—chemically and structurally changes the brain. These brain changes are consistent with the brain changes that occur in other types of addiction, like addiction to drugs or alcohol.

To understand how pornography can be addictive, it is important to understand something about the reward circuit of the brain. All addictions –both chemical and behavioral–  impact the brain’s reward circuit.

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The reward circuit of the human brain

The reward circuit shapes our moods, colors our emotions, leads us to fall in and out of love, and decides what we do and don’t like. In fact, we never make a decision without consulting our reward circuit. You might think of the reward circuit as an inner compass that continually influences all our choices.

Simply put, the reward circuit wires us

  • to avoid physical and emotional pain, and
  • to seek out pleasure and novelty.

Why are we wired to seek novelty? This is what makes us inquisitive and curious, driving us to find new territories, new sources of food, and new relationships (including romantic ones.)

Dopamine: the power of the reward circuit

Dopamine is one of the major neurochemicals powering the reward circuit. It’s the craving neurochemical. Simply put, a shot of dopamine tells us “I’ve got to have it, whatever IT is.”

If you think of the reward circuit as an engine, dopamine would be like the gas. The higher your dopamine, the more you want, crave, and seek.

It’s important to recognize that dopamine is associated with wanting, craving, and seeking—NOT pleasure or enjoyment. It is released within the brain in anticipationof reward, not in attaining the reward.

Of course, there are other neurochemicals released in the brain when we get what we were seeking, providing pleasure and satisfaction (such as endocannabinoids and endogenous opioids.) These neurochemicals make us feel temporarily satisfied after a good meal, a long drink of water, or an orgasm.
But here’s the kicker: the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system. We seek more than we are satisfied because seeking and taking action is more advantageous to our survival than sitting around in a satisfied stupor. Because of this, stimuli that promote larger releases of dopamine (like concentrated sugars and fats) can override feelings of satiety, tempting us into getting that sweet dessert even though we just declared that we were full.

All potentially addictive substances and activities elevate dopamine in the reward circuit. Cocaine, alcohol, nicotine all feel different because they affect other neurotransmitters, but they all flood the reward circuit with dopamine. Drugs hijack the circuits and mechanisms that have evolved for normal rewards; repeated porn use also hijacks the reward circuits of the brain.

This experiment demonstrates the power of dopamine


If an electrode is implanted into the reward circuit of a rat, the rat will press that lever over and over again until completely exhausted. He will ignore food, females, whatever, just to press this lever until he dies of starvation—not because it feels good, but because it feels excited–like he is just about to do something really important, like eating some cheese or having some sex. But he’s not actually doing anything conducive to survival; rather, he is in a chemical-induced state of perpetual seeking.

Similarly, a porn addict might endlessly surf the web looking for just the right video clip, seeking something new or more shocking.

Watching porn keeps dopamine levels high

Sexual stimulation produces higher dopamine levels than any other natural reward.

Besides this, internet porn users can keep dopamine levels elevated for hours at a time clicking from video to video, opening many tabs at once, and exploring new genres. This behavior is called edging and can be indicative of a problematic relationship to porn use.

In addition to edging, porn users often watch compilation videos which combine very short clips from dozens of different scenes into one, keeping the content fresh and the dopamine high. In a single session, a person could see dozens or hundreds of what our reward circuit sees as willing, attractive mates engaging in a lifetime’s variety of sex acts.

Compared to the sexual environment for most humans throughout our evolutionary history, internet porn is an explosion of stimulation. Users can also orgasm and then immediately override their feelings of satiety by finding more novel and exciting content. Porn use, like other addictive behaviors, overstimulates the reward circuits in the brain.

In essence, a porn addict’s brain becomes so habituated to seeking (due to prolonged exposure to high levels of dopamine) that it loses much of its capacity to feel satisfied. Porn users find themselves wanting porn more while liking it less, never fulfilled.

The truth is that internet porn is a supernormal stimulus, an exaggerated version of a normal stimulus that amplifies the qualities we find especially compelling. Porn provides videos of people with enhanced bodies responding to sex acts in exaggerated ways–all without the work of a relationship!

It was Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen who years ago coined the term supernormal stimulus. Tinbergen discovered that birds, butterflies, and other animals could be duped into preferring fake eggs and mates. For example, Shorebirds would abandon their own smaller eggs to incubate much larger, more colorful plaster eggs – fabricated by Tinbergen.

Related: Why Even Good Kids Get Pulled Into Porn

When does porn use become an addiction?

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.”  A simple way to say this is that an addict’s reward circuits are impaired!

Brain changes in addiction

4 neurological changes occur in addiction. It’s important to understand these brain changes to fully grasp the power of addiction:

  • Sensitization
  • Desensitization
  • Hypofrontality
  • Altered stress response

Sensitization reinforces behavior

Sensitization, or sexual conditioning in the case of internet porn, is the brain’s way of reinforcing behaviors it thinks we should continue.

Consistent dopamine releases cause our brain to create neural pathways. This means the brain becomes sensitized (or “wired”)  to pursue the activity causing those dopamine spikes. Dopamine tells our brains, “This activity is really valuable, we should do it again and again!” Hence the more internet porn we consume, the more we respond to and desire to consume it.

Take the case of a 13-year old boy whose sexual feelings are emerging. He may have never kissed a girl, but if he is masturbating regularly to actors on a computer screen, he is already programming his sexual response.

While the boy may think he is watching porn so that he knows how to have real sex in the future, his brain is wiring itself to the type of sex he is having in front of a screen. This boy’s brain (over time) will become sensitized to respond to internet porn and NOT real life girls.  

Studies out of Cambridge University show how sensitized porn users react to porn cues compared to healthy subjects in a control group. This is the same evidence of sensitization that we see in the brains of drug addicts.

Many of today’s college-age men who grew up on internet porn have been shocked to learn they have porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED); these guys can still get aroused by porn, but they are physically unable to have sex with a real person. In the last 20 years, youthful erectile dysfunction rates have increased by nearly 1000%! No joke.

The good news is this process is largely reversible. When porn use stops, the porn pathways eventually weaken, allowing guys to start strengthening the pathways for real sex. The bad news is that this process can take many months or even years.

Desensitization leads to loss of interest in life

Desensitization is what happens when the addictive behavior becomes the highest point of stimulation in daily life and everything else just isn’t as stimulating as it used to be. Many guys addicted to porn lose interests in hobbies they used to enjoy and are no longer even interested in dating.

To understand why this happens, let’s look at how neurons send messages to each other.

The strength of the neural message depends on three factors:

  • the number of neural connections
  • how much dopamine is available in the system, and
  • how many receptors there are to receive the message

A decline in any one of these factors results in a weakened message.

With frequent internet porn use, especially with long sessions or edging, this system is blasted with high amounts of dopamine, and the nerve cells are overwhelmed. Like someone who covers their ears at the sound of a loud noise, nerve cells also try to protect themselves. They do this by reducing the number of receptors and the amount of dopamine available for release. This way we get a numbed pleasure response: less excitement and satisfaction in daily life.

Over time desensitization also results in a more observable structural change, a decline in the number of nerve connections or synapses.

A brain scan study out of the Max Planck institute proves this point. This study did not include porn addicts or try to compare compulsive users to healthy ones. Instead, it correlated total years and hours per week spent using porn to gray matter volume in parts of the reward circuit. What they found was that the more porn consumed, the lower the gray matter volume in a part of the reward circuit called the caudate.

Lead author Simone Kuhn said, “That could mean that regular consumption of pornography more or less wears out your reward system.”

Eventually, addicts also become desensitized to what they are addicted to. This is called “tolerance”, and this is part of why a veteran alcoholic can have a few drinks and not feel it. When porn users become desensitized to the porn they watch, they may start spending more time watching porn.

Many users also escalate the type and genres of porn that they watch, getting into new fetishes or more extreme or abusive pornography. This works for them because strong emotions like shock or surprise can also help heighten arousal. These users can end up using types of porn that used to disgust them or that don’t fit with their sexuality.

Hypofrontality: impaired thinking and stronger cravings

Hypo means below-normal and frontal refers to the frontal lobes and prefrontal cortex. These areas of the brain are largely responsible for things like rational thought, planning, reflection, prediction of consequences, and self-control and willpower.

Our frontal lobes comprehend the consequences of our actions – and try to inhibit impulses that we might later regret, such as punching our annoying boss, or screaming at our kids.

In addiction, these frontal lobes undergo chemical and structural changes that impair their functioning, making it even harder for an addict to control their behavior and recognize the consequences of it. Watch this video to better understand hypofrontality:

Altered stress response: stress and craving reinforce one another

In addiction, stress or any uncomfortable feeling has the tendency to become a trigger for cravings. The addict’s brain knows that the addictive behavior is the thing that always brought relief in the past. Cravings are so painful that addicts want relief NOW. Even minor stress activates sensitized addiction pathways.

On top of this, withdrawal from addiction activates stress systems in the brain. An overactive stress system is behind many of the withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, fatigue, mood swings, and insomnia.

Scientific studies support the addiction model

According to Gary Wilson, at least 31 neurological studies (and 10 reviews of the literature) support the porn/sex addiction model: No studies falsify the addiction model.

For a more thorough review of relevant research, I recommend the paper Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports.

Most of the information in this post and some of the slides are from Gary Wilson’s site YourBrainOnPorn.com

Additional Resources and Videos

I recommend Gary Wilson’s book, Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction

For my own work and book, visit AddictedToInternetPorn.com

To simplify and explain addiction to a young child, read them Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids.

 

The content from this blog post was taken from my presentation given at the 2016 Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit in Houston, TX, hosted by The National Center on Sexual Exploitation:

Raised on a Diet of Internet Porn: The Neurological Consequences of Long-term Addiction from Center On Sexual Exploitation.

If you haven’t seen it, you must watch Gary Wilson’s classic TED talk, The Great Porn Experiment:

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Noah Church
As a member of the first generation to grow up with the internet in his home, Noah B. E. Church started using internet porn by age 9. It was only after learning about the science of porn addiction at age 24 that he realized how harmful his porn habit had become to his life and relationships and he was able to quit. After experiencing adult life free of porn's influence for the first time, Noah decided to help provide answers and guidance to others suffering with porn addiction and porn-induced problems. He is now a public speaker, runs AddictedtoInternetPorn.com, and is the author of Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn.
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