Pornography is a big business. Americans spent 97 billion dollars on pornography over the past five years. The monetary cost of this epidemic is only a part of the real cost of this problem in our country. Over the past decade, increasing attention has been given to the damaging effects of pornography on the brain and, by extension, the lives of individuals and families. The accessibility of pornographic material and the multitude of technologic means by which it comes into our lives has brought this issue increasingly into the spotlight. In fact, you may be reading this because pornography has impacted you, personally, or someone you love.
There has been controversy in the psychiatric literature about whether those who struggle with pornography are “addicted.” Whether or not it is formally designated in the professional literature as an addictive disorder, it certainly has been shown to affect the brain and the lives of its users in ways consistent with other addictive disorders. As with any addiction, an understanding of the process is key. Let’s start with how the brain responds to pornography. Our brains are designed to catalog our experiences with the end goal of preserving life and eliminating threats to our safety. Essentially, our brains are effective at remembering what feels good and what doesn’t. While this process is complex, a basic understanding of a few key brain chemicals is critical.
The brain responds to pornography by releasing a powerful chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is released whenever we have pleasurable experiences. The release of dopamine and another powerful chemical called epinephrine (adrenaline) floods the brain in connection with pornography. With repeated exposure, a neural pathway in the brain is created that links arousal and associated neuro-chemicals dopamine and adrenaline with pornography use. As pornography exposure and dopamine release increases, dopamine receptors are eliminated. This “flooding” of the brain creates habituation or tolerance, resulting in the need for even greater stimulus (more explicit and “hard-core” pornography, novelty and intensity) to achieve the same effect.
Dr. Donald L. Hilton, Jr. MD, a neurosurgeon at the University of Texas, has written extensively about the effects of pornography on the brain. His research and other reviews conclude that the effects of pornography on the brain are comparable to potent drugs, such as cocaine. He also explains that when the body orgasms, the brain produces a particular neurotransmitter called “oxytocin” which creates bonding. Oxytocin is also secreted in the brains of babies and moms during breastfeeding. So we are literally bonding to pornography (a digital image) when we reach climax. In an article published in the Harvard Crimson, Dr. Hilton states that “pornography emasculates men—they depend on porn to get sexually excited and can no longer get off by having sex with their women alone. What happens when you are addicted to porn is that you crave it. Real sex even becomes a poor substitute for porn, and you lose interest.” ¹
A final neurophysiologic effect of pornography is the damage created to the impulse control center of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex. With constant flooding of the brain with dopamine and epinephrine, there is a reduction in size and control of this area. Essentially, the ability to self-regulate and exercise impulse control is reduced until, ultimately, the addiction drives appetites, desires, and behaviors. As individuals fall into the grip of this addiction, they often experience other effects, such as isolation, depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, and relationship distress, among others – all of which spiral the individual away from resources that can lift and help them toward recovery and healing.
As awareness of this issue increases, so do resources aimed at educating and assisting those affected by pornography addiction. A relatively new campaign called “Fight The New Drug” (www.fightthenewdrug.org) is an excellent resource for those seeking more information regarding the impact of pornography. There are also many religious/spiritually-based programs available², many of which are based on the twelve-step program utilized by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Dr. Mike Olson is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas. He graduated with his master's degree from BYU and his Ph.D. from Kansas State University. Following graduate study, he completed a post-doctoral research and clinical fellowship in Behavioral Medicine from UTMB, Galveston. Dr. Mall Brown is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He holds a doctorate degree from Texas Tech University and a master's degree from BYU. He is currently the assistant professor and program director in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and the Clinica Manager at the South Shore Center for Couples and Families.