Pornography is a platform where both men and women can be comfortable exploring their erotic desires. Watching it can boost your libido and even lead to happier and better relationships. Although one in three women in the U.S. regularly watch porn and 70 percent of men aged 18 to 24 visit porn sites at least once a month, watching it still remains a controversial issue. Antiporn advocates such as YourBrainOnPorn and a group called Fight The New Drug believe that porn use is a public health issue because of its effects on the brain.
But what exactly does it do to your brain? Several studies have shown porn consumption may rewire the brain, altering its structure and function, and causing addictive behavior to emerge. But are these brain changes a cause for concern?
Brain Chemicals and Porn
Both having sex and watching porn cause dopamine to be released in the part of the brain responsible for emotions and learning. In fact, it’s the one neurotransmitter that becomes the most active. “The main change is the flood of dopamine. Watching pornography produces a dopaminergic response,” Joe Schrank, an addiction specialist, and founder of TheFix.com and Loft 107, a sober living facility in Brooklyn, N.Y., told Medical Daily in an email.
It is this neurotransmitter that gives you the desire for self-pleasure, as its levels surge in response to anticipation and expectation. But the brain begins to change as we repeatedly tap into this particular pathway by viewing porn — it becomes desensitized to the effects of dopamine. These effects were shown in a 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, which produced the first-ever brain scans of porn watchers. The German researchers 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.
This causes the brain to need more dopamine each subsequent time in order to feel the same effects. As a result, it can give a person a reason to watch more porn. Sometimes, however, the brain gets “worn out” and halts the production of dopamine, which leaves the viewer wanting more satisfaction with the inability to reach it, according to Gary Wilson, a physiology teacher, who discussed the topic during a TEDx talk. This can provoke the viewer to seek out more intense porn to get the same “high.”
“Brains respond to chemical change. When the dopamine is released and there is a sense of pleasure, the primitive brain sends the message to repeat the behavior for the desired feeling,” Schrank said.
He believes this is why addictions become so difficult to break. People tend to assume this is purely a behavioral issue; however, different brains respond to different stimuli, whether it’s shopping or pornography. Within the mind of an addict, there is always a constant need to feel that strong stimulation.
Oxytocin and Vasopressin
Other brain chemicals that are released during sex or porn include oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones are what help the person recall long-term memories. They work by forming a fond connection between your memory and the object that gave you sexual pleasure. This creates a wave of sensation throughout the whole body similar to being high.
Typically, sex causes the release of serotonin levels, which in turn leads to feelings of tranquility and relaxation. However, if the brain associates these feelings with a porn experience, it will subsequently direct a person back to porn each time sexual desire arises rather than a true sexual experience.
The Pornographic Mind vs. The Addict Mind
The brain of a porn user is often compared to that of a drug addict or alcoholic. A 2014 Cambridge University study published in the journal PLOS ONE found the ventral striatum — a brain structure that plays a role in the brain’s reward center, aka its pleasure pathways — lit up when an alcoholic saw a photo of a drink. In porn addicts, the study found similar brain activity, but although they wanted porn more, they didn’t enjoy it more.
The researchers also found three regions in the brain that were more active in people with compulsive sexual behavior, including the ventral striatum, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (responsible for anticipating rewards), and the amygdala (involved in processing the significance of events and emotions). These regions are also known to be activated in drug addicts when shown their drugs of choice.
Age also seemed to affect the level of brain activity in the ventral striatum while viewing porn. The younger the patient, the higher the activity level in their ventral striatum — this effect was strongest in individuals with compulsive sexual behavior. These findings were especially important, since the frontal control regions of the brain continue to develop into a person’s mid-20s. An imbalance in these regions may increase impulsiveness and risk-taking behaviors in younger patients.
Porn and Brain Size
The pornographic brain not only mirrors the activity in addicts, it also changes size in a similar way. In the same German study, researchers found that gray matter volume in the right caudate of the striatum was smaller among frequent porn viewers. Men who watched more porn also showed less activity in another area of the striatum, known as the left putamen, which lit up when exposed to sexual stimuli.
These brain changes are similar to those seen in cocaine addicts, who develop abnormalities in areas, such as the nucleus accumbens and striatum, which are responsible for learning, memory, pleasure, and reward. Despite these findings, it’s unclear whether watching porn is what causes these brain changes or if people with certain brain types just watch more porn.
Brain After Porn
While porn is certainly useful in helping us explore and learn about our sexual desires, these studies highlight the potential consequences on the brain of watching too much. For this reason, it’s important to remember moderation is key. “As with anything in life, striving for balance is key,” Schrank advised. “Brains need diversity of activity too.”