Patrick Eng
Marketer, Developer, SEO Specialist, Gamer, and Random Knowledge Blogger


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Week 29 - What I Need to Know About Pornography's Affect on the Brain


Author's Note: Because this is science we're dealing with, I'll explain that right off the bat, the articles I used all come from sources that take a more negative view of porn (meaning they are heavily biased). I will say that many of the statements used in these articles are commonly believed ones, but have other studies dedicated to debunking them.

You can easily find the other side of the coin for most of the statements below for why porn could actually be healthy, isn't addictive, doesn't build a tolerance and more. You just need to Google it.

I personally believe porn is wrong, dangerous, and painful, so I don't plan on understanding why it might be healthy, supportive, and better for your life in general. Yay for biased research!

Turns out, watching porn might make you stupid. At least according to this study that found that those who became addicted to pornography were essentially becoming addicted to a type of drug and had brains with less activity and fewer connections.

But hey, it's a scientific study, so who knows what actually is correct. I'm sure there's another one out there that says watching porn makes you smarter too.

Either way, this study helped raise the question of if porn actually has the ability to shape the brain.

Back in the olden days, it was accepted that your brain grew and developed when you were a child, then was finished growing as an adult. But modern medicine and technology have shown us that our brains are constantly rewiring themselves, setting up new pathways and getting rid of unused ones. Scientifically speaking, these are called neural pathways.

Let's use an example - snapping your fingers. When you're first learning how to snap your fingers, you have to really concentrate, making sure that all your fingers are in the right place and you're making the right movements at the right pressure and strength.

After a lot of practice though, you don't even have to think about what to do with your fingers. They just start magically snapping and you don't even have to think about how to do it.

Your brain was forming a neural pathway (kind of like when someone first blazes a trail through the forest), and while it was rough at first, constant traffic back-and-forth between that neural pathway made it clear and strong.

As we learned in last weeks post though, the brain is a large consumer of your body's energy reserves. In order to make sure it's not sucking up more than it needs, it will eventually get rid of any neural pathways that are no longer needed. Hence the phrase, "use it or lose it."

Great, so now you've basically just sat through PSYC 100. But how does this relate to porn?

Well, believe it or not, porn might be the best thing at creating long-lasting connections in your brain. So much so that the porn connection in your brain could overpower the pre-installed connection for sex. The answer for this? Conditions and chemicals.

You ever get so deep into something that you just look down one moment and when you look up again, hours have passed but it feels like minutes? Some people call it getting in the zone, but it's really just when you are hyper-focused, filtering out everything else in the world, and thinking only about the thing that you are doing right then and there. This is what sciency people call the "flow", even though it doesn't sound very sciency.

Regardless of their missed opportunity to name a very common human function with a very confusing and drug-sounding name, the flow is the condition you want to be in when you are making important neural pathways.

The problem is that people get into the flow when they are watching porn. Their brains are primed for the wiring that is about to happen, and will probably remember those videos for a long time.

But then there's the other part - chemicals (really the reward center). Of the many chemicals that are released by our reward center to encourage good behavior, an important one this article focuses on is called DeltaFosB.

This chemical is a key player in ensuring that the neural pathways you create stay strong and vibrant. The problem with this chemical is that it can be easily misguided. Some even label it as a genetic switch for addiction. When too much is released, it pushes your reward from satisfaction to craving. Hence, why so many people feel the need to watch porn all the time.

But as we mentioned earlier, neural pathways are kept alive when used and discarded when not. So if the pathways that are triggered when watching porn suddenly stop, and remain unused, they will eventually be discarded by the brain.

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When the internet was first being used to connect universities for research purposes, there was more than just some data and documents being passed around. The porn industry quickly saw the advantage of sharing data quickly and across the world and has become the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.

Once again, we see how porn is to sex addicts as drugs are to drug addicts. At least, that's how your brain is interpreting it.

This is especially important to note for growing teenagers, as most of them have probably seen some sort of mature content already and have increased neural responses to what they are seeing. These increased responses could have some serious, think addicting, consequences down the line.

Take these other two examples of the consequences of porn as well (not necessarily involving the brain per se): being too lazy to actually have sex and erectile dysfunction (ED).

Considering porn's wide access and massive variety, consumers are finding sex to be more work than it's worth when they can just go and watch whatever they want with a few clicks on a keyboard.

With ED, it could just be because the guy's adult habits prevent him from maintaining an erection long enough for actual sex.

But in the end, these broad statements about porn's effect on the human brain (and body) will always miss the mark a little bit. The study will never be perfect and making a definitive point about what is true needs to be backed with some serious data.

This at least seems to be an agreed on point among most studies that find porn harmful: after a while, consumers look for more intense and extreme content in order to give them the same experience. It's almost like you build up a tolerance and need a bigger hit to get the same feeling.

In short, porn is influencing how we see ourselves, how we view our partners, and how we think sex should look like. We can see this in the rise in labiaplasty surgery, the emotional wounds created by seeing multiple partners on screen, and the male-directed industry of pornography, in general, that is also working to push the boundaries of unrealistic sexual encounters.

Either way, porn is known to be terrible in excess and harmful in moderation.

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Porn and tobacco. Both widely accessible, both have a minimum age of 18 for consumption (haha like that really means anything), and both activate the reward center in your brain. Unlike the reward system that activates when just worked out or ate some of the best food of your life, the reward chemicals produced after watching porn or smoking is more of a false positive.

We all have reward centers, which are really a whole grouping of different areas of the brain in charge of encouraging good habits and, unfortunately, creating addictive ones. In the end, your brain wants to reward you for staying alive and doing basic mammalian things, specifically reproducing to pass your genes along and keeping the species alive.

You can probably see the problem here then. Your brain isn't as smart as you think it is, meaning when it comes to situations where it can't tell the difference between drugs and the actual good action, it will release the reward chemicals to be safe.

One of the main chemicals is called dopamine, and when enough is released, you get that high that you so enjoy. This also means though that the dopamine released when taking drugs or watching porn can also become addictive, even though it's not accomplishing what biology is wanting it to.

Let's look at what happens in two situations to get a better idea, the first being the reward experienced when doing something normal and healthy, say having sex. The other, not so healthy situation being a night of porn.

Your brain naturally wants you to have sex because that is how we pass our genes along and life wants to continue. So it will encourage and reward you for doing so. When you've accomplished your goal though, the high soon fades. But when you start to watch porn, there's enough floating around on the internet where that high won't ever fade. Porn isn't affected by the biological off-switch our brain uses for rewarding us.

And because of that, the more porn someone watches, the more dopamine is flooded into their brain, which then means the more they'll crave once it's over (possibly in an even more extreme category). They took a hit, and now they can't stop coming back for more.

The more they come back for, the more the brain builds up a tolerance. Meaning, in order to get that buzz they've been craving, the "hits" they take need to be stronger and stronger. In the end, you could even go through symptoms of withdrawal when you try to quit.

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Too Long; Didn't Read

The porn industry is massive, wealthy, and controversial.

On one side, you have studies and organizations dedicated to explaining how porn kills love, is addictive, and is just like taking drugs. On the other side, you have studies and organizations that say porn helps your love life, isn't addictive, and is a normal, healthy thing to do.

Both sides say each side is wrong and the statements made by each side obviously contradict each other. Since I personally believe porn only harms, I am obviously biased to one side over the other.

In this side, studies show that porn is like taking drugs, sending a false positive to your reward center that releases various chemicals like Dopamine and DeltaFosB. These chemicals encourage you to keep doing what you just did, even if it's not healthy (unfortunately, your brain can be easily tricked).

Soon enough, the neural pathways in your brain are now built for your pornography habit, meaning it only becomes easier and easier the more you satisfy your craving. This is both because of the released chemicals and the state you're put in when watching porn, called the flow (i.e., intense focus).

Once you get that hit though, your brain doesn't know how to stop. Like with other healthy habits, think eating, sleeping and sex, your brain will eventually cease the release of rewarding chemicals. But with porn, that off switch never gets flipped. You'll continue to receive a nice dose of chemicals until you finally give up. And when you come back, you might need something even stronger to feel that same way again.

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Patrick Eng