I Read So You Don’t Have To #6: Your Brain on Porn by Gary Wilson

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Gary Wilson’s Your Brain on Porn seeks to map out the phenomenon of internet porn addiction while using cognitive neuroscience and first person accounts from various internet forums in an attempt to diagnose a problem that most people don’t even know exists. The book is relatively short at 180 pages and can be completed in about 2 hours. This post will only cover the first 2 parts as the third part of the book mainly deals with how to stop watching pornography which basically amounted to be productive. However, there’s 2 or 3 highlights below from part 3 as I did find the quotes compelling enough to put in here.

As far as I know Gary first made waves with these revelations in his Ted Talk which came out in 2012. This book is a more detailed follow-up and came out in 2014. He also has a website https://www.yourbrainonporn.com/ which keeps more up to date on the latest research and studies published in the field.

This book is basically a complete 180 from the mainstream view of masturbation and pornography. Everyone and their mother says that masturbation is good for you, it’s good for your prostate, whatever. The commonly held belief is that since everyone is doing it, then it must be a good thing to do. Gary argues against this:

“There are plenty of authoritative voices out there who will tell you that an interest in graphic imagery is perfectly normal, and that therefore internet porn is harmless. While the first claim is true, the second, as we shall see, is not. Although not all porn users develop problems, some do. At the moment, mainstream culture tends to assume that pornography use cannot cause severe symptoms. And, as high-profile criticisms of pornography often come from religious and socially conservative organizations, it’s easy for liberally minded people to dismiss them without examination. But for the last seven years, I have been paying attention to what people say about their experiences with pornography. For even longer, I’ve been studying what scientists are learning about how our brains work. I am here to tell you that this isn’t about liberals and conservatives. It isn’t about religious shame or sexual freedom. This is about the nature of our brains and how they respond to cues from a radically changed environment. This is about the effects of chronic over-consumption of sexual novelty, delivered on demand in endless supply.”

Later in the book he likens this line of thinking with the way Big Tobacco had people thinking about cigarettes:

“Big Tobacco’s campaign to cast doubt on the link between smoking and disease is now a classic case study in a science called agnotology: the study of the cultural production of ignorance. Agnotology investigates the deliberate sowing of public misinformation and doubt in a scientific area. As Brian McDougal, the author of Porned Out, put it, It’s hard to imagine that a whole generation chain-smoked cigarettes without having any idea how harmful they are, but the same thing is happening today with online pornography. Is internet porn the new smoking? Almost all young men with internet access view porn and the percentages of women viewers are growing. Whenever something becomes the norm, there’s an unexamined assumption that it must be harmless or ‘normal’, that is, that it cannot produce abnormal physiological results. However, that proved not to be the case with smoking. And, just as with smoking, causality studies cannot be done. It would be unethical to create two groups of kids and keep one group as ‘porn virgins’ while setting the other group free on today’s internet porn for years to see what percentage lose attraction to real partners, can’t quit, or develop porn-induced sexual dysfunctions and extreme fetish tastes.”

I just want to be clear, he does not advocate stopping masturbation alltogether but he says doing it to pornography is harmful to your health.

On the plasticity of our brains:

“The symptoms these men (and later women) described strongly suggested that their use of pornography had re-trained, and made significant material changes to, their brains. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge explains in his bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself: The men at their computers looking at porn … had been seduced into pornographic training sessions that met all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps. Since neurons that fire together wire together, these men got massive amounts of practice wiring these images into the pleasure centres of the brain, with the rapt attention necessary for plastic change. … Each time they felt sexual excitement and had an orgasm when they masturbated, a ‘spritz of dopamine’, the reward neurotransmitter, consolidated the connections made in the brain during the sessions. Not only did the reward facilitate the behaviour; it provoked none of the embarrassment they felt purchasing Playboy at a store. Here was a behaviour with no ‘punishment’, only reward. The content of what they found exciting changed as the Web sites introduced themes and scripts that altered their brains without their awareness. Because plasticity is competitive, the brain maps for new, exciting images increased at the expense of what had previously attracted them – the reason, I believe, they began to find their girlfriends less of a turn-on … As for the patients who became involved in porn, most were able to go cold turkey once they understood the problem and how they were plastically reinforcing it. They found eventually that they were attracted once again to their mates.”

“Brains are plastic. The truth is we are always training our brains – with or without our conscious participation. It’s clear from countless reports that it’s not uncommon for porn users to move from genre to genre, often arriving at places they find personally disturbing and confusing. What might be behind this phenomenon? One possibility is boredom or habituation meeting the developing adolescent brain. Teens are thrill seeking and easily bored. They love novelty. The stranger the better. Many a young man has described masturbating with one hand while clicking through videos with the other hand. Lesbian porn grows boring, so he tries out transgender porn. Novelty and anxiety ensue – and both increase sexual arousal. Before he knows it he has climaxed and a new association begins imprinting his sexual circuits. Never before have developing adolescents been able to switch from genre to genre while masturbating. This casual practice may turn out to be a prime danger of today’s porn”

The great thing about stopping is that you can reverse the patterns in your brain and go back to normal. For some this will only take a few weeks. Others, months. All depends on when you started doing it. For example, a baby boomer will have an easier time reversing negative side effects since they didn’t grow up with high speed tube sites. A millenial will have a harder time since this stuff has more or less been around since they have been alive. Gary talks about stopping here:

“Fortunately, brain plasticity also works the other way. I see many young guys quit porn and, months later, realise that the fetishes they thought were indelible had faded away. Eventually, they can’t believe they once got off to X (and perhaps only to X). Adolescent sexual conditioning likely also accounts for the fact that young men with porn-induced erectile dysfunction need months longer to recover normal sexual function than older men do. This might be because the older men did not start out wiring their sexual response to screens, and still possess well developed ‘real partner’ brain pathways, or brain maps. Typically they had reliable erections with partners for years before they met high-speed tube sites.”

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While this phenomenon is still relatviely new, researchers and physicians are beginning to notice a problem:

“Persistent porn-induced ED in young men caught the medical profession by surprise, but this year doctors have finally begun to acknowledge it. Harvard urology professor and author of Why Men Fake It: The Totally Unexpected Truth About Men and Sex, Abraham Morgentaler said, ‘it’s hard to know exactly how many young men are suffering from porn-induced ED. But it’s clear that this is a new phenomenon, and it’s not rare.’ Another urologist and author Harry Fisch writes bluntly that porn is killing sex. In his book The New Naked, he zeroes in on the decisive element: the internet. It ‘provided ultra-easy access to something that is fine as an occasional treat but hell for your [sexual] health on a daily basis.’ In May, 2014, the prestigious medical journal JAMA Psychiatry published research showing that, even in moderate porn users, use (number of years and current hours per week) correlates with reduced grey matter and decreased sexual responsiveness. The researchers cautioned that the heavy porn users’ brains might have been pre-shrunken rather than shrunken by porn usage, but favoured degree-of-porn-use as the most plausible explanation. They subtitled the study “The Brain On Porn.” Then in July 2014, a team of neuroscience experts headed by a psychiatrist at Cambridge University revealed that more than half of the subjects in their study of porn addicts reported that as a result of excessive use of sexually explicit materials, they had … experienced diminished libido or erectile function specifically in physical relationships with women (although not in relationship to the sexually explicit material).”

“As mentioned, on most forums ED is the number-one reason men choose to give up porn. Eminent urologist Harry Fisch, MD is also seeing porn-related sexual dysfunctions in his practice. In The New Naked he writes: I can tell how much porn a man watches as soon as he starts talking candidly about any sexual dysfunction he has. … A man who masturbates frequently can soon develop erection problems when he’s with his partner. Add porn to the mix, and he can become unable to have sex. … A penis that has grown accustomed to a particular kind of sensation leading to rapid ejaculation will not work the same way when it’s aroused differently. Orgasm is delayed or doesn’t happen at all.”

He discusses that pornography has been around since man has been around but the difference between cave drawings and what we have today is vastly different:

“Deep in a primitive part of the brain, surfing tube sites registers as really valuable because of all the sexual novelty. The extra excitement strengthens brain circuits that urge you to use porn again. Your own sexual fantasies pale in comparison. According to one German research team, users’ problems correlated most closely with the number of screens opened (variety) and degree of arousal, not with time spent viewing online porn.”

“It’s also worth noting that videos replace imagination in a way that still images don’t. Left strictly to our imaginations we humans once tended to assume the starring role in our sexual fantasies, not the passive role of mere voyeur as in video-watching.”

 

A lot of this book has first hand user accounts. I only included this one because it stood out to me and reminded me of Ted Bundy’s last interview. In it, he discusses that everyone he was locked up with was addicted to pornography. I always found it interesting that he could’ve talked about anything but chose to talk about that in his final days. This user had the same thoughts while on porn:

“I can say with absolute certainty that the fantasies I had about rape, homicide and submission were never there before hardcore porn use from 18-22. When I stayed away from porn for 5 months all those fantasies and urges were gone. My natural sexual taste was vanilla again and still is. Thing with porn is you need harder and harder material, more taboo, more exciting and ‘wrong’ to actually be able to get off.”

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On pair bonding:

“Relationships, too, are affected by porn use, which makes sense. Too much stimulation can interfere with what scientists call pair-bonding, or falling in love. When scientists jacked up pair-bonding animals on amphetamine, the naturally monogamous animals no longer formed a preference for one partner. The artificial stimulation hijacks their bonding machinery, leaving them just like regular (promiscuous) mammals – in which the brain circuits for lasting bonds are absent.”

“Research in humans also suggests that too much stimulation weakens pair bonds. According to a 2007 study, mere exposure to numerous sexy female images causes a man to devalue his real-life partner.[31] He rates her lower not only on attractiveness, but also on warmth and intelligence. Also, after pornography consumption, subjects of both sexes report less satisfaction with their intimate partner – including the partner’s affection, appearance, sexual curiosity and performance.”

Gary also argues that pornography can develop into an addiction no different from drugs or alcohol:

“Addiction neuroscientists have repeatedly shown that internet addiction produces memory, concentration and impulse-control problems in some users, as well as corresponding brain changes. For example, researchers found that the severity of ADHD symptoms correlates with the severity of internet addiction, even when they take into account anxiety, depression and personality traits. And, German researchers recently confirmed that moderate porn use, even by non-addicts, correlates with shrunken grey matter in regions of the brain associated with cognitive function.”

“A second adaptation that may arise from excessive porn consumption is addiction. Interestingly, scientists recently showed that methamphetamine and cocaine hijack the same reward-centre nerve cells that evolved for sexual conditioning. A second study by some of the same researchers found that sex with ejaculation shrinks (for a week at least) the cells that pump dopamine throughout the reward circuit. These same dopamine-producing nerve cells shrink with heroin addiction. Put simply, addictive drugs like meth and heroin are compelling because they hijack the precise mechanisms that evolved to make sex compelling. Other pleasures also activate the reward centre, but their associated nerve cells don’t overlap as completely with sex. Therefore they feel different and less compelling. We all know the difference between munching on chips and an orgasm.”

“The reason that highly stimulating versions of food and sexual arousal can hook us – even if we’re not otherwise susceptible to addiction – is that our reward circuitry evolved to drive us toward food and sex, not drugs or alcohol. Today’s high fat/sugar foods have hooked far more people into destructive patterns of behaviour than have illegal drugs. 70% of American adults are overweight, 37% obese. We don’t know how many people are being negatively affected by internet pornography, given the secrecy that surrounds its use, but the parallels with junk food are both highly suggestive and deeply troubling.”

Why porn is such a dangerous addiction:

“Viewers routinely spend hours surfing galleries of porn videos searching for the right video to finish, keeping dopamine elevated for abnormally long periods. But try to envision a hunter-gatherer routinely spending the same number of hours masturbating to the same stick-figure on a cave wall. Didn’t happen. Porn poses unique risks beyond supernormal stimulation. First, it’s easy to access, available 24/7, free and private. Second, most users start watching porn by puberty, when their brain’s are at their peak of plasticity and most vulnerable to addiction and rewiring. Finally, there are limits on food consumption: stomach capacity and the natural aversion that kicks in when we can’t face one more bite of something. In contrast, there are no physical limits on internet porn consumption, other than the need for sleep and bathroom breaks. A user can edge (masturbate without climaxing) to porn for hours without triggering feelings of satiation, or aversion.”

“What’s a brain to do when it has unlimited access to a super-stimulating reward it never evolved to handle? Some brains adapt – and not in a good way. The process is gradual. At first, using porn and masturbating to orgasm resolves sexual tension and registers as satisfying. But if you chronically overstimulate yourself, your brain may start to work against you. It protects itself against excessive dopamine by decreasing its responsiveness to it, and you feel less and less gratified. This decreased sensitivity to dopamine pushes some users into an even more determined search for stimulation, which, in turn, drives lasting changes, actual physical alterations of the brain. They can be challenging to reverse. As one user said, ‘Porn goes in like a needle but comes out like a fishhook.’”

“Even if you’re watching tame porn and haven’t developed any porn-induced fetishes, the issue of how you get your jollies can have repercussions. If you use internet porn, you may be training yourself for the role of voyeur or to need the option of clicking to something more arousing at the least drop in your dopamine, or to search and search for just the right scene for maximum climax. Also, you may be masturbating in a hunched-over position – or watching your smartphone in bed nightly. Each of these cues, or triggers, can now light up your reward circuit with the promise of sex … that isn’t sex. Nevertheless, nerve cells may solidify these associations with sexual arousal by sprouting new branches to strengthen connections. The more you use porn the stronger the nerve connections can become, with the result that you may ultimately need to be a voyeur, need to click to new material, need to climax to porn to get to sleep, or need to search for the perfect ending just to get the job done.”

“The adolescent brain’s over-sensitivity to reward also means its owner is more vulnerable to addiction. And if that’s not scary enough, remember that a natural sculpting process narrows a teen’s choices by adulthood. His brain prunes his neural circuitry to leave him with well-honed responses to life. By his twenties, he may not exactly be stuck with the sexual conditioning he falls into during adolescence, but it can be like a deep rut in his brain – less easy to ignore or reconfigure.”

“Clearly there are early windows of development, during which deep associations can get wired in more or less permanently. And of course, during puberty, all erotic memories gain power, and are reinforced with each instance of arousal. Avid porn use in teens, whose brains are highly plastic, can cause sexual tastes to morph with surprising swiftness. Research shows that the younger the age people first start to use porn, the more likely they are to view bestiality or child porn.”

“Other kinds of evidence are mounting that some internet porn users experience severe problems. Researchers are reporting unprecedented ED in young men, physicians are reporting that their patients recover after they give up internet porn, and brain scientists are seeing worrisome brain changes even in moderate internet porn users as well as porn addicts. Addiction treatment facilities are seeing increases in internet porn-facilitated addiction. Lawyers are noting a rise of divorces in which internet porn use is a factor. Young people are reporting surprising changes in fetish-porn tastes, which often fade if they quit using.”

“A new study on anal sex among men and women ages 16 to 18, analysed a large qualitative sample from three diverse sites in England. Said the researchers: ‘Few young men or women reported finding anal sex pleasurable and both expected anal sex to be painful for women.’ Why were couples engaging in anal sex if neither party found it pleasurable? ‘The main reasons given for young people having anal sex were that men wanted to copy what they saw in pornography, and that “it’s tighter”. And ”People must like it if they do it” (made alongside the seemingly contradictory expectation that it will be painful for women).’ This looks like a perfect example of adolescent brain training; ‘This is how it’s done; this is what I should do.’ Also at work is a desire to boast to one’s peers about being able to duplicate the acts seen in porn. However, as hypothesized in the Max Planck study, today’s porn users may also be seeking more ‘edgy’ sexual practices and more intense stimulation (‘tighter’) due to reduced sensitivity to pleasure. In the latter event, teens need more than ‘discussions of pleasure, pain, consent and coercion’ (recommended by the anal-sex researchers). They need to learn how chronic overstimulation can alter their brains and tastes.”

The science behind pornography addiction:

“Some psychologists and clinicians outside the addiction-neuroscience field claim it is a mistake to employ addiction science to understand behaviours like compulsive gambling and out of control consumption of internet pornography. They argue that addiction only makes sense when talking about substances like heroin, alcohol or nicotine. This view often finds its way into the media. But the latest research into the nature of addiction contradicts this. You may not be aware of it but addiction is perhaps the most extensively studied mental disorder. Unlike most disorders in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), addiction can be reproduced at will in laboratory animals. Researchers then study the causal mechanisms and resulting brain changes right down to the molecular level. For example, they have discovered that same molecular switch (protein DeltaFosB) initiates key addiction-related brain changes (and thus behaviours) in both chemical and behavioural addictions. These kinds of discoveries are the reason that addiction experts have no doubt that both behavioural and substance addictions are fundamentally one disorder.”

“As yet, only two studies (both published in 2014) have isolated and analysed the brains of internet porn users. The first of these looked at users who were not addicts: “Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption: The Brain on Porn”. It was published in the prestigious JAMA Psychiatry journal.[91] In this study, experts at Germany’s Max Planck Institute found: Higher hours per week/more years of porn viewing correlated with a reduction in grey matter in sections of the reward circuitry (striatum) involved in motivation and decision-making. Reduced grey matter in this reward-related region means fewer nerve connections. Fewer nerve connections here translates into sluggish reward activity, or a numbed pleasure response, often called desensitisation (more on that below). The researchers interpreted this as an indication of the effects of longer-term porn exposure. The nerve connections between the reward circuit and prefrontal cortex worsened with increased porn watching. As the researchers explained, ‘Dysfunction of this circuitry has been related to inappropriate behavioural choices, such as drug seeking, regardless of the potential negative outcome.’ In short, this is evidence of an association between porn use and impaired impulse control. The more porn used, the less reward activation when sexual images were flashed on the screen. A possible explanation is that heavy users eventually need more stimulation to fire up their reward circuitry. Said the researchers, ‘This is in line with the hypothesis that intense exposure to pornographic stimuli results in a downregulation of the natural neural response to sexual stimuli.’ Again, desensitisation is common in all kinds of addicts. To sum up: More porn use correlated with less gray matter and reduced reward activity (in the dorsal striatum) when viewing sexual images. More porn use also correlated with weakened connections to the seat of our willpower, the frontal cortex.”

“Addiction naysayers generally insist that porn users who develop problems all had pre-existing conditions, such as depression, childhood trauma or OCD. They insist that excessive porn use is the result, not the cause, of their problems. Of course, some porn users do have pre-existing issues and will need additional support. However, the implication that everyone else can use internet porn without risk of developing symptoms is not supported by research. For example, in a rare longitudinal study (tracking young internet users over time) researchers found that ‘young people who are initially free of mental health problems but use the Internet pathologically’ develop depression at 2.5 times the rate of those who don’t engage in such use. (Researchers had also adjusted for potential confounding factors.) A year later, a fascinating experiment, which would be impossible to duplicate in the West, began when Chinese researchers measured the mental health of incoming students. A subset of these students had never spent time on the internet before arriving at university. A year later, scientists evaluated the internet newbies’ mental health again. Fifty-nine of them had already developed internet addiction. Said the researchers: After their addiction, significantly higher scores were observed for dimensions on depression, anxiety, hostility, interpersonal sensitivity, and psychoticism, suggesting that these were outcomes of Internet addiction disorder.”

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Porn use destroys grey matter in the brain:

“Research reveals that erections require adequate dopamine in the reward circuit and the male sexual centres of the brain.[148] Not long ago, Italian researchers scanned the brains of guys with ‘psychogenic ED’ (as opposed to ‘organic ED’, which arises from issues below the belt). Their scans revealed atrophy of the grey matter in the brain’s reward centre (nucleus accumbens) and the sexual centres of the hypothalamus. Loss of grey matter equates with loss of nerve cell branches and connections with other nerve cells. Here, this translates into reduced dopamine signalling (reduced arousal). It’s like your 8-cylinder engine is now sputtering along on only 3 cylinders.”

“The Italian finding is consistent with findings in the new German study on porn users published in JAMA Psychiatry. Both studies show less grey matter in the reward circuitry. In the German study, subjects who used the most porn had less grey matter and showed less arousal to sexy pictures. To answer the age-old question, size does matter, at least when it comes to grey matter.”

We, sadly, will not know more about this, according to this psychiatrist, for 20-30 years:

“A young psychiatrist, himself newly recovered from porn-induced sexual dysfunction, pointed out that the internet porn phenomenon is only 10 or 15 years old, and way ahead of the research. He notes: Medical research works at a snail’s pace. With luck we’ll be addressing this in 20 or 30 years … when half the male population is incapacitated. Drug companies can’t sell any medications by someone quitting porn.”

This is a well researched and interesting look at something not many people are talking about. It’s probably a bigger problem then we currently know if you judge the 30k hits per month Gary’s site gets and the nearly 9 million views on his TED talk. My fear is that the worst is yet to come.

You can buy a copy of the book by clicking here.

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