Flat White

Here’s how porn is changing your brain

30 October 2017

7:28 AM

30 October 2017

7:28 AM

The human brain is mind-bogglingly complex. It’s so complex that scientists acknowledge we’ll never fully comprehend how it works. One thing you can be sure of is that your brain is ‘neuroplastic’. That is, it is constantly changing in response to mental experiences – forming new neural connections throughout the entirety of your life.

When it comes to sex, your brain is central to your experience. In response to sexual excitement, the brain releases a cocktail of chemicals, each designed to fulfil a specific purpose.

The ‘reward centre’ releases dopamine to reward you for accomplishing a goal. Norepinephrine is also released providing you with energy and a feeling of euphoria. Oxytocin and vasopressin are utilised to help you form a memory and connection between sexual satisfaction and the experience that delivered it. Endorphins give your body the feeling of physical pleasure, and following orgasm, your serotonin levels change enabling you to feel relaxed.

Overall, the system works perfectly.

When having sex both parties feel pleasure (endorphins) and focused (norepinephrine). Afterwards, both feel relaxed (serotonin). Emotional bonding and personal connection are formed (oxytocin and vasopressin), and cravings for sex are satisfied through sexual desire for one another (dopamine).

How your brain reacts to porn

The problem with porn is that it short-circuits the system by triggering the secretion of your sexual chemical cocktail without any of the courtship, human bonding or physical effort found in real sex.

This means that instead of bonding with another person your brain begins to bond with porn. Indeed, the consumption of porn is a vicious cycle. The more porn you consume the more your brain identifies it as an easier and quicker route to chemical release than sex. Thus, we are continually directed back to it, overriding the desire for actual sexual experience.

Once the reward centre has been changed, users will compulsively seek porn out, even when they are able to acknowledge that they no longer find watching it enjoyable.

It’s easy to see how brain pathways created and reinforced by porn consumption begin to establish dominance, replacing others. Scientists have identified the state of ‘flow’ as the perfect set of conditioning required to form strong neuronal pathways. We find ourselves in ‘flow’ when we are in a state of fixed attention, our minds strongly devoted to a single task. Gazing at a computer screen in search of the ‘prefect video’ perfectly exemplifies such conditions.

How porn changes your sexual preferences

The more porn you watch the more you overuse your reward centre. The more it is overused the more it becomes numb and desensitised. The number it becomes the fewer chemicals it produces and the less responsive it is to them. This all means that users of porn are continually forced to watch more graphic and extreme content to trigger the release of ‘feelgood’ sexual chemicals.

Sometimes, your brain seeks to self-regulate the release of dopamine by temporarily halting its production. But, if a desire for habitual porn consumption is well established, users will continue to seek out more graphic and disturbing porn to force the brain to re-start the production of dopamine.

Many young men and women now admit to being aroused by things that once would have scared and disturbed them. In a survey of 1,500 young adult men, 56 per cent said their tastes in porn had become ‘increasingly extreme or deviant’.

As a result, there are thousands of men, many still in their twenties and thirties, who are desperately concerned and confused by the fact that they cannot maintain an erection, reach orgasm or become sexually excited at all.

One striking element of increased dependence on extreme porn is its relationship with violence. When researchers examined 304 random porn scenes, they discovered 88 per cent of them contained violence.


What’s more, the violence in porn is certainly not exclusively consensual. 80 per cent of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation. The porn industry has become adept at disguising the fact that many performers are being forced to participate. Human rights campaigners now insist that rape porn is so normalised that there is no way of telling if a woman is in real distress.

The simple reality is this. If you’ve watched more than a few dozen videos, you’ve almost certainly witnessed a woman who has been coerced or threatened into having sex on camera.

I get that for most of us, the darkest aspects of the porn trade can feel distant.

But for those being exploited, they are very real and very present. It’s sobering to remember that 624,000 traders of child porn have been discovered in the US alone.

How pornographers are investing in rewiring your brain  

Pornographers are aware of the science. They realise that the only way to stand out in such a crowded market is to push the boundaries.

Data is now at the core of the pornography business model. The industry has invested considerably in the creation of algorithms that will allow them to identify users as specific individuals. Every time you visit a porn site data is compiled on the type of videos you’re watching.

Here’s the clever part. Each time you return to the site, a tailored menu of videos likely to appeal to your sexual interests is waiting for you. There’s just one small difference, so subtle you wouldn’t notice. With every visit, the videos presented to you have become slightly more graphic.

The end goal is to get you to seek out further content that you are specifically interested in, available only to paying users.

Of course, the free web of porn is already as comprehensive as we can comprehend, and so only around 10 per cent of users ever pay. Still, as the porn industry is now worth 97 billion US dollars, that’s enough to make a few men very rich indeed.

How porn is affecting your sexual performance

The vast majority of porn is consumed by users who are feeling bored, lonely or sad. The more you draw the curtains and block out the light – the more you miss out on real opportunities and damage your relationships.

In addition, porn is making you bad at the very thing you’re watching on repeat.

As you predominately consume porn alone, your brain comes to identify the deliverance of personal climax as your sole sexual goal. Consequently, when you get between the sheets you’re less focused on shared experience and more fixated on how best and quickest to get what you want. The result is a hollow, inward, robotic and unenjoyable sexual experience.

Similarly, real sex is entirely different from the flawless bodies, expensive lighting and deceptive editing of professional production. Unless we communicate reality to the next generation, they’ll be left feeling perpetually inadequate and disappointed.

How porn is making you hard to love

Porn isn’t just changing your brain. It’s also changing how you react and relate to those you love the most. Within relationships, porn consumption leads to less sex and less sexual satisfaction. 50 per cent of those who watch porn admit to losing interest in sex with their partner. For married couples, pornography doubles the chance of divorce. This is unsurprising. ‘Relationships Australia’ has revealed that porn consumption is leading to a breakdown of trust and destruction of intimacy in 21 per cent of relationships. Those who watch porn show far lower levels of interest in kissing and cuddling their partner.

Perhaps saddest of all, watching porn can actually damage your brain’s ability to love and feel loved.

But aren’t there some men and women among us who can combine frequent consumption of porn with a great physical sex life? If that’s the case we surely need look no further than Hugh Hefner. After all, his life is what porn would have us believe to be the pinnacle of sexual satisfaction.

In her book, Izabella St James, one of Hugh Heffner’s ‘official girlfriends’ recounts what sex was like with Hefner. Although he had a multitude of ‘perfect’ women, each willing to do whatever he pleased – every orgy he started would end the same way. Hefner would masturbate on his own while watching porn.

How our nation can stop watching porn

It’s important to realise that in a hyper-sexualized world, this is a societal fight. While individuals can act in our own lives we owe it to those who can’t to enact comprehensive legislation that prohibits porn. It’s crucial to remember that the brains plasticity is at its greatest in children. The average age that a girl will be trafficked into the sex trade in the US is between 12-14. Likewise, at just 11 years of age, the average child will first consume porn.

How we can stop watching porn

The great news is that our brains can recover from the damage caused by porn consumption.

There is constant competition in our brain between pathways. The key is to feed the right ones. The more we engage in meaningful and positive activity, be that sexual or otherwise, the more those pathways strengthen. Simultaneously, the less porn you watch, the less you will reinforce the pathways in our brain that tell us we need it. They will shrink. Research also shows that damaged frontal lobes can recover once overstimulation stops.

Quitting porn certainly isn’t as easy as many believe it to be. There are many websites and programmes online that will help you with strategy and encouragement. Too many to list in this article.

I’m trying (it’s a work in progress) to stop watching porn. I’m doing so because I know that love and human connection are infinitely more valuable and more satisfying than a video on my computer or phone. I want to be able to feel those things as fully as I possibly can.

We all know that love and sex bring people together.

It’s time we realised that porn and Pornographers are determined to keep us alone.

Fight the New Drug.

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