Porn has been traditionally condemned as morally wrong and detrimental to human relationships. Addition to adult material is likened to gambling, drugs or alcohol. However, how deep are its negative effects, and does it have the power to alter the workings of our brains? Here is what genuine medical research has concluded.
If a person develops a habit of porn consumption, their brain is literally rewired. It is triggered to produce chemicals and generate new nerve pathways. This causes long-term structural changes.
A 2015 study titled “Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update”, concluded that this phenomenon is based on mechanisms similar to substance addiction, and the brains of those who frequently watch porn are:
- less active;
- less connected;
- smaller in some of its areas.
Importantly, the correlation here does not imply causation, so we are yet to find out if this is the case. What is clear is that the issue is worth researching further.
Development of the brain
Despite the earlier scientific notions, the human brain never stops developing. In fact, it keeps on changing, creating fresh nerve connection and thus rewiring itself. Of course, these processes are strongest during one’s youth.
Human brain includes a hundred billion neurons or nerve connections. These transmit electrical signals between the different brain parts and the rest of the body. While such signal transmission is taking place, the activated neurons form fresh connections called neural pathways (“neurons that fire together, wire together”).
The more times a pathway is activated, the stronger it becomes. Repeated exposure to the same kind of stimulus may, therefore, reinforce certain connections. In the case of new skills, such as playing the piano, the process is vital, allowing us to absorb new knowledge.
The brain consumes a lot of energy and oxygen (around a fifth), which means resources are limited. As a consequence, only the strongest brain pathways survive, while the weakest disappear with time. And this is exactly what proves the harm of porn addiction.
Pornography is very powerful in terms of forming long-lasting neural connections. It is even claimed that having real-life sex is a weaker pathway generator. According to Dr. Norman Doidge, a researcher at Columbia University, it triggers the production of chemicals that ensure lasting brain alterations. These chemicals (DeltaFosB) activate the brain’s reward center. This is identical to what happens with addictive substances.
Repeated consumption of pornography reinforces mental connections between porn and pleasure. This leads to compulsive behavior due to DeltaFosB. After the chemical has been produced, it stays in the brain for weeks or months. This explains why fans of online porn experience cravings long after giving up their habit. However, the nature of neuroplasticity means that if porn is replaced by something else, previous porn-pleasure pathways will eventually vanish.