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How Porn Can Hijack Your Brain

Internet porn, which offers "new partners" at each mouse click, registers as so rewarding that the brain easily rewires itself to focus more attention on these opportunities.

A few years ago, men from all over the world began arriving in my website’s forum complaining that they were unable to stop using Internet porn. Google had sent them -- perhaps because my site shares information about the effects of sex on the brain.

My site, however, is about relationships, not recovery. Yet their obvious distress, and porn’s impact on their relationships, motivated me to welcome them. As I listen, these visitors support each other in the struggle to leave porn behind.

Often they report dramatic changes as porn use recedes: more energy, increased social confidence, better concentration, greater gains from workouts, stronger erections, a return to earlier sexual tastes, increased optimism, and more enjoyment from life’s subtler pleasures.

In short, many men are happier without Internet pornography.

Their experience has shown me that porn’s chief danger isn’t obvious to most users. It arises from intense stimulation of the reward circuitry of the brain -- a portion of the ancient “mammalian brain,” which lies under the newer neocortex (rational brain). The reward circuitry governs emotions, mating, eating, motivation, and all addictions. It runs on a neurochemical called dopamine, the “gotta get it!” neurotransmitter.

Novelty-on-demand (slot machines, video games, porn videos) is often so enticing for this primitive part of the brain, that compulsion becomes a risk. Moreover, our brains evolved to light up not only for novelty-on-demand, but also for the genetic bonanza of sex with a novel partner.

Therefore, Internet porn, which offers new partners begging for ejaculate at each mouse click, registers as so rewarding that the brain easily rewires itself to focus more and more attention on these perceived opportunities. This can swiftly reorder the user’s priorities.


Our brain’s reward circuitry evolved foremost to drive us toward sex and food. We seem to be especially vulnerable to superstimulating sexual arousal and junk food. Junk food has helped make 64 percent of Americans overweight (and half of those obese).

And now that free, streaming videos are available privately in endless supply, how many are using porn? (Hint: last year a Montreal professor had to revise his study about the effects of porn. He couldn’t find any male “porn virgins” on a major university campus.)

“The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor,” explains psychiatrist Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself. Porn users are seduced into pornographic training sessions that meet all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps, namely, rapt attention, reinforcement, and dopamine consolidation of new neural connections.

Some users (such as musician John Mayer) substitute porn for intimate relationships or friendly interaction, learning life skills, and so on. Their reward circuitry no longer perceives the latter as worth the effort. After all, this part of the brain can’t reason. It weighs options according to which release the most dopamine.

Paradoxically, it’s while someone is recovering from intense stimulation that he’s most likely to want more intense stimulation. This primitive mechanism evolved to keep us on task when something especially stimulating (“valuable”) is around. It works by numbing the pleasure response for a time (by weakening the effects of dopamine), so we look around for more.

This, by the way, is why drug addicts need more and more to get the same effects. This device probably worked just fine for spreading genes when receptive, novel mates were scarce. Today, however, the brain mistakes each enticing 2-D hottie as a prime opportunity to pass on genes. A porn user can feel as if his duty is never done.

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