How Does Pornography impact the Brain and its Wiring?

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Understanding the Effect of Porn on the Brain

In the past decade pornography consumption has been increased exponentially- even beyond what people could imagine. Studies have recurrently shown the ever -increasing data. In the US, according to studies, around 40 million people visit websites containing sexually explicit content; every third download is related to porn content.

A study by a Korean University on 45,783 adolescents found that 4% of the sample use internet pornography frequently. A study of 2015 called Documenting Pornography Use in America: A Comparative Analysis of Methodological Approaches reveals that around 46% of men between the age of 18 to 39 intentionally indulge into pornography in a week, the percentage of women found for the same were 16%.

The findings were increased during the pandemic, when people mostly indulged into porn. When people had nothing much to do, they indulged into pornography. Of course, internet has been easily available and there is lack of productive ways of utilizing the time. India reported an increase of porn consumption cases by 95%, a report by Indian Today. (https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/pornography-gets-a-pandemic-boost-india-reports-95-per-cent-rise-in-viewing-1665940-2020-04-11)

The studies related to porn’s impact on brain often says that yes, there are negative impact of watching porn. Although a lot of reports and studies mention the disadvantages of watching pornography, but what actually happens and how the brain structure and functioning respond to or are get effected by pornography are not well illustrated.

Apart from the different negative physiological and anatomical effects of watching porn videos on the brain, what it majorly disrupts is the “braking system” of the brain (Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective, Donald L. Hilton, Jr and Clark Watts) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3050060/); meaning the loss of an individual’s ability of self- control.

There is limited research done in this field to figure out the harmful impact of porn on brain. In fact, since clinically porn addiction is not yet recognized as a behavioural or mental disorder, there remains a lot of loop hole. But the incidence of porn addiction is increasing and becoming a serious concern.

Limited research in this field, coupled with the inadequate clinical model to explain porn addiction, many researchers, neurologists, and neuroscientist actively take reference from addictions of other types- substance, behavioural addiction. After Internet Gaming Disorder finds a place in the DSM-5, the researchers are able to understand porn addiction in similar lines of it, since the common link between the two being “behavioural addiction.”

Neuroscientists are more trying to understand the long term structural and functional impact pornography does on the brain, in the line of other forms of addiction, although in porn addiction no substance is ingested into the body physically. But the impact is the same than it was previously thought it would have.

Read more: How Porn is Negatively Affecting the Brain & Minds of the Youth

The neurological impact of addiction- across all its varieties, work universally on

  1. The brain chemicals responsible in the reward system
  2. Degradation of brain tissues across Prefrontal areas of the brain

Thus, these two major concepts are also essential for understanding the negative impact of pornography on brain. First is the brain – reward system and other is erosion of prefrontal cortex, among many other side effects of watching porn videos.

How Pornography impacts Brain

We have a reward pathway in the brain, called mesolimbic pathway. This reward pathway has the bunch of neurons that release dopamine, hence called dopaminergic neurons. Release of dopamine facilitates rewarding experience and is also related with the experience of pleasure. The pleasure experienced in sexual activities and masturbation is due to release of dopamine.

Interestingly our brain has a tendency to keep seeking for pleasure and if the brain experiences that pleasure because of a behaviour, then the brain is wired in such a way that it craves for that behaviour instead of a natural reward.

The unique thing about the functionality of the dopamine is such that the dopamine neurons start getting excited in anticipation of pleasure. For example, if an individual is anticipating a pleasure experience, the dopamine neurons get into action and dopamine level increases in the pathway. This very idea explains the concept of craving.

In other words, regular abuse of an addictive behaviour makes the individual crave to experience that same pleasurable and rewarding event again and again. It is the dopamine functioning responsible for this mechanism.

The hard wiring of the brain is such that it has a tendency to return to that pleasurable experience triggered by a substance or behaviour. Once the brain experiences the trigger, the abstinent brain craves to re- experience the pleasure again. A study (Garavan et.al 2000) mentioned that the brain easily seeks for harmful rewards be it a behavioural substance or a physical substance.

Addiction of any sort negatively impact that part of the brain which is responsible for self- control. Self- control is primarily operated by the prefrontal cortex and degradation or erosion of the prefrontal cortex is the other concept to emphasize when we talk about the side effects of pornography on brain functioning.

The relationship between porn watching and prefrontal degradation is bi-directional. Excessive indulgence of pornography videos leads to deterioration of the prefrontal grey matter causing lose of self -control; and impaired self- controls would mean having no sense to control oneself from porn watching. This is the sad wiring of the brain!

The hypofrontal syndrome associated with addictive patients of any form results in marked difficulties like compulsivity, emotional dysregulation, impulsivity and impaired judgement.  Similar difficulties are found among the porn addicts as well, following the same bi-directional relationship or vicious cycle as mentioned.

The degradation of prefrontal tissues of the human brain due to porn watching also results in impairment of decision making, reasoning and host of other higher ordering functioning.

How do I train my brain or how to channelize the dopaminergic activity?

Usually, as a practicing Clinical Psychologist, clients usually ask me this common question. How do I stop watching porn? Do I have any control on porn watching? Can control my brain not to crave for porn?

Answer to these varied questions is simple yet involves strong efforts; but these efforts are doable with a little bit of practice and positive adaptability.

The crux is to understand the mechanism. It says the same mechanism of addiction is useful in de-addiction, only that we need more positive and adaptive replacements for the pleasurable behaviours.

Train the brain

The motive behind porn addiction to experience pleasure, needs to be positively replaced with a more adaptive motive to experience similar pleasure. Yes, it is difficult but very much possible.

The most important step to begin to train your brain is to set a goal. Using BlockerX app recovery process becomes easier with an effective goal setting system. This step of goal setting is directly linked with abstinence. The key to recovery from porn addiction is abstinence, only that we need to navigate the abstinence process well with strength and positivity.

The process of recovery is tough and very stressful, no doubt about it. But it gets easier with professional help from a therapist. With the help of a couple individual sessions with the therapist, it becomes easier and the individual is better able to cope with the recovery process.

The next significant thing to do is, plan your day ahead and make a list of things which really excite you. It can be a hobby or something you love to do and you are passionate about it. A lot of time porn addicts report that they have lost interest in doing things they used to love doing before. But that is the “strong effort” you require to put. You may feel a little lethargic to begin but as you set the pace you will surely get fine with passing days.

Once you might have planned your activity, you may wonder how do I do this task for longer. Individuals indulging into problematic porn consumption behaviour often report of having difficulty in focusing; they are unable to pay attention and concentrate. So, time yourself for short intervals and break the task into smaller parts, for example doing the task for 10mins, and then take a break, and again come back. At the initial phase of overcoming porn addiction, plan activities for maximum half an hour day (breaking it in 10mins task interval and frequent break)

This mechanism of gradually getting engaged into more productive task will become more rewarding and hence the dopamine secretion will occur when you are engaged in activities which you love and enjoy doing. Thus, a new reward pathway will be established; now replaced with more productive and adaptive task which will replace the maladaptive problematic porn watching behaviour.

The idea is to stay engaged in productive activities, because the tendency of human brain is such that lack of productivity will lead to an easy slip into maladaptive lifestyles. As it says “an empty mind is a devil’s workshop.”

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