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What are the Effects of Porn on the Brain?

What effect does it have on the body?

Contents:

What happens in your brain when you watch porn? What is it that happens to you mentally that gets you addicted?

If you've been noticing some negative side effects from all the porn you watch, you probably want to know what's causing all these strange changes (and how to fix them).

Get ready for a deep dive into exactly how and why porn affects the brain, and the consequences of that on your body.

We've been getting our geek on reading all the science papers on the topic, so that you don't have to. So here's a simple guide that'll help you get your head around:

  • What happens in your brain when you watch porn?
  • What makes it addictive - what makes you want more?
  • What effect does it have on the body?
Photo by Adrian Swancar on Unsplash


Addicted to porn? Here's why...

So you've accepted it: your porn viewing habit isn't so casual. After you've gone through the signs of a porn addiction and recognised your symptoms, it's time to understand how this has happened to you.

Addiction as a word seems so extreme - mostly it makes you think of hard drugs and alcoholism. So how is it possible that we can actually get addicted to just watching sex on a screen? And what makes it so easy to get hooked?

Addiction is mainly to do with the brain's reward system. This primitive circuit is wired to seek the natural rewards you need for survival (like food, bonding and sex). It essentially puts you on a mission to get the reward that's in front of you, and to repeat the experience as much as possible.

When we're faced with more extreme versions of natural rewards, the result is pretty extreme too. Take junk food for instance. High in fat, salt sugar, chemically enhanced tastes... and served in XL portions. Your reward system goes into overdrive: this food must be even more of a boon for survival!

Picture this: you've just got a huge meal from McDonald's. To the brain’s primitive reward system, this is an opportunity to seriously boost your survival chances. So your binge mechanism turns on, which flicks off the mental switch that signals when you're satisfied. This means once you start eating, you won't know when to stop.

So then let’s look at porn…

Internet porn = extreme version of real life sex. By that we mean it’s an exaggerated, loud, hardcore, zoomed in, in-your-face version of sex.

'Internet porn is as different from real sex as today's video games are from playing checkers.' Gary Wilson

With porn, your reward system and its binge mode get activated, just like with junk food. The message from your brain is: consume as much porn as you can while it's in front of you, and repeat the experience as much as you can too.

This, combined with a natural phenomenon called the Coolidge Effect, is what makes porn itself so addictive.


What is the Coolidge Effect?

To put it bluntly, as a male, your brain is on an instinctual mission to ensure that you can spread your seed far and wide. So when you're faced with lots of potential mating partners (read: hot girls*), the Coolidge Effect is what kicks in to make sure you're able to get the job done quickly and efficiently.

This means if you're having sex with different partners one after the other you’ll get more aroused, come faster, and have more stamina than if you had one partner in front of you. Enter internet porn...

When you're using porn, the brain perceives all the sexy women on your screen to be real life potential mates, which puts the Coolidge Effect into gear.

Novelty is a big part of what makes online porn so arousing and so addictive. When things are new, they’re exciting. And these days, online porn gives you unlimited novelty on demand: you can load up on as many clips as you want (featuring as many different women* as you want)... All. The. Time.

Consider this: with internet porn, you're seeing more potential mates in 10 minutes than your ancestors would have seen in one lifetime, so it's no wonder your evolutionary instincts go wild.

Without the novelty, you wouldn’t be getting addicted to porn; this is because of what psychologists call habituation. If you keep repeating the same behaviours (e.g if you just watched one porn clip on repeat) after a while there’s not going to be anything rewarding in that experience. So as the novelty wears off, the brain stops releasing dopamine (which makes you find the experience rewarding in the first place).

This is one reason why drug addicts go from one drug to another, seeking a more extreme high – the original high just doesn’t cut it after a while. And the same goes with porn users getting into more extreme porn.


Your Brain And Dopamine

Photo by Josh Riemer on Unsplash

Dopamine is the neuro-chemical which tells the brain it's time to 'go-get-it'.

It’s responsible for a lot of brain functions, but specific to addiction, it's what activates the reward circuit and the prefrontal cortex, which we'll look at later.

Dopamine is the reward chemical released in the brain, to motivate you to respond to stimuli. The more extreme the stimuli in front of you, the more dopamine the reward system will start pumping out. Plus, if that reward is limitless and available all the time (like porn), all the extra dopamine whizzing round tells your brain it's hit evolutionary jackpot, and a special switch (delta FosB) gets flicked in the brain.

This switch activates the addiction cycle:

dopamine surge > excessive consumption > cravings, and the cycle continues.

It's this loop of bingeing and craving that causes the structural brain changes in addicts. When you're in that addiction loop and riding a constant dopamine high, your dopamine (D2) receptors eventually get burnt out. Your brain remains hyper-reactive to porn, but is desensitised in other ways. Low dopamine levels cause your pleasure response to go numb, which is why you no longer find satisfaction or joy in sex or regular life experiences.

A Foggy Brain

Something else you might be experiencing is brain fog, and problems in concentration and memory. Dopamine is a key player in the brain's prefrontal cortex, that’s in charge of the brain’s executive functions.

When you fry your dopamine supply by bingeing on porn repeatedly, there's not enough of the stuff to keep this part of the brain fired up, and so these functions can't run as well as they should.

The executive functions include:

  • Self control
  • Impulse control
  • Judgement
  • Ability to delay gratification
  • Willpower
  • Concentration
  • Working memory

With less dopamine going to the prefrontal cortex, you wind up less focused, forgetful, unable to make decisions, and generally feeling like your head's a bit scrambled. For more on how porn affects your memory and concentration, load this article up to read next.

Don’t stress it too much though, these changes to how your brain operates aren’t permanent. Quitting porn is like rebooting your brain: soon it will get fresher and sharper.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash


Numbing Your Emotions With Porn

It's not just your pleasure response which is eroded with too much porn; eventually, your emotions numb too. Without emotional reactions to your experiences, it can feel like you've become totally withdrawn from life. To get an idea of what that might look like, read this article about signs of addiction.

So how did this happen and can it be fixed? Something the brain is always working on is a quest to maintain homeostasis: a state of overall balance and wellbeing.

When your brain is repeatedly bombarded with stimuli as intense as porn, it has to readjust its idea of homeostasis. It does this by muting neural signals for key neurotransmitters, which means messages stop going to and from different areas of the brain when you're faced with regular, less extreme stimuli.


A Dip in Confidence

Another common side effect of a serious porn habit is social anxiety, even for dudes who used to be the life and soul of the party.

The good news is you haven't become socially awkward for good – this is another reversible change in how you feel and behave which will improve once you quit porn.

The psychological reason for this is pretty mind-blowing; turns out there's a direct link between our dopamine levels and how confident we feel. Scientists figured this out by observing our primate cousins. They noticed that the more dominant apes have higher levels of D2 (dopamine) receptors, while the meeker, more submissive apes in the gang are the ones who have less D2 receptors.

So it's clear that too little dopamine causes a lack of social confidence, which is also why low dopamine levels have been linked with depression.


The physical effects? Sexual Dysfunctions

So we're just going to say this now to put your mind at ease: although you might be having some problems in the bedroom that didn't exist before, there's nothing actually wrong with your dick.

'It starts with lower reactions to porn sites. then there is a general drop in libido, and in the end it becomes impossible to get an erection.'- Dr Foresta, Italian Soc. of Andrology and Sexual Medicine

Once again, it's really your brain that's getting the hard blow from all the porn, and because of that it's not able to send messages to your penis properly. Essentially, the weaker the messages going south, the weaker the erection.

So this is why you might be having sexual dysfunctions like ED (erectile dysfunction) DE (delayed ejaculation), or PE (premature ejaculation).

What's making the signals so weak? As your dopamine levels run havoc and you become desensitised to normal stimuli, your natural sexual appetite gets overridden. As we mentioned before, when your dopamine reserves are depleted, the pleasure response in the brain is one of the first things to go, and so you're less able to experience pleasure in natural, normal ways.

If your brain's not sending out pleasure signals, you're not going to get hard, or when you eventually do get hard you'll have trouble coming.


To round it up, everyone's relationship with porn is slightly different, and how much you've been impacted depends how long you've been using, how old you are, and how often you tune in.

We all lead different lives too, so you might see the impacts of your addiction in some areas of life and not in others, for instance:

  • Romantic relationships: as your emotions go numb, you won't be able to tune into your partner's emotions or needs.
  • Sex life: desensitisation means you're probably not finding real life sex as enjoyable as before, and your dick might not be cooperating either.
  • Social Life: low dopamine levels can cause low self esteem and a lack of social confidence.
  • Work/school life: as your frontal cortex takes a blow your executive functions are hindered, and you might struggle to focus, retain info, and think clearly.

Lastly, if you have just two take-aways from reading this article, let it be these:

  1. Excessive porn use affects the brain mainly, and as a consequence you might have some physical trouble too.
  2. The changes that happen in the brain after too much porn are not permanent and can be reversed by rebooting.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash


Discover the insane benefits of quitting porn for yourself.

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*One last thing. You might have noticed how gender specific we're being here; we don't mean to generalise or offend anyone. The psychological impacts that we're describing are specific to the primal instincts which are programmed towards procreation, and so involve being attracted to the opposite biological sex for evolutionary purposes.



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