Politics, Porn and Addiction Neuroscience

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Curious about Internet porn? Ask an addiction specialist.

Spoiler alert: We're in favor of free speech, aren't working to ban porn, and have little tolerance for Santorum's politics. Nor are we religious. That said, it's good that Ricky baby moved the Internet porn addiction debate into the spotlight. There are important new developments in the field of Internet addiction, which need to become common knowledge as quickly as possible to aid users in recognizing signs of overuse and addiction.

Many Internet porn users are complaining of miserable symptoms, most of which are recognizable by specialists as addiction-related. (Also see tolerance and withdrawal symptoms.) The good news is that addiction symptoms are often reversible if the sufferer correctly understands how his behavior has altered his brain—and changes course. Yet until the mainstream acknowledges that addiction is at work, those affected are often misdiagnosed and feel powerless to change their circumstances.

Unfortunately, some of the expert responses to Santorum's remarks are serving as roadblocks to the flow of this vital new information about Internet addiction. For example, when a journalist recently tried to check Santorum's claim that,

A wealth of research is now available demonstrating that pornography causes profound brain changes in both children and adults, resulting in widespread negative consequences.

various academic sexologists replied:

There is absolutely no legitimate science to back up that statement. The claim is made periodically by ideologues of one stripe or another, but any basic fact-checking reveals that such claims have no meaningful evidence behind them. —J.C. PhD

This idea that consumption of pornography causes cortical atrophy that leads to negative consequences? We haven't seen that.—R.R. PhD

There is not a single study of pornography use showing brain damage or even brain changes.—B.C. PhD

These definitive-sounding statements give readers the false impression that studies isolating porn users' brains have been done, but have shown no evidence of addiction-related changes. This is completely untrue and therefore misleading.

An accurate statement would point out that Internet addiction has been studied and has revealed the signs, symptoms, behaviors and physical brain changes associated with all addictions. Incidentally, the Internet addiction studies didn't exclude Internet porn use. They simply didn't isolate it.

"Yes, but maybe Internet porn itself is harmless," you say. Actually, there's no neurobiological reason to presume that Internet porn use alone—assuming that anyone uses the Internet only for porn—is less likely to affect brains than other Internet activities.

On the contrary, according to Dutch researchers, online erotica has the highest potential of any online activity for becoming addictive. So the rates of Internet addiction reported in recent studies would likely rise if Internet porn use could somehow be isolated. And they would certainly be higher if only young males were evaluated.

Rates of Internet addiction in adolescents and university students are as high as 18%. In the latter study a quarter of the males tested were addicted, and close to one in ten females were addicted. The researchers said,

Excessive Internet use may create a heightened level of psychological arousal, resulting in little sleep, failure to eat for long periods, and limited physical activity, possibly leading to the user experiencing physical and mental health problems such as depression, OCD, low family relationships and anxiety.

Obviously, the facts about Internet addiction findings present a very different picture from the misleading statements of the sexologists quoted above.

Consider the following: Psychiatry's upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) will move gambling to the addiction category without research isolating players of blackjack, roulette, slot machines, poker, etc. Now that science has shown us that Internet addiction is as real and potentially damaging as any other behavioral addition, why are sexologists implying Internet porn addiction must be studied in isolation?

By the way, neuroscientists have shown that adolescent brains are more susceptible to addiction than adult brains, so there's a scientific basis for Santorum's assertion that children are being affected. This greater vulnerability to addiction is even seen in adolescent animals.

Internet porn addiction is an Internet addiction, not a sexual disorder

One reason the journalist received superficial advice is that some experts haven't yet acknowledged that highspeed Internet stimulation (whatever its content) is a uniquely powerful new phenomenon. They figure that if masturbation is involved, then the issue is sexual behavior. And that's presumed to be harmless until specifically proven harmful in isolated subjects.

They're mistaken. Whether nudity or ninjas, highspeed novel stimulation has the power to change some brains profoundly. Neither quantity nor content defines Internet porn's addictiveness. When researchers tested, the degree of problematic porn use correlated with the degree of novelty sought (applications opened) rather than time spent. Demands to define "porn" are straw men. For one person, it's feet. Someone else lights up for spanking. Tastes are unique and so dopamine response is too. However, if your choice of Internet porn throws your brain into over-consumption, you could slide into addiction.

The bottom line is that today's Internet porn is far removed from erotica of the past because of its medium. In fact, we've heard from a number of older, longtime porn users who only developed porn-related sexual performance problems after they got highspeed. (All recovered their sexual performance within a few months of abandoning cyber erotica.)

The most powerful hook in today's porn lies in its power to deliver constant spurts of dopamine to the brain, whether the viewer climaxes or not. (Dopamine is the neurochemical associated with addiction.) Novelty-at-a-click, multiple windows, constant searching, precisely targeted fetish videos, and material that constantly violates expectations all goose the brain. In contrast, good old fashioned (pre-highspeed) solo sex was more of a one-and-done exercise.

Of course, sexual arousal also reinforces Internet porn's use (because it, too, raises dopamine). Porn is no doubt one of the most riveting Internet pastimes, given that it also exploits the powerful evolutionary drive to pursue sexual arousal. Yet for many viewers, pursuit of orgasm becomes secondary, as addiction numbs their response to pleasure.

If addiction can happen with Facebook or online games it can happen with Internet porn.

'Addiction is one disease, not many' (ASAM)

If the journalist above had consulted addiction specialists about Santorum's claims she might have learned that—due to the advances in the neuroscience of addiction—there's no longer a need to study individual activities in order to evaluate their addictiveness. Instead, the focus is on the user.

Some people can engage in superstimulating behaviors/chemicals without addiction-related brain changes occurring; others cannot and become addicts. So it isn't the activity that is addictive; it's overconsumption plus individual susceptibility. 

Moreover, extensive research has revealed that verbal assessment results correlate with specific brain changes common to all addictions. This is why some of the world's most prominent addiction specialists (the American Society for Addiction Medicine, or ASAM) last year released a public statement declaring that diagnosticians can generally assess the presence or absence of addiction-related brain changes by asking about specific signs, symptoms and behaviors.

In keeping with this finding, ASAM also stated that sexual behaviors can cause genuine addiction (in some people). Thus, unless researchers armed with brain-scans of Internet porn addicts can somehow prove that Internet porn is mysteriously different from all other Internet addiction at a neurobiological level, it doesn't matter if no scans are ever done isolating Internet porn addiction. Specialists can accurately assess anyone seeking help for any addiction, whether or not it has been studied in isolation. They did so long before brain scans were invented.

The sexologists quoted by the journalist were apparently unaware of ASAM's definitive statement that addiction is a single disease. The research they are demanding would be superfluous. (At the request of Psychology Today's editor, the statements about the state of addiction research have been confirmed by Donald L Hilton, MD.)

Time for accurate information and optimism

Rejuvenated, optimistic men with mojo will do a much better job of righting the world's wrongs (and countering political spin) than men who are desperate because they are unable to work out what is depleting their confidence, concentration, charisma and attraction to real mates. (Same goes for females.)

We hate to see Santorum use porn addiction to create moral indignation, but the solution is not to mislead the public about the state of relevant scientific research. It's wrong to imply that isolated research has been done on Internet porn users' brains. It's deceptive to suggest that no research has revealed brain changes in Internet addicts. All Internet addiction research points only in one direction: It shows the same fundamental brain changes found in other behavioral and chemical addicts.

Some, and hopefully most, of the addiction-related brain changes that accompany behavioral addiction are reversible with difficulty and support. Evidence from two of the spate of recent Internet addiction studies shows that in control groups of former Internet addicts, the harmful brain changes had already begun to reverse themselves. This is consistent with the profound improvements former heavy porn users report within a few months of quitting Internet porn use. See self-reports.

Journalists and sexologists: If you want to see Santorum-esque politicians put in their place, help porn addicts rebound. Don't mislead them that there's no basis for saying Internet porn can cause addiction. Don't tell them their symptoms from overconsumption of Internet erotica are due to "unrelated problems," which must be medicated with powerful mind-numbing drugs. Help them stop digging their holes deeper by informing them about the reality of Internet addiction.

Cliff notes version:

Journalists: When you want to hear about the science relevant to Internet porn use, go to an addiction specialist, not a close-minded sexologist. (Many sexologists understand the truth. Ask one of them.) And ask the right question. The correct question was, "Is there research evidence to back up Santorum's claim that Internet porn use can lead to brain changes with negative consequences for children and adults?"

The answer to this question is, "Yes, all Internet addictions have that power."