Porn addiction rampant, says neuroscientist

Printer-friendly version

According to Dr. Anthony Jack, a professor of neuroscience with 20 years of education and research experience in the field, access to internet pornography is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the pornography to which humanity used to have access (and rest assured, we have always had access to it). He believes that pornography, furthermore, is seriously harmful to the human brain and psyche:

"The threat that internet pornography poses can be traced to the effects it has on the reward circuitry of the brain. This reward circuitry comprises a remarkable and complex system. It learns and changes with experience, and it is sensitive to many different sorts of rewards. The central nexus of this reward circuitry is a set of subcortical structures that lie just above and behind the eyes. These structures are usually referred to collectively as the ventral striatum, and activity in these structures indexes the degree to which a stimulus or behaviour is rewarding to the individual. Some rewards are very concrete. You won’t be surprised to learn that the ventral striatum fires when people eat chocolate and when they look at pictures of attractive scantily clad people. These are obvious atavistic rewards."

Indeed, he notes that we are biologically hardwired to seek attractive mates and rich foods. In fact, he notes that cocaine would not be an attractive drug if it did not activate the ventral striatum. However, the ventral striatum is activated by stimuli beyond drugs and the reward system. It is also intimately connected with parts of the brain involved in social processing, and it is triggered a great deal by rewards which are dependent on social context.

"For instance, stimuli which signal financial gains and increase in social status also activate the ventral striatum. It is very important to appreciate that the ventral striatum is not just associated with self-serving rewards, but also motivates prosocial behaviour such as charitable giving. The ventral striatum is highly sensitive to genuine empathetic social connection, including looking at a photograph of a family member, falling in love, altruistic acts, and even the simple feeling that someone has listened to you."

Reward and addiction are both related to each other. Those struggling with substance abuse problems have a disordered reward system. In other words, their reward system is not functioning properly. "That is, the medical phenomenon of addiction occurs when the reward system loses its balance and becomes over tuned to prefer a type of reward that is demonstrably detrimental to our well-being." While such excessive reinforcement is necessary for constituting an addiction, it is not sufficient. Just because the reward system is strongly geared towards reward does not mean that the individual is a pathological habit. "Addictions" to exercise or good books are examples of this. These may be healthy "addictions." Indeed, research suggests that having a reward system attuned to social connections is correlated with good health. This is where pornography enters the picture, according to Dr. Anthony Jack:

"This is what makes internet pornography addiction so troubling. It represents a tuning of the reward system from a very healthy type of reward, that of forming a genuine and intimate connection with another, into a type of reward that removes the user from social contact, and often leaves them feeling lonely and ashamed rather than connected and supported."

For Dr. Jack, individuals who are addicted to pornography confess that their reward systems are attuned to pornography in such a way that makes meaningful interpersonal, sexual relationships difficult or impossible. He emphasizes the importance that physicians take this seriously as an addiction:

"Many physicians and researchers have dismissed and undermined these reports. However, that strategy is simply not ethical. We must respect the wisdom of their experience and the humility they show by sharing it. Anyone who pretends to care about the social and sexual health of others has a duty to better understand this phenomenon and find creative ways to reduce the damage it is doing."

According to Gary Wilson, it is important not to dismiss the debate surrounding whether or not pornography is harmful as mere religious or conservative rhetoric. This transcends mere disputes over ideology, he says. Instead pornography has real and demonstrable effects on the brain. As psychiatrist Norman Doidge points out:

"The men at their computers looking at porn ... had been seduced into pornographic training sessions that met all the conditions required for plastic change of brain maps. Since neurons that fire together wire together, these men got massive amounts of practice wiring these images into the pleasure centres of the brain, with the rapt attention necessary for plastic change. ... Each time they felt sexual excitement and had an orgasm when they masturbated, a ‘spritz of dopamine’, the reward neurotransmitter, consolidated the connections made in the brain during the sessions. Not only did the reward facilitate the behaviour; it provoked none of the embarrassment they felt purchasing Playboy at a store. Here was a behaviour with no ‘punishment’, only reward. The content of what they found exciting changed as the Web sites introduced themes and scripts that altered their brains without their awareness. Because plasticity is competitive, the brain maps for new, exciting images increased at the expense of what had previously attracted them – the reason, I believe, they began to find their girlfriends less of a turn-on ... As for the patients who became involved in porn, most were able to go cold turkey once they understood the problem and how they were plastically reinforcing it. They found eventually that they once again attracted to their mates."

Indeed, many porn addicts confess that they have difficulties with sex drive when it comes to their significant other, as well as reporting erectile problems. A team of neuroscientists headed by a psychiatrist as Cambridge University said the following:

"that as a result of excessive use of sexually explicit materials, they had ... experienced diminished libido or erectile function specifically in physical relationships with women (although not in relationship to the sexually explicit material)."

ORIGINAL ARTICLE