Unpublished Porn Study by SPAN Lab Finds Porn Is Arousing (2013)

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COMMENTS: Below are (1) David Ley's orgiinal 'Psychology Today' post on a Nicole Prause unpublished study and (2) my response published on March 7th. Under my post are the comments as they originally appeared, including an exchange with Nicole Prause. (Ley's current version of this post has significantly changed)

'Psychology Today' editors removed both posts on April 10th after Nicole Prause complained that my post misrepresented her study. We did not misrepresent her study as we were only commenting on David Ley's analysis of her study and his talking points - as we clearly stated in the first paragraph of our post. The Prause study was unpublished, had yet to be peer-reviewed, and only David Ley had access to it. Nicole Prause had over one month to correct David Ley's description, or to give us a copy of the study. She did neither.

On April 10th Prause commented again under David Ley's post. This time it was to promote her new study (see our commentary on it). After reading the abstract of the new study, Marnia wrote under her comment that porn addicts often report less emotional response than recovered porn addicts. She responded by commenting under my post (see below), and emailing PT editors to demand that my post be removed. She emailed me twice over the next two days, both times threatening me with legal action without any basis.

UPDATE - The Nicole Prause study was eventually published in July, 2013. Read our extensive analysis of it:


 

DAVID LEY'S POST AS IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:

Your Brain on Porn - It's NOT Addictive

What neurological research ACTUALLY shows about the people who use porn

There has been a tremendous amount of hyperbole about porn use, with many authors and doomsayers claiming that viewing porn triggers dangerous neurochemical changes in the brain. But, groundbreaking new research says that it just ain’t so, and that people who are problem users of porn are actually people with high libidos, NOT people whose brains have been warped sex and porn.

Popular antiporn advocates such as YourBrainonPorn and the group called Fight The New Drug, argue that porn regulation is a public health issue, not a free speech issue. These advocates often assert that if people and society only knew the damage that porn use was causing to our brains, that we would regulate it, in ourselves, and in the access that is allowed

Over recent years, these fear-based arguments often invoke brain-related lingo, and throw around terms like dopamine bursts and desensitization, to describe what allegedly happens in the brains of people who watch too much porn. Brain science is hot these days, and it’s attention-getting to use brain and neuroscience lingo in arguments, because it sounds so gosh-darned convincing and scientific. The problem is, there has been extremely little research that actually looks at the brains and behaviors of people using porn, and no good, experimental research that has looked at the brains of those who are allegedly addicted to porn. So, all of these arguments are theoretical, and based on rhetoric, inferences and applying other research findings to try to explain sexual behaviors.

Fascinating, rigorous new research has now been done, which actually examined the brains of alleged sex addicts, and guess what? The results are a bit different than the rhetoric. In fact, the results don’t support that sex addiction is real, or reflects any unique brain-related issues at all.

 In research soon to be published in the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience of Psychology, authors Steele, Staley, Fong and Prause used EEG testing to examine the effects of visual erotica, on the brains of people who felt they had problems controlling their porn use. 52 sex addicts, including men and women, had their brain’s electrical activity examined while they looked at erotic imagery.

Sex addiction theory predicts that these individuals would show brain patterns consistent with that of cocaine addicts, who demonstrate specific electrical changes in the brain’s activity, in response to drug-related cues. -

Sex addiction proponents, from Rob Weiss to Carnes have long argued that sex and porn are “like cocaine” in the brain.

But, when EEG’s were administered to these individuals, as they viewed erotic stimuli, results were surprising, and not at all consistent with sex addiction theory. If viewing pornography actually was habituating (or desensitizing), like drugs are, then viewing pornography would have a diminished electrical response in the brain.

In fact, in these results, there was no such response. Instead, the participants’ overall demonstrated increased electrical brain responses to the erotic imagery they were shown, just like the brains of “normal people” as has been shown in hundreds of studies.

Ah, but the sex addiction proponents might argue that this is because these porn addicts have a stronger response to sexual stimuli, and that is why they are addicts. This is one reason that porn and sex addiction theories are so tough to argue – they are unfalsifiable, by presenting opposing things as part of their theory, and having very fluid arguments, that explain when data or results don’t match their theories.

This is where the authors of this study were very clever. The researchers included measures of sexual desire or libido and multiple measures of sex addiction in the questionnaires they administered to the participants. The EEG results of this study were predicted by the measures of libido, and there was NO relationship between measures of sex addiction, to the neural measures. In other words, the EEG findings of increased response to erotic stimuli were consistent with the responses of people that have higher levels of sexual desire. The alleged sex addicts of this study have brains that look like those of other people, who have high libidos, but don’t identify as sex addicts.

Another part of this sophisticated analysis is that the researchers looked at the different tests that measured aspects of sex addiction/hypersexuality, and at the tests that measured libido. They then conducted statistical analyses to identify if any of these test results varied consistently with the difference in brain responses. Again, the tests of sexual addiction had no connection with the neural findings. But, a significant portion of the change in neural responses was explainable by the participants’ level of sexual desire – when a participant reported higher levels of libido, they also demonstrated lesser neural responses to the sexual stimuli they were shown. This was a somewhat surprising finding suggesting that people with high libido may find pornography less novel, and thus have less neural response – this is consistent with some other studies, which have shown that those with high levels of sexual desire have less response to visual erotica. But, this is not unique to sex addicts, and was predicted by levels of sexual desire, NOT symptoms of sex addiction. Higher rates of sexual addiction symptoms, no matter which of three scales of sex addiction were used, had NO relationship to the neural response to the erotic pictures they were shown.

Porn addiction advocates will surely cry "aha! See, there it is, porn addicts have a LOWER response, and that's why they are addicts, they've been desensitized." But remember, it was the measure of libido that predicted decreased neural response, not measures of sex problems or even porn use. Even amongst the study group of problem porn users, there were varying levels of libido. And, just like other people who don't have problems controlling their porn use, it is the higher levels of sexual desire that predict this decreased effect. Lots of people with high libido have this same effect, but report no problems controlling porn use.

One can argue that this is merely one study, and only one measure of the brain’s activity. Porn addiction proponents will undoubtedly argue that other types of brain studies such as MRI’s, MEG’s, SPECT scans, or other brain scans will show the effects they believe are there. I’m sure others will argue that looking at an erotic still-picture is somehow different from looking at “high-speed Internet porn.” The interesting thing in these arguments is that they are arguing against the validity of science, by asserting that their theories are somehow more true and reliable than is actual scientific research or data. In other words, will they only believe data when it confirms their theories? If so, I’m sorry, that's called confirmation bias, not science.

The increasing weight of scientific investigation, as opposed to speculation and theorizing, is indicating that sex addiction is not a distinct construct, but reflects the behaviors of individuals with higher levels of sexual desire and libido, especially as those behaviors lead people into conflict with social values around sex. Like any other human characteristic, sexual desire occurs along a spectrum, with wide ranges of individual variation. The problems and complaints reported by self-identified porn and sex addicts have to do with the context within which these individuals are expressing or pursuing their high libido, NOT with a unique disease.

The proponents of porn and sex addiction may do well to begin to change their dialogue, from attacking porn and sex, to increasing the dialogue about how sexual desire and sexual expression can conflict with public/private social values and ideals. Rather than trumpeting the danger of porn, they may be more effective and evidence-based to argue for education about the varying levels of sexual desire and the need for both society and the individual to be responsible for and responsive to those differences.


 

GARY WILSON'S PSYCHOLOGY TODAY POST AS IT WAS ORGINALLY PUBLSIHED:

Unpublished Porn Study by SPAN Lab Finds Porn Is Arousing (2013)

Any claim that Internet porn addiction must be the exception—an addiction that is somehow not an addiction—requires more data than a single flawed study.

David Ley asserts that a "rigorous, clever" study has single-handedly disproved that Internet porn addiction exists—without providing the actual study, or even an abstract, for detailed commentary. (One wonders how he came by a study that hasn't yet appeared publicly.)

In any case, based on his description of this wonder study (and subject to revision if it becomes available), here are some cautionary observations:

Ley claims that those of us who believe Internet porn addiction can cause the same fundamental brain changes common to all addictions are saying "Porn addiction is just like cocaine addiction." Therefore he is of the view that any test revealing a difference in the brain response between cocaine users and porn users is proof that porn addiction doesn't exist.

Not so. First, www.yourbrainonporn.com does not claim "Cocaine addiction is just like porn addiction." This would be silly, as cocaine has additional toxic effects. What I, and addiction neuroscientists, say is that all addictions share very specific brain changes which lead to compulsive uncontrolled use. The claim that all addictions (chemical and behavioral) share fundamental brain changes refers to a certain set of brain changes, many of which are in the limbic portion of the brain, which the current study did not examine.

Decades of research have settled which brain changes are shared. They have already turned up in multiple brain studies—not just of drug addicts, but also of gambling, videogaming and Internet addicts. See Recent Internet Addiction Brain Studies Include Porn, which alone has links to 20 Internet addiction brain studies all showing brain changes seen in drug addicts. Also see Is There a Common Molecular Pathway for Addiction?

As best we can tell, Ley's wonder study does not measure any of those well-established changes. Any claim that Internet porn addiction (a subset of Internet addiction) is an exception to the well established addiction literature would require more than one, suspect EEG study to be taken seriously. Let's look at why this study could be suspect.

Comparing porn with visual cues from other addictions fails: Porn is unique

Ley writes:

"The participants overall demonstrated increased electrical brain responses to the erotic imagery they were shown, just like the brains of 'normal people.'”

Viewing porn pictures is not a cue in the sense that drug cues are. Viewing sexual acts and nude bodies is universally arousing to both men and women, but especially compelling for men. Scientists have used it for years in multiple experiments related to erections, sperm count, etc., In contrast, visuals of cocaine paraphernalia are arousing only to cocaine users/addicts.

The reliability of erotic visuals to produce sexual arousal means they universally elevate dopamine. (Certainly, sexual preferences also affect levels of dopamine released.) Chronic dopamine elevation is relevant because it seems to be a trigger for addiction-related brain changes in those who become addicted.

Both food and sex are universally appealing natural rewards. However, looking at a picture of ground beef or seeing a cow in the field won't usually raise dopamine. A food visual doesn't register as a "natural reward" itself in the same way a visual of a naked erotic target does. Erotic visuals are not only universally arousing, but also they are the addiction for porn addicts. In short, there are sound reasons why no food-picture addiction recovery sites exist while porn addiction recovery sites abound.

Since visual erotica is universally appealing, this study's "discovery" that arousal to erotic visuals is normal is hardly new. But how does that negate the possibility that some porn viewers have also undergone addiction-related changes in the brain? It doesn't.

Greater arousal to porn can be a sign of addiction in most porn users, not a sign of its absence. In the recent study Cybersex addiction: Experienced sexual arousal when watching pornography and not real life sexual contacts makes the difference, German scientists tested problematic cybersex users and controls. Increased arousal and craving in response to porn predicted greater problematic porn use. Researchers concluded that the results support the reinforcement model of addiction.

Both the German study and Ley's study found that "porn addicts" became aroused while watching porn. What a surprise.

That said, frontal cortex arousal in response to one's addiction would be normal, even if other regions of the brain's reward circuitry are less responsive to everyday stimuli. See Why Do I Find Porn More Exciting Than A Partner? This is why researchers can't disprove an addiction with a single study, even if it were well designed.

Cocaine comparisons are especially unfounded

David Ley writes:

"Sex addiction theory predicts that these individuals would show brain patterns consistent with that of cocaine addicts, who demonstrate specific electrical changes in the brain’s activity, in response to drug-related cues."

Really? Says who? Unlike cocaine, porn use taps an innate set of complex circuitry related to human sexual arousal and mating. How could EEGs relating to the two activities be comparable?

To return briefly to the cue discussion, according to Ley, the researchers compared EEGs of cocaine addicts watching pictures of cues, like white powder or people using cocaine, to EEGs of sex addicts watching porn. In effect, they compared the act of viewing addiction cues with the act of engaging in an actual addiction, and claimed they are equivalent for purposes of comparison.  

For porn addicts cues might be seeing computer bookmarks for favorite porn websites, hearing familiar pornstar names, seeing thumbnails too small to be explicit—all without actually being able to indulge in their addiction: viewing porn.

Second, because of its toxicity, cocaine causes damage to the cerebral cortex, which alters EEG readings. These are in addition to the brain changes that arise from addiction. Therefore, comparing the EEGs of cocaine addicts to EEGs of sex addicts confounds results. It would be more responsible to compare the brains of problematic porn users with the brains of other behavioral addicts who are not using toxic substances.

Internet porn viewing is not like taking drugs. Drug addiction is an addiction to more of the same, whereas Internet porn addiction is an addiction to seeking novelty. Cocaine users may use cocaine year after year, but Internet porn users do not stare at a single picture year after year. They often run through numerous videos or images in a single session, never to return to those videos. Some escalate through entire novel genres of porn over time.

Bottled spinning tops at restThis crucial difference alters the brain response in porn users relative to drug users, as there are separate dopamine circuits strictly for novelty. Such circuits would be activated by porn use but not activated by drug use. As a result, electrical brain activity during porn use would not match substance use.

Also keep in mind that there are built-in satiety mechanisms for drug use, which cause declining activation during a binge. A porn user, in contrast, can keep using during a binge for as long as he can find something hot enough to hold his interest. In other words, the model the study authors use may not match porn use.

Are the test subjects truly representative of problematic Internet porn users?

This study appears to be a "sex addict" study, and may be of little relevance to potential porn addicts. As we have pointed out sex addiction is not Internet porn addiction. The former is often related to childhood issues. The later is, above all, an Internet addiction.

Sex addicts may use porn, but they typically act out with real people as sexual targets. This is in sharp contrast to many young Internet porn addicts, for whom real sex is disappointing. Today's typical Internet porn addict is in his twenties or younger, and often lacks the funds to be diagnosed as a "sex addict,' so we'll be curious to learn whom the scientists recruited and how.

The future

Responsible brain studies of Internet porn addicts' brains could potentially add a lot to human understanding, but they need to be based not on "sex addicts," but on Internet porn addicts (especially those who started out on Internet porn, as they are reporting the most severe symptoms). Studies need to compare "apples with apples," instead of mixing up cues with underlying addiction. They also need to exclude comparisons with EEGs that are altered by toxic drugs (cocaine use), and focus on actual addiction criteria such as D2 receptors or structural abnormalities.

In short, to support a headline like "Porn's Not Addictive," Ley needs more than a single EEG study comparing two non-comparable variables. This recent study on sexual conditioning and DeltaFosB (the molecular switch common to all addictions) summarizes years of research. It states clearly that accumulation of DeltaFosB initiates all behavioral and chemical addictions. And that the accumulation of DeltaFosB is triggered by spikes of reward circuitry dopamine. See Natural and Drug Rewards Act on Common Neural Plasticity Mechanisms with ΔFosB as a Key Mediator (2013) From the study:

"Thus, natural and drug rewards not only converge on the same neural pathway, they converge on the same molecular mediators and likely in the same neurons in the NAc to influence the incentive salience and the “wanting” of both types of rewards" [drug and sex].

Also see DeltaFosB in The Nucleus Accumbens is Critical For Reinforcing Effects of Sexual Reward (2010), which concluded that "the long-lasting effects of both sexual behavior and drugs are mediated by common cellular or molecular mechanisms."

Put simply, DeltaFosB controls gene expression for all addictions, which occur in the same circuits, and lead to the same fundamental brain changes and behaviors, such as inability to control use. As mentioned earlier, human brain studies on other behavioral addictions (Internet, food, gambling) have confirmed that all addictions share the same fundamental brain changes.

Any claim that Internet porn addiction must be the exception—an addiction that is somehow not an addiction—requires more data than a single flawed study.

 


Below are the comments saved from Wilson's original post. See the last two: one by Nicole Prause and my response.

Cupid's Poisoned Arrow

Thank you, Gary. That's all I

Thank you, Gary. That's all I can say is thank you. Your work and dedication to this matter is remarkable.

Cues

I disagree that cues for porn would only be bookmarks, porn star names, etc.. Viewing porn itself can be both the cue and addiction. Also, viewing white powder and people using cocaine is the same as viewing porn in the sense that these are both visual behaviors. Watch porn can be BOTH the cue and behavior.

"Visual behaviours" isn't the

"Visual behaviours" isn't the appropriate set for which to draw properties from though. The point here is not founded on the premise of them being visual.
Watching porn can be a cue to watch more porn but it is not the distinction being made here. What is, is that a cocaine addict watching other people use cocaine is not analagous to a porn addict watching porn.

Plus the lack of abstraction between sex and porn addiction in the original article throws all logic off anyway.

Viewing porn = the addiction itself.

QUOTE: Viewing porn itself can be both the cue and addiction. Also, viewing white powder and people using cocaine is the same as viewing porn in the sense that these are both visual behaviors. Watch porn can be BOTH the cue and behavior.

Technically, a cue is something that triggers the unconscious or conscious memories of using X. It is not using X.

Certainly, viewing porn can increase cravings and cause you to continue to watch porn, but it is still engaging in the addiction. There is no other way to slice this pie.

Thank you Gary. My life is

Thank you Gary. My life is back on track because of people studying the effects of porn on our minds. All the best to you!

3 Cheers for Critical Thinking!

Thank you for applying some basic critical thinking to this. It boggles my mind that this alleged "study" has gotten so much attention. (sigh)

Thank you, Mr. Wilson.

Thank you, Mr. Wilson. Wonderful rebuttal.

Study not requested nor reviewed

Unfortunately, these authors never requested access to our manuscript, so they actually did not review it. They have made a number of egregious errors misrepresenting the science in this article. I am investigating who to contact to remove this article given the lack of due diligence by the authors.

We are now using this as our course example of the misrepresentation of science in the media now, though, so thank you for that opportunity.

We are responding to Ley's post - as we stated

How could we misrepresent your unpublished study when we haven't seen it? We stated very clearly in our post that said we haven't seen it, and that we had only David Ley's description to go by.

OUR FIRST PARAGRAPH:
"David Ley asserts that a "rigorous, clever" study has single-handedly disproved that Internet porn addiction exists—without providing the actual study, or even an abstract, for detailed commentary. (One wonders how he came by a study that hasn't yet appeared publicly.) In any case, based on his description of this wonder study (and subject to revision if it becomes available), here are some cautionary observations:"

-------------

Dr. Prause, you may want to reconsider your practice of releasing unpublished, non peer-reviewed studies to selected 'Psychology Today' bloggers who apparently cannot convey an accurate description of your study.

Questions for you:

1) Why did you release your study to only David Ley? As the author of the "Myth of Sex Addiction," and someone who claims porn addiction cannot exist, why was only he the only Chosen One?

2) Why haven't you corrected David Ley's interpretation of your study? It has been up for over a month, and you've commented twice on it in the last month.

3) You commented under Ley's post one month ago. I immediately posted a comment under you comment, with several specific questions directed to you about your study. That was your chance to both respond and offer the study. You did neither. Why are you over here making accusations instead?

It has has been very disappointing to witness the politics of science up close.