At the heart of Wilson’s book, ‘Your Brain On Porn’, is the claim that porn alters the brain, and not for the good.
For most people, this is nonsense. How could watching porn change a person’s brain? Isn’t porn and masturbation a normal and healthy part of life? Isn’t it the standard path for teenagers to discover themselves sexually?
It may well be the norm in our current culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Plenty of things in the past were thought to be normal and healthy, until we looked more closely. Take cigarettes for example; doctors used to recommend smoking.
Back to Wilson. His second chapter outlines the scientific studies that back up his claims. I’ll try and summarise his 40 pages into a few paragraphs.
Firstly, dopamine is the chemical that runs wild in our brains as we anticipate reward. It’s the chemical that rises as we want and even when we feel anxious. It’s what fires as we anticipate chocolate or fast food and is remarkably absent as we contemplate eating brussel sprouts.
Internet porn is all about wanting and an abundance of novelty. As a person consumes porn and masturbates (or more correctly ‘edges’, which is a term that describes masturbation not so much for the point of orgasm, but ongoing pleasure prior to orgasm), their brain is flooded with dopamine at unprecedented levels. As Wilson writes, “Internet porn is especially enticing to the reward circuitry because novelty is always just a click away.” (p. 60)
Unlike stimuli such as food, “there are no physical limits on internet porn consumption, other than the need for sleep and bathroom breaks. A user can edge for hours without triggering feelings of satiation or aversion.” (p. 65)
According to Wilson, the net result of this over-stimulation is that the brain begins to rewire itself. The brain reduces dopamine receptors to cope with torrent of dopamine and as a result it leaves the person feeling less and less satisfied (p. 66). The brain also strengthens the neural pathways being used. Wilson says “Nerve cells that fire together wire together” (p. 68). Like a dog that always runs through a yard in the same line and thus creates a track, so too the brain strengthens pathways that are regularly used.
The consequences of this are significant. According to Wilson, this causes unwanted sexual conditioning. Put simply, if you only get aroused by repeatedly watching porn and masturbating, this will eventually shape what turns you on. Real lovemaking won’t satisfy. After all, practice makes perfect.
Aside from sexual conditioning, addiction is also exceedingly common. Like other substance or behavioural addictions, a person will crave and be preoccupied with porn. They’ll lose control of their usage and experience “negative consequences in physical, social, occupational, financial and psychological domains” (p. 73).
Wilson cite two studies; one from the Max Planck Institute in Germany and the other from Cambridge to demonstrate that porn addiction causes a decrease in ‘grey matter’ in the brain.
This leads to a numbed response to pleasure; meaning you need more porn to get the same pleasure as before. It leads to “an unconscious super-memory of pleasure, that, when activated, triggers powerful cravings” (p. 80). This means that being in the place where you regularly consume porn can trigger a desire for porn. It leads to “reduced brain activity in the prefrontal regions, which weakens willpower in the face of strong subconscious cravings” (p. 80), meaning that people will give in to their desire even when they know the consequences aren’t healthy. Lastly, it leads to dysfunctional stress circuits, which means that minor stress can cause a person to relapse towards what they’re addicted to because the pathways in the brain are so strong.
This all sounds very bleak, particularly when you consider how widespread porn use is in our culture.
But the good news is that just as the brain is rewired by porn, so too can it be rewired again by removing porn. More on this in my next post.
In terms of studies on the effect of porn on the brain, it is early days. We’re just over a decade into the era of widespread broadband internet and the ability to endlessly stream porn videos. But the studies that Wilson points to are compelling. Porn doesn’t do nothing. It’s not harmless fun.
In our society, we recognise that filling our bodies with particular substances or even foods can have significant detrimental effects. We put laws into effect to protect children and to inform the public. Perhaps it’s time that we consider more carefully about what we put into our minds as well, and consider how to protect children from their brains being hijacked by porn.
Because, as Wilson says, “size does matter, at least when it comes to grey matter” (p. 90).