Porn is Changing Your Brain

Porn is changing your brain. Even with occasional use, porn begins to physically and functionally alter your brain, decreasing its volume and normal activity.

A Startling Trend: Erectile Dysfunction (ED)

In the past decade, there has been a sharp increase in men suffering from erectile dysfunction (ED) during partnered sex. Researchers have also found sharp increases in rates of delayed ejaculation, decreased enjoyment of sexual intimacy, decreased sexual and relationship satisfaction, and decreased desire for sex with partners. Most surprising was the age group in which these sharp increases of nearly 30% were observed: men under 40.

After psychologists controlled for the standard causes of ED, they concluded that porn’s unique properties of self-reinforcement, limitless and unrivaled stimulus, and potential for easy escalation to more extreme material were potent enough to explain the sharp rise of ED seen in the “millennial” generation. Researchers believe that the conscious and subconscious expectations porn introduces are so unrealistic that a disconnect forms between online content and real-life romantic, partnerships. This makes real-life sex less arousing, leading to a diminished ability to perform.

Porn is an unrivaled stimulus

The combination of 1) the unrivaled novelty and 2) sexual stimulation being biologically prioritized due to our innate, biological need to breed makes porn a unique activator of the brain’s reward system. The brain encourages itself via a chemical “reward” system, which is controlled by neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. Today’s porn viewer can maintain high levels of sexual arousal, and associated dopamine, for extended periods due to the unlimited novel content of accessible porn on the web. With these two characteristics combined, porn is uniquely stimulating and has been argued to be an unrivaled stimulus by some studies looking at impulsivity and addiction.

Porn usage is self-reinforcing

The brain’s reward system encourages a person to remember and repeat biologically critical behaviors, such as eating, socializing, and sex. In this way, the brain’s reward system reinforces our desire to eat ice cream or go out with friends.  Because porn is a considerable activator of the brain’s reward system, it becomes a self-reinforcing activity, where an individual can incentivize their own behavior because they have the ability to reward themselves.

With this subconscious abuse of one’s reward system, repeated use of porn leads to abnormal activation of the brain’s reward system. This has been seen in studies where sexual satisfaction with partners, as measured by affection, physical appearance, sexual curiosity, and sexual performance negatively correlates with repeated porn viewing. This occurs as a porn viewer’s tolerance to porn increases fairly quickly and leads the user to need more extreme material to be sufficiently aroused. When a viewer has conditioned their sexual arousal to the highly stimulating porn, sex with desired real partners may register as “not meeting expectations”, resulting in the user being desensitized to real sex, touch, and pleasure and thereby unable to sustain an erection. This large body of data shows that sexual arousal can be altered in those that watch porn.

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SEX. Image credit: Tom Magliery via Flikr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Moving Forward

As a neuroscientist and someone who strongly believes in sexual liberation, I have fought the notion that porn has negative effects. I have begrudgingly changed my stance and have accepted that porn changes your brain and negatively impacts romantic relationships. My bias blinded me to the sound science behind porn’s effects on the brain. The findings from peer-reviewed, academic journals are so stark that after discovering them and checking their research methods and analysis, I cannot deny their findings. I also realize that I conflated the sexual liberation that comes with being able to talk openly about erotic topics with the erotic stimulus itself. Maybe you can relate to these mindsets.

Unfortunately, being aware of the phenomenon does not eradicate the problem. However, it has been found in many studies that discontinuation of watching porn for just three weeks can reverse impotence and other sexual arousal issues in research patients. It is important for me to state that I am not suggesting that porn should be filtered or banned. I think sex education is the answer; we should educate young people that sex can be fun, enjoyable, and safe– that sex is okay. However, it is vital that we realize the depiction of sex in porn isn’t harmless fun or free of consequence.

Screen Shot 2018-03-31 at 1.51.09 PM Madelaine Wendzik currently serves as an Associate Editor for the News and Policy Team at Athens Science Observer and is a Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience Program at the University of Georgia studying neuroinflammation and immune response in pediatric traumatic brain injury. She enjoys board games, downloading one too many podcasts, and anything to do with white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. You can email her at MWendzik@uga.edu or follow her on twitter @SciPolicyGirl. More from Madelaine Wendzik.