Is Pornography Warping Our Brains?

In a highly connected and mobile world, it’s easy to get hold of porn, but is it a harmless way to spice up your love life, or something more sinister?

1 April 2016

As anyone who has been on the wrong end of an unfortunately worded Google search can attest, pornography is easier to access than ever. Thanks to the proliferation of the internet, explicit videos and images are now no more than a few key taps away – it’s simply a fact of modern life. It’s little surprise then, that studies show most of us have seen pornography of some form at least once. There are some of us, however, that can’t seem to get enough and watch upwards of several hours a week. What effect is this having on those people? Is it all just a bit of harmless titillation, or is there a more sinister side to watching pornography? The research seems to suggest there is.

An experiment by Valerie Voon of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge found that people with ‘compulsive sexual behaviour’ show different patterns of brain activity when viewing erotic images compared to ‘healthy’ controls. These are similar patterns to those seen in drug abuse. So could pornography actually be harming us?

Voon and her team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to probe deep into the anatomy of the brain. They found that there was greater activity in three distinct regions of the brain in people who exhibit compulsive sexual behaviour. These are implicated as being more active in people with substance problems when shown ‘cues’ linked to their drug of choice. The ventral striatum is involved in handling reward and motivation, the dorsal anterior cingulate with anticipating rewards and craving, and the amygdala with processing emotions.

There has long been concern about the potential damage of consuming porn. For years headlines have screamed:

“Porn addiction messed up my life”, “Brain scans find porn addiction” or “My husband’s porn addiction almost ruined our marriage”.

And Voon’s research is not the first to find differences in the brains of people with above average porn habits. Many studies have hinted at measurable differences in the brains of people who watch a lot of pornography, suggesting addictive and possibly harmful impacts.

A 2014 paper in the journal JAMA Psychiatry titled ‘Brain Structure And Functional Connectivity Associated With Pornography Consumption: The Brain On Porn’ found decreases in activity in many areas of the brains of regular porn viewers. The researchers even suggested porn can hijack the brain and alter its function. However, they did note that these differences could be pre-existing characteristics in the brain that predispose some people to find viewing pornography more rewarding than the average person.

Nevertheless, the results raise some big questions. Does porn change your brain? And is it addictive?

BRAIN DRAIN

Without a doubt, the most active and controversial area of research on pornography today is whether or not porn can be addictive. News reports routinely use the language of addiction, describing ‘cravings’, ‘tolerance’, ‘need for more hits’ and ‘withdrawal’.

“We are still in the very early stages of understanding these processes on a neurobiological level,” Voon says. “What we do know with porn is that there are some patterns that are consistent with an addiction – but some that are not. We need much larger epidemiological studies to know for sure.”

As yet there are no officially recognised diagnostic criteria for ‘porn addiction’. Attempts to include ‘hypersexuality disorder’ in the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) – the so-called ‘bible of psychiatry’– were unsuccessful due to a lack of clear and consistent evidence.

“Pornography ‘addiction’ does not look like other addictions – full stop,” says Nicola Prause, a neuroscientist formerly at UCLA but now founder of sexual health start-up Liberos LLC. According to Prause, so-called porn and sex ‘addictions’ look similar to other addictions, such as gambling and drugs, in that they activate reward circuitry. But they do not look like them in other important ways. For one, people with problematic porn use report they have a lack of control – but when tested for it, that appears not to be the case, she says. But the main difference is that with addiction to drugs and gambling, addicts experience ‘sensitisation’: they become more sensitive to the cues of their addiction, and her research indicates porn decreases sensitivity.

Meanwhile, Voon says there is good evidence that excessive consumption of porn can lead to ‘habituation’: the desire for novel stimuli. This means regular viewers crave more hardcore scenes the more they watch. This is a trend that many men have reported anecdotally and sought treatment for.

“Although I wouldn’t yet call it an addiction, it certainly is a compulsive sexual behaviour, and there is no question that for some people excessive and compulsive use has led to difficulties in relationships, lost jobs due to watching porn at work and even suicide attempts,” Voon says. Last year she and her team published a study suggesting that online porn in particular can allow sex addicts to chase after more novel and hardcore images, onwards and onwards down the rabbit hole of the internet, enabling and worsening their addiction. “For some people this did escalate into watching more hardcore forms.”

There is agreement, however, that much more work needs to be done. “We don’t know a lot about these disorders, but there is no question that a lot of people are suffering,” says Voon. “There is a lot of shame, so a lot of people don’t seek help. The more we can recognise this as a disorder, the more we can decrease the shame surrounding this, and increase both the likelihood of people coming for treatment and our chances of helping them.”

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN?

Modern studies of ‘the brain on porn’ are undoubtedly headline-grabbing and provocative. But this is not the first time that scientists have scrutinised pornography and the ways it could impact the human condition.

In the 1970s, there was widespread concern that porn was contributing to sexist attitudes, ultimately leading to a rise in violent assaults. The fears were understandable. But have scientific studies been able to turn up any evidence?

“The academic aim was to take radical feminist ideas and put them into testable hypotheses,” says psychologist Prof Neil Malamuth of the University of California Los Angeles. “I wanted to find the characteristics of men who were more likely to be aggressive towards women – porn was just one factor among many.”

Decades of research, he says, have shown that for men, excessive viewing of pornography is consistently associated with sexist attitudes, coercive acts, aggressive behaviour and other dangerous outcomes. A meta-analysis – a study of studies – published by Malamuth in 2009 found that hundreds of papers from the 1980s to 2008 were fairly consistent in linking high rates of porn viewing with violent ideas and behaviour.

But here’s the caveat: not all men respond to porn in the same way. For most men, consuming porn will not cause them to view women differently. But in those who already are predisposed to hold sexist views or to behave in an aggressive fashion, porn can exacerbate pre-existing and dangerous propensities.

In this way, it’s just like any other drug. Alcohol, for example, is in many ways comparable to porn because it is ubiquitous, socially acceptable and legal.

“For some people, alcohol can truly ruin their lives,” explains Malamuth. “But for others it can be mildly positive, such as providing stress relief or enhancing their sex lives. It depends on the cultural context – and the individual.”

But can watching porn actually be beneficial to certain people? Prause thinks so. “There is as much of a case to be made for the benefits as well as the harms,” she says. For example, porn can introduce viewers to new activities that can ‘spice things up’ in the bedroom. “There is good evidence for mimicry, so we have good evidence that sometimes viewing porn can increase people’s tendency to perform oral sex. Erotica can have positive and negative effects, it’s about identifying for whom, and when.”

The field is riddled with misconceptions and biases that are not supported by the data, she says. Despite concerns that porn can decrease libido and lead to impotence due to ‘tolerance’ and ‘desensitisation’, research published by Prause in the journal Sexual Medicine in 2015 shows these worries to be unfounded.

Similarly, it is accepted as gospel truth that rates of pornography viewing have increased dramatically with the rise of the internet, allowing for instant access to a huge diversity of images at home. But in fact, Prause says, statistics indicate that the number of people viewing pornography overall hasn’t changed since the introduction of the video recorder. Even more surprisingly, more recent research has gone against studies from the 1980s and 1990s: increased access to pornography can often lead to decreases in rates of sexual assault. These findings emerged after changes to the laws in parts of Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sweden and the US allowed easier access to imagery.

Although Prause disagrees with the conclusions of other researchers such as Malamuth, she does agree – along with just about every other sex researcher – that porn can be extremely dangerous for some men because it can reinforce pre-existing beliefs.

“The most well-replicated and concerning harm is reinforcing rape myths in men who already believe them,” says Prause. Such that if you take a woman on a date, she owes you sex. Or that women secretly want to be coerced into sex.

“People who already hold these ideas and who start to watch violent erotica will start to believe those myths more strongly over time, and that is definitely associated with sexual assault,” says Prause.

Moreover, not just any type of porn will contribute to this problem. Run-of-the-mill vanilla porn does not tend to reinforce dangerous attitudes, she says, but violent porn certainly can.

On the plus side, Prause says that researchers could potentially use porn in a lab setting to treat those with violent, abusive inclinations. “If we can reinforce that these films are fantasy, not reality, it is possible to actually reduce the harms from erotica,” she says.

PORN PROPAGANDA

A big problem with researching porn, says psychologist Dr Taylor Kohut of the University of Western Ontario, is the way that it is portrayed in the media.

“Magazines like to sell a tighter, neater story than actually exists, and this can be a huge problem because researchers often get their ideas about what should be studied by what they see in the news. There is a relationship between the two, and it is reciprocal and symbiotic,” he says. “It’s not always negative, but it is significant.”

Kohut meticulously documented ‘asserted harms’ in media reports on porn, ranging from sexual assault and rape myths to communism and organised crime, in a 2015 paper frankly titled ‘How The Popular Media Rushes To Judgment About Pornography And Relationships While Research Lags Behind’. He found the five main ideas on porn you see in the media: are porn is addictive, porn is good for relationships, using porn constitutes adultery, using porn makes your partner feel inadequate, and porn changes your expectations about sexual behaviour. This represents a wider spread of opinions than current research perhaps reflects.

“My biggest concern regarding the scientific study of porn is that a noticeable subset of researchers come at these issues with a focus on harm in their minds. They try to establish ways to confirm that porn is causing whatever harm they already believe exists,” he says. “The field needs more people who are willing to look at the data and leave aside their politics and their issues.”