Your Brain on Porn

To fully understand how porn negatively affects us, we need to first understand how we are engineered, biologically. Basically, we need to see how God created us.

How God Designed Us for Sex

God made sex pleasurable for a reason. Proof of this extends to the fact that He created us biologically to enjoy and even crave sex.  

Let’s take a look how our brains are designed. Our brain is wired in such a way that it wants to remember where our natural drives are satisfied. Our brain is designed to keep us alive and to also sustain humanity. If the body is thirsty, the brain’s job is to remember in vivid detail where water can be found; this is accomplished in the reward center or pleasure centers of the brain. 

There are several chemicals in the brain that accomplish learning, memory, pleasure, and relational bonding.  Here are a few of them: 

  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine
  • Oxytocin
  • Vasopressin
  • Serotonin
  • Natural endorphins
  • Natural opiates

Let’s take a brief look at each one:


Dopamine:A neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses, and it enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them.

Dopamine creates a neural pathway that links bodily need, an emotional need, or physical need to a source of satisfaction. Dopamine is the “want” mechanism in our desire. 


Norepinephrine:This naturally occurring chemical is responsible for alertness and focus; it is in effect the brain’s version of adrenaline.

Norepinephrine plays a key role during a normal sexual experience, especially with sexual arousal, and is part of the pleasure experience.


Oxytocin and Vasopressin: These two chemicals act to establish and bind our long-term memories; they bind us to another person in intimacy. In neurological professional circles, oxytocin is also nicknamed the “cuddle hormone.”


Endorphins and natural opiates: These chemicals create a “super high” or wave of pleasure at orgasm. This is the ecstasy or euphoric experience component, accounting for the “loss of self” sensation or the “two joined as one” experience. The body produces natural forms of opium, which creates this natural high.


Serotonin: After orgasm, massive amounts of serotonin are released, creating a state of extreme calm and relaxation. Additional bonding is established at this point. 


Again, God created us as sexual beings, with the desire to join with another person and expand God’s plan. We are “hardwired” for communion, intimate connection, and union with God. This desire for bonding and emotional connection is an innate craving in our human design. 

Our brains have mechanisms by which boundaries between self and other objects are observed. During sexual intercourse, especially at climax, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are simultaneously overloaded. The mind is overwhelmed by these two systems. The prefrontal cortex is also forced to operate at maximum capacity. Then the posterior superior parietal lobe is derived of sensory input. This all results in the boundary mechanisms beginning to fail and the sensory perception of “self” and “other” begins to blur, resulting in the “two as one” sensation—essentially a “transcendence of self.” 

This whole system that God designed creates a “bond” to your spouse. The repeated sexual experience with the same person (spouse) locks in the pleasure memory, along with the subsequent deep calm and peace sensation.

The science behind our sexual interaction reveals God’s design of “two shall become one.” The misuse of the marital bond designed by God is revealed in scripture as well. 


1 Corinthians 6:16 (NRSVC)“Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’”


Components of Sexual Behavior

This natural chemical and neurological design is then woven into our process of sexual attraction and sexual behavior. 

Let’s look at the components of sexual behavior. There are three basic components to sexual behavior:

  • Attraction
  • Attachment 
  • Romanticism

Attraction Phase

Attraction triggers these hormones and parts of the brain:

testosterone

caudate nucleus

ventral tagmental area (VTA)

Testosterone: a hormone that drives the sexual desires and performance.

Caudate nucleus: an area of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and social behavior.

Ventral tagmental area (VTA): an area that controls the dopamine system and reward center of the brain. The VTA is responsible for cognition and motivation. It is also responsible for intense emotions relating to fear, love, shame, ecstasy, and so on. 

Note: The VTA is also stimulated in drug addiction. 

Also note that in men, when an attractive woman is observed, this entire attraction phase sequence happens in less than one second. We’re wired this way—by God


Attachment Phase

After the attraction event, the attachment phase begins. 

In this phase, the brain releases oxytocin, vasopressin, more dopamine, and nucleus accumbens, chemicals that reinforce rewards. 

Nucleus accumbens also play a critical role in addictions. In this process, the brain releases “ΔFosB” (pronounced delta fos b). This is a chemical that creates a neural pathway to permanently record the pleasure event. (Note: This is the main factor in developing ALL addictions.)  


Romanticism Phase  

The third phase is romanticism or romantic love.  

Here we see the motivation system stimulated and then finally spiritual harmony occur. This phase seals the whole process both spiritually and biologically.

These types of love are based on the attachment and bonding phase in the biological process. This particular phase is probably the most critical to our human existence and self-worth systems. When a person consumes pornography, the romanticism phase is absent. This absence is devastating on our lives, as we see in porn and sex addiction. 


How Does This Chemistry Hurt Us When Pornography Enters the Picture?

What happens when we don’t obey the natural design of our bodies—namely, our brains? When we aren't true to our original purpose of creation? It may be helpful to consider a few common examples of what happens when we don’t use our bodies as designed. One example is when people become obese or consume larger amounts of foods with high sugar content. In this case, type 2 diabetes is frequently experienced. Another example is Olympic gymnasts. The toll on their bodies because of excessive impact causes joint problems, early onset of arthritis, and other health problems for years to come. These are examples of our bodies reacting to being used in ways they were not intended. Misusing the body—that is, our brains—by consuming pornography yields a similar destructive result. 

When we lust, look at pornography, masturbate, and behave in other inappropriate ways, we are engaging in false stimulation and unnatural stimulation. Such acts, especially internet pornography, elevates dopamine levels in the brain for an abnormally long time. This creates an elevation that boosts pleasure centers to a level that becomes intensely addictive. 

Overstimulating the brain in this way creates a situation where the dopamine receptors are supercharged or overloaded. When this happens, they begin to shut down—triggering the desire for more stimulus in order to maintain the same dopamine levels. This supercharged state makes us feel good and the brain wants more of it. The problems is that with some of the dopamine receptors shutting down, it takes more and more to reach the same state of feeling “normal.” In effect, our pleasure center is set to an unnatural elevated level. This also creates a situation where even other experiences in life that once delivered pleasure begin to feel subdued or don’t create the same feelings of pleasure they once did, leading to depression, isolation, and mood changes. We need a higher level of dopamine to feel pleasure or, for that matter, to even feel normal. To achieve this, we need more stimulus—more porn, harder porn, riskier behavior, and, in some cases, even violent sexual behavior. Our compass for risk, moral judgement, and tolerance becomes clouded. Add in the fact that during sexual activity the oxytocin hormone is also introduced for bonding, but the brain has difficulty bonding to an inanimate object or image on the screen. (Note: Oxytocin, in neurological circles is also nicknamed the “cuddle drug” as it is instrumental in the relational bonding of two people during sex)

In essence, we create a “false bond” so we are left unsatisfied—compounding the need to repeat the behavior to attempt to feel satisfied. Further, our attachment system is left “stunted.” As discussed earlier, our self-worth system needs these attachment and romanticismsystems We attempt to seek pleasure through behavior that is designed for personal bonding, emotional connection, and self-worth, but instead we are left with a pleasure spike from the dopamine and other endorphins. And yet the entire process is destructively incomplete, leaving us to want or even “need” more of the experience to feel satisfied. In reality, we are unsatisfied and left still craving e to seek the insatiable need for peace and harmony as God created us to experience. We never achieve this harmony through pornography, thus fueling the addictive process. 


What Is Addiction?

Addiction: A chronic and relapsing brain disease that is characterized by the compulsive seeking and use of a drug or behavior, despite negative or harmful consequences. 


Neural Pathways Rewritten

When we repeat the process I just described, our neural pathways are rewritten—rewritten from the God-designed state from which we were created. Repeating this behavior over and over creates deep paths in our brain, as if we were walking across grass repeatedly, turning it to dirt, then to a rut.

In most cases, we find that this euphoric experience of pornography and orgasm feels so good that we seek it for pure pleasure—just like some seek drugs or alcohol. It is so pleasurable, in fact, that we begin to substitute this pleasure as our outlet for all kinds of behavior and needs. It easily becomes our “medication” and escape from negative life events and even our reward for positive events. In most cases, we aren’t even aware that we are using pornography in this way. Since we consider sex to be a natural human experience and the porn experience is pleasurable, plus it doesn’t leave us “seemingly” mentally or physically inhibited afterward like drugs or alcohol, we are blind to the effects. 

Each time we seek pornography after  an unpleasant life experience, we deepen the neural pathway of desiring pornography as a medication to offset a negative life experience. Additionally, the experience of effectively using a person, particularly in fantasy, for your own pleasure trains your brain to use real-life people as objects for your pleasure. 

This pornography use creates a new neural pathway. Think of it like a freeway with multiple “on-ramps” within a short distance. The freeway itself is engaging in porn and each on-ramp can be viewed as a road taken to  search for a porn scenario or scene to act out. Also, engaging in real-life experiences, such as lusting after a woman you see, also creates an on-ramp.  Each experience of pornography engagement widens a particular on-ramp. And each time you experience a new fantasy flavor (a certain scenario in porn consumption), it creates another on-ramp.  This also happens each time you engage in a lusting experience in real life (like lusting after the barista at Starbucks). Repeating this process in effect creates multiple on-ramps to the neural pathway “super highway.”

Here’s what ultimately happens: When a trigger is experienced, such as seeing a young girl in tight jeans, your brain nearly “automatically” jumps to an “on-ramp”—that is, the dopamine begins to flow, sexual pleasure is craved, and the overwhelming desire to look at pornography is experienced. You are training your brain to go from a glance at a woman to “needing” pornography. These on-ramp triggers begin to also link to unpleasant life experiences, such as being criticized by your wife or being cut off on the freeway. Feelings of worthlessness, anger, and so on  rise; pleasurable escape is desired; and without realizing it, you turn to pornography for escape.

You not only used pornography as an escape, but you just created a new on-ramp to the porn neural pathway superhighway. So, next time, you feel the same way, your brain says, “I know how to deal with this unpleasantness and the feelings I am experiencing” and off to the computer you go. Maybe this feeling will come on when you are in the bathroom while on a break at work, maybe late at night when everyone else has gone to bed, or maybe even in a week from now…but it all plays a role in building the porn neural pathway superhighway. 

These on-ramps and resulting behaviors developed by the porn highway are, in reality, dysfunctions in brain circuits. This dysfunction results in a person pathologically pursuing neurological rewards. 

Now an important note: This phenomenon can happen with any activity, including alcohol, drugs, gambling, even exercise, and gossip. It can happen with any behavior that creates a “happy place.” Not all of these behaviors are bad, of course, which is a hint to how we go about healing from addiction—by rewiring our neural pathways for a positive effect.  

What we must realize is that our pathways are triggered by outside stimulus and events—any attractive woman, seductive TV commercial, negative feelings, a bad day at work, really anything that flags old feelings quickly and instantly drop us into the neural pathway rut. The only way to correct this is to write new neural pathways. Consistent engagement in the new healthy neural pathways takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity,allowing the old paths to fade. This is discussed further in chapter 11, “The 3-I’s.” of the 40 Days to Freedom book.


Chemically, Pornography Is Nearly Identical to Heroin Addiction

Can that be true? That seems like a stretch! Well according to several specialists in the neural science field, it is accurate. Here is a quote by Dr. Donald Hilton, a highly-respected neurosurgeon: “The underlying nature of an addiction to pornography is chemically nearly identical to a heroin addiction.” 

In addition to the chemical similarities, behavioral similarities between the two types of addiction are astoundingly similar. 


Look at where pornography and heroin addiction cross paths:

  • intensity of difficulty to stop
  • reduction of moral and personal judgment
  • depression and withdrawal from friends and family
  • creation of a “self-focused” attitude and personality traits 
  • chasing the “dragon” phenomenon

The resulting effects are damage to the frontal lobes in the brain. The reduction of dopamine production causes multiple physiological and biological side effects:

  • degeneration of frontal lobes
  • reduced willpower
  • inhibited moral compass
  • reduced concentration
  • increased anxiety
  • erectile dysfunction
  • depression
  • blurring of reality
  • inhibited ability to learn/decreased IQ

God designed sex to be powerful and to forge a long-lasting bond within us. Sex is the most powerful naturalexperience we can have.  The resulting bond with a spouse is supposed to be an experience of union that is a glimpse of the spiritual union with God. And when we pervert sex, abuse it, and do not follow God’s plan of our creation, we suffer in a big way. 

When sex is misused, it is incredibly addictive.  When the bonding isn't there and the dopamine is repeatedly flooding the brain, the results are staggering. 

When bonding develops between two people, the pleasure centers of the brain are satisfied and the cycle is complete (for more on this, return to chapter 7, “Understanding Sexuality”). Without that sense of completion, the addictive cycle begins, and porn falls into the same category of other drugs.

The following is a summary of the research on the spike of dopamine in various experiences and drug consumption. Start with the baseline of zero of a healthy person without any type of stimulation. These numbers represent the spike in dopamine units when the listed item is experienced:

  • Sex: 100 units, then at orgasm + 200 units = 300 units for full sexual experience
  • Cocaine: - 250–300 units
  • Heroin: 200+ units
  • Food: 50–100 units
  • Nicotine: 50–100 units
  • Sharing yourself intimately with others (nonsexual, such as in a  men’s group): 100 units
  • Out-of-body experience during meditation: 200–300 units
  • Meth: 1,200 units

As you can see, the full sexual experience, including orgasm, is as powerful in the brain as cocaine and heroin use. This is important to emphasize again: God designed us as sexual beings. We are “hardwired” to connect to another person, a spouse, not only sexually but in an intimate bond. The act of intimacy (nonsexual) results in a spike in dopamine (as illustrated above). And as discussed in the Section “Understanding Intimacy,” these acts of sharing oneself create a boost of pleasure as well as engage our God-designed connection with each other. 

We are wired for sex and bonding, not for using cocaine, heroin, and other addictive substances. As a result, the addictive properties of sex addiction are reported by scientists and world-renowned addiction professionals to be more difficult to break free from. Think of how much harder it would be to break free from a heroin addiction if God designed you to use it?  This is just the side effect of misusing God’s most powerful and life-giving “drug.”


How the Brain Impacts Recovery

You may not be surprised to find out that heavy porn addicts develop a chemical dependency. This dependency fuels the addiction even after education, inner healing, and limiting access to porn. Another interesting fact is that the brains of youths between the ages of 12 and 20 are dramatically more inclined to become addicted. The human brain at that age is incredibly neuroplasticity, making it more vulnerable to damage from the factors discussed above. Neural pathways are established dramatically more quickly in youths than in adults. 

The result however is that at any age, addiction is a chemical dependency. Without efforts to rewire neural pathways (and even then), physical withdrawal symptoms are likely. Common symptoms include increased anxiety and irritability, difficulty focusing, and, in advanced cases, increased heart rate and blood pressure, cold sweats, abdominal pain, insomnia, fatigue, headaches, nausea, depression, and feelings of profound loss or abandonment. 

Depending on how deeply your brain and physiology has been affected, these symptoms will vary. Most people will experience at least some on a mild level. You may even experience flashback symptoms if some traumatic event happens in your life and the brain instinctively wants to recall the old methods of dealing with the stressful event. I can tell you that I personally have experienced nearly all of these symptoms in my recovery … and I survived (with the help of prayer and a support group).

As a point of reference, the book Treating Pornography Addiction: The Essential Tools for Recovery,by Dr. Kevin B. Skinner, lists the stages of pornography addiction: 

1. Mild exposure—once or twice a year, no effect on regular life

2. Pornography use does not indicate addiction—occasional looking at pornography with increased interest

3. Signs of trouble—person looks about once a month, usually tries to avoid, but occasionally urge gets so strong that cannot be controlled and person gives in

4. Individual notices increased sexual fantasies and attempts to control them, which results in stronger withdrawal symptoms

5. Pornography affecting day-to-day living with significant portion of the day spent thinking about pornography

6. Pornography dominates most of the person’s day-to-day life, affecting work, school, and personal relationships

7. Pornography and acting out consumes most of the individual’s time, leaving him feeling completely out of control

From a godly perspective, even stage 1 is a misuse of God’s design for us and could potentially be a sign of deeper issues. 

As we’ve discussed, overcoming porn addiction involves rewiring your neural pathways. This means creating a different neural pathway superhighway; creating new on-ramps that relate to the old triggers that currently lead to the porn neural highway (chapter 11 of the 40 Days to Freedom book, “The 3-I’s,” deals with this); and creating “off-ramps” from your existing neural porn highway.


Scripture Relating to Porn and Addiction 

(See appendix C in the book 40 Days to Freedom for an extensive list.)


Romans 8:13(NRSVCE)for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”


1 Corinthians 6:19-20(NRSVCE) “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”


Psalm 101:3 (NKJV)“I will set nothing wicked before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not cling to me.”


1 Corinthians 6:16 (NRSVC)Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’”


1 Corinthians 6:18-20 (NRSVC) “Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself.  Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”


James 1:15 (NRSVC) “then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.”


This is a very brief overview of how humans are wired sexually, with God’s plan woven in. For more detail I recomended these books:

Wired for Intimacy by Willian Struthers

Your Brain on Porn by Gary Wilson