Article Jan 29, 2015

Why Pornography Use Becomes a Habit

In every age and culture there are certain habits of sinful behavior that are particularly common and overwhelmingly destructive. In modern Western cultures one of the most soul-destroying habits is consumption of pornography, which leads us to commit adultery in our hearts. (Matthew 5:28).   

For this reason we should give special scrutiny to how habits of porn consumption develop and how they can, by the power of the gospel, be overcome. The entry on Job 31:1 discusses how to sever the shackles of porn. In this entry we’ll examine how pornography hijacks the male brain and distorts men’s affections. (Women can become addicted to pornography too, of course. The reason for the focus on the men is simply because more research has been done on the unique connection between the male brain and pornography.)

Too often we fail to adequately consider how our physical body (including our brain chemistry) affects our soul. But as William M. Struthers, associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, explains,

Because the human brain is the biological anchor of our psychological experience, it is helpful to understand how it operates. Knowing how it is wired together and where it is sensitive can help us understand why pornography affects people the way it does.

Here are four reasons porn use becomes a destructive habit:

Porn rewires the brain — Sexually explicit material triggers mirror neurons in the male brain. These neurons, which are involved with the process for how to mimic a behavior, contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior.  In the case of pornography, this mirror neuron system triggers the arousal, which leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet. Seeking a release through porn leads to hormonal and neurological consequences, which are designed to bind a man to the object he is focusing on. "In God's plan, this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen,” says Struthers. “Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond."

Dopamine causes arousal addiction — In men, there are five primary chemicals involved in sexual arousal and response. The one that likely plays the most significant role in pornography addiction is dopamine. Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain, and a variety of addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamine, and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system. Dopamine surges when a person is exposed to novel stimuli, particularly if it is sexual, or when a stimuli is more arousing than anticipated. Because erotic imagery triggers more dopamine than sex with a familiar partner, exposure to pornography leads to "arousal addiction" and teaches the brain to prefer the image and become less satisfied with real-life sexual partners. This neurological mechanism is one of the primary reasons for the abundance and addictiveness of Internet pornography.

Overstimulation creates desensitization — Overstimulation of the reward circuitry—such as occurs with repeated dopamine spikes related to viewing pornography—creates desensitization. As Gary Wilson explains, "When dopamine receptors drop after too much stimulation, the brain doesn't respond as much, and we feel less reward from pleasure. That drives us to search even harder for feelings of satisfaction—for example, by seeking out more extreme sexual stimuli, longer porn sessions, or more frequent porn viewing—thus further numbing the brain.”

What makes Internet porn unique — Wilson identifies a number of reasons, including: (1) Internet porn offers extreme novelty; (2) Unlike food and drugs, there are almost no physical limitations to its consumption; (3) One can escalate both with more novel "partners" and by viewing new and unusual genres; (4) Unlike drugs and food, Internet porn doesn't eventually activate the brain's natural aversion system; and (5) The age users start watching porn. A teen's brain is at its peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity, making it highly vulnerable to addiction and rewiring.

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Understanding how pornography affects men’s brains can helps us prepare solutions for breaking this soul-destroying habit. Next we’ll look at six steps that can help sever the shackles of pornography.