Brain Plasticity and Pornography

There is no more frequent and stern warning given by leaders to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints than to avoid pornography. One only needs to go to lds.org and do a General Conference search on pornography to get quite a list of talks on the subject. It seemed to be of particular importance to former president Gordon B. Hinckley.

While the church has been appropriately ‘heavy’ on the evils of pornography, they have also (in my opinion) been ‘light’ on how one can break the addictive habit. I was very pleased to see that the book, ‘The Brain the Changes Itself’ addresses pornography to some length. One section ended with the hopeful conclusion:

As for the patients who became involved in porn, most were able to go cold turkey once they understood the problem and how they were plastically reinforcing it. They found that they were attracted once again to their mates…they stopped using their computers for a period to weaken their problematic neuronal networks, and their appetite for porn withered away. (p. 130)

It is my hope to help those who may struggle with this addiction. I hope that by passing along something about the nature of the problem, and it’s plastic reinforcement, someone may benefit by kicking the pornography habit.

Pornography, delivered by high speed Internet connections, satisfies all of the prerequisites for plastic change in the brain. Some may feel that pornography is something of an instinctual matter, and the result of millions of years of evolution. But pornography is more of a dynamic phenomenon, and is something of an acquired taste.

Pornography addiction is a progressive addiction. At first one gets hooked on what may be called ‘soft’ pornography. But over time, this will not be enough. And the addict will progress on to more, and more ‘hard’ porn. This same progression is seen over the years in society, as pornography from decades ago is different and ‘lesser’ than what can be seen today.

The growth of the porn industry in extraordinary. It accounts for 25 percent of all video rentals, and is the fourth most common reason people give for going on line. An MSNBC survey found that 80 percent of viewers felt that they were spending so much time on pornographic sites that they were putting their relationships and jobs at risk. All this porn has it’s affect. As Dr. Doidge points out:

Yet the plastic influence of pornography on adults can be quite profound, and those who use it have no sense of the extent to which their brains are reshaped by it. (p. 103)

Dr. Doidge treated a number of men who had the same story – they had acquired a taste for pornography that troubled and disgusted them. This habit had a disturbing affect on their sexual excitement and a negative impact on their relationships. These men were not fundamentally immature, socially awkward, or withdrawn. They were pleasant, thoughtful men with successful relationships.

These men get hooked by some playboy type site or picture. It may be through an e-mail, what might look like a harmless web site, or some other source. But they find themselves hooked. After getting hooked, they begin to have difficulty being turned on by their actual partners, though they still found them objectively attractive. Initially the pornography helped, but had the opposite long term affect.

This pattern continues as one builds a tolerance for porn. Pornographers may boast about how they are being creative by pushing the envelope by introducing harder themes. But what they do not tell you is that they must push the envelope because of the tolerance that is built in their customers. These customers (mostly men) often experience a type of impotence. But not the kind that developed from aging or blocked blood vessels in the penis. The problem is in their brain.

The addiction to pornography is no metaphor. And as with other addictions there can be no safe moderation. The addiction comes from the release of dopamine into the pleasure centers of the brain. The brain becomes sensitized to this release of dopamine, and begins to crave it. Thus the vicious cycle – a sensitized craving for dopamine creating the desire for more porn, combined with the tolerance to porn requiring new and harder porn.

Pornography is more appetitive and exciting than it is satisfying, and since it is dopamine related it raises the tension level. This is in contrast to the satisfaction pleasure centers of the brain which attends having actual sex with your partner, which is an endorphin based release that brings a calm and peaceful bliss.

So, like rats in an experiment, people sit in front of their computers, clicking the mouse to get the addictive release of dopamine into the pleasure centers of the brain. They are seduced by this pornographic training session which brings plastic change to their brain maps. This can bring about a type of sexual impotence and damage important relationships.

So, how to break the habit? It must start with a strong desire to change. One must then recognize pornography for the harmful addiction that it is. One must also realize that there is no safe moderation for one so addicted. Make a clean and complete break from the habit, staying away from the computer entirely for a couple of months if necessary. I would add that praying for forgiveness, and for strength from the spirit will help as well.

I hope that we can heed the important warnings from modern day prophets and avoid this destructive addiction.

(Note:  This is the third in a series on Brain Plasticity.  Earlier posts are here and here.)

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11 Responses to “Brain Plasticity and Pornography”


  1. 1 m&m December 30, 2008 at 2:52 am

    Eric,

    These posts are interesting. Thanks. I love learning about how the brain works.

    Just wanted to add that while there may not be a lot of talks about it, the church has an extensive and thorough addiction recovery program — a 12-step program adapted to the gospel.

    There is a woman in my ward who went through the program for drug addiction, and she shares from it sometimes in RS. She talks often of the power of the program, and how it helped her get clean and stay clean.

    I decided to get the book to see what it was like, and to me, it’s powerful for *anyone’s* weakness, not just classic addiction problems (we might not all be addicts of one form or another, but we all have weaknesses that can only be overcome with God’s help). I have just replaced ‘addiction’ in the book with ‘weakness’ and have found it to be quite enlightening. It feels like a manual for really coming to the Savior and turning our lives and problems and weakness over to Him.

    I think anyone who struggles with addiction (or, like I said, even just wants to see a gospel-in-action book for healthier spiritual life) should take a look at the book.

    I also think it’s important to note that not everyone with addiction will be able to just stop. As I looked up the link for the book, I saw this:

    “Some consider addictions simply as bad habits that can be conquered by willpower alone, but many people become so dependent on a behavior or a substance that they no longer see how to abstain from it. They lose perspective and a sense of other priorities in their lives.

    As President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught: “Addiction has the capacity to disconnect the human will and nullify moral agency. It can rob one of the power to decide.”
    —”Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 14

    I would say that suggests that someone with an addiction likely won’t be able to just stop alone, and should consider a program like this, with clear, proven steps and support groups that can help.

    FWIW.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson December 30, 2008 at 9:37 am

    Thanks for the links m&m.

    I think Brain Plasticity can help give the perspective that can help reconnect our capacity for moral agency.

    I have heard good things about this program.

  3. 3 anon December 30, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    I wonder if it will help with my “going to church” addition?

  4. 4 Eric Nielson December 30, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    he he he.

    maybe not all addictions are ‘bad’.

  5. 5 Doc January 19, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Eric,
    Great series on a subject near and dear to my heart. If you’re interested, I’ve shared my thoughts on the wonders of plasticity a time or two as well.

  6. 6 ama49 January 19, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    HI Eric,

    Very intersting article and to be honest this is the first time I’ve heard of plasticity, but it makes sense.

    M&M,

    I think it’s amazing that the church has that program out there and many of us don’t know about it. Thanks for sharing this information.

    http://www.graceforgrace.com

  7. 7 Eric Nielson January 20, 2009 at 8:09 am

    Tanks again Doc and ama.

  8. 8 Wil April 28, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    This post may no longer be active, so I’ll keep this short, and we can continue the dialogue if someone replies.

    I’m a member of the LDS church. I was born into the gospel and have been active all my life. I’m married to a wonderful woman and have beautiful children. I also have an addiction to pornography. But here’s the question; and maybe it’s the kind that only one with “[nullified] moral agency” would ask, but why is pornography wrong? Please don’t mistake my question as defense; I’m sincerely asking. I love spending time with my wife. I love our intimacy, but I also find pornography to be a very convenient outlet for stress relief when the pressures and constraints of work, family, and yes, church, grow too great. I do often feel very guilty after viewing it, but I wonder if that’s more of religious tradition/programming issue than anything else. Why, really, is it wrong?

    Please don’t burn me at the stake for what could be seen as heretical questions. I’m sincerely seeking insight. Thanks.

  9. 9 Eric Nielson April 28, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    I am still active here. Thanks for stopping by. I will not burn you at the stake for asking heritical questions, if you don’t burn me for being a self-righteous jerk. Deal?

    So, what is wrong with pornography?

    I think one simple answer would be that it is tied to lust. D&C 42 clearly states the mental link between lust and adultery. So while there is likely a difference in degree, pornography would likely be wrong for the same reasons.

    Another reason it is wrong is how it will likely affect your relationship with your wife. Trust, respect, self-confidence, can be compromised because of this.

    Pornography will usually escalate over time – from soft to hard. (So to speak) So when one considers child pornography or similar variations, they are all the same type of evil of varying degrees.

    In the bigger picture, I view life as an opportunity to show God that you can be trusted. He gives us some power, ability and opportunity – and sees what we will do with it. Viewing pornography can be one way that we show God that we can not be trusted with to much freedom and power.

    Well, I have answered this with a lot of assumptions of a similar background in the church, scriptures, theology, etc. I am not sure this is what you were looking for. I doubt there is much new or original here for you.

    I would be willing to discuss this more if you think it would be valuable.

  10. 10 Wil April 28, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Eric,

    I really appreciate your response. Having said this, I really don’t feel comfortable continuing the dialogue here. Instead I’m going to take you up on your offier to email you directly.

    Thanks

  11. 11 jason January 20, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    Get the inside scoop on how it impacts the brain at http://salifeline.org/can-pornography-use-become-an-actual-brain-addiction/ Dr. Hilton is one our nations best brain surgeons. He is using his extensive knowledge to help everyone understand the physiological effects of pornography, and in return help individuals find recovery.


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