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Submitted by Gary Wilson on Sun, 12/05/2010 - 12:48
Understanding Internet porn addiction means understanding addiction mechanisms. The heart of all addictions involves hijacking the same neurocircuitry, which runs on the same neurochemicals (even though each addiction also involves additional neural circuits and neurochemicals that differ between addictions).
A basic physiological principle is that drugs do not create anything new or different - they simply increase or decrease normal brain functions. In essence, we already possess the machinery for addiction (mammalian bonding/love circuitry), and for binging (storing calories, mating season).
There's more and more research revealing the brain changes behind behavioral addictions. See, for example the flood of recent Internet Addiction studies, including several involving brain scans, confirm that "Internet addicts" develop the same major brain changes that occur in all addictions. (see: Recent Internet Addiction Studies Include Porn). Sadly, the researchers don't separate out porn users from other Internet users, which may be obscuring the increased vulnerablity for those pursuing cybersex/porn. Who uses the Internet for only porn? A 2006 Dutch study found that erotica had the highest addictive potential of all Internet applications. No wonder. Internet erotica is an extreme version of a natural reward that we're all wired to pursue: apparent mating opportunities.
What do the experts say?
3000 doctors of the American Society for Addiction Medicine (ASAM) have now come out with a public statement clarifying that behavioral addictions (sexual, food, gambling) are fundamentally like substance addictions in terms of brain changes. Even the DSM-V is likely to acknowledge its first behavioral addiction: pathological gambling. Said ASAM:
We all have the brain reward circuitry that makes food and sex rewarding. In fact, this is a survival mechanism. In a healthy brain, these rewards have feedback mechanisms for satiety or ‘enough.’ In someone with addiction, the circuitry becomes dysfunctional such that the message to the individual becomes ‘more’, which leads to the pathological pursuit of rewards and/or relief through the use of substances and behaviors.— The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)
The head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Doctor Nora Volkow, has suggested the agency's name be changed to the "National Institute for Diseases of Addiction," to address behavioral addictions such as pathological gambling, overeating and compulsive pornography use (More Addictions, Less Stigma). Another famous addiction researcher, Eric Nestler, has this Q & A on his website, Nestler Labs.
QUESTION: Do these changes occur naturally in your brain without the influence of a drug of abuse?
ANSWER: “It is likely that similar brain changes occur in other pathological conditions which involve the excessive consumption of natural rewards, conditions such as pathological over-eating, pathological gambling, sex addictions, and so on.”
Recent research on brain changes in response to "highly palatable foods" is revealing evidence of an addiction process. So is Internet addiction. If gambling, gaming, Internet use and food can alter the brain in this way, it would be amazing if Internet porn alone did not.
Today's extreme porn is as unnatural a "natural reinforcer" as today's junk food is. One day, brain research will bear this out, as the technology already exists to measure porn users' brains. (See Porn Then and Now: Welcome to Brain Training by us, The End of the Porn Debate? by us, and Can Pornography Use Become An Actual Brain Addiction? by neurosurgeon Donald Hilton.) The challenge now is that control groups of young male non-porn users cannot be found, and who wants to ask non-users to use it anyway, given the apparent risk of addiction?
Some brains are certainly more sensitive than others to the potentially addictive effects of extreme stimuli. However, it's likely that the more intense our culture's sexual stimuli become, the greater the percentage of users who will show signs of imbalance—even those with fundamentally healthy brains. Also each generation uses more extreme synthetic stimulation than the previous one, and starts earlier with highspeed Internet porn. (Adolescent brains are more vulnerable to addiction.)
We often see healthy guys who develop porn-related erectile dysfunction return to good health simply by avoiding porn. This suggests they didn't have other issues that would have accounted for their vulnerability. Not only do those with healthy brains benefit from rebooting and thereafter avoiding extreme stimuli, it's also likely that users with especially sensitive brains, the "canaries in the coal mine," can also ease some of their symptoms by consciously moving toward normal brain sensitivity.
It would be great to have research on how long it takes overstimulated brains to reboot to normal sensitivity. For fuller discussions, see "There are no scientific studies that say porn is addictive, right?" and Brain Chemistry Research and Porn.
- Most of these sections contain both lay articles for the general public, and research articles. If you are not an expert in addiction, I suggest starting with the lay articles. They are marked with an "L."