Your Brain on Porn Series - Part 1

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The following is a transcript of the 6-part Your Brain on Porn Video Series


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This presentation is not an argument against pornography. It was created for anyone who is hooked on porn. Only you can decide if you are.

I never thought I’d be giving a presentation on Internet pornography. I’m all for free speech and free will. I don’t want to ban porn and I don’t care what anyone does with his or her genitals.

So what happened? My wife and I have another website on relationships. It has nothing to do with porn—or at least it didn’t. However, several articles were there on the neuroscience of sex, orgasm and love—and on evolution-and-sexuality, and even addiction. So, about 5 years ago, porn users began showing up. I guess they found us by Googling “sex” and “addiction.” They began telling their stories and blogging and sharing. More and more showed up. We learned a lot.

Here’s a little bit of what we learned:

1. Internet porn is not Playboy.

I bet you already knew this. The centerfold gets old pretty quickly. Internet porn is far more stimulating than fixed images. It’s due to the endless novelty and the ability to click from one image to the other. Another reason Internet porn is more stimulating is that one can escalate rather quickly to more kinky, or more shocking, material.

2. An “addictive personality” is not a prerequisite for getting hooked on Internet porn.

The standard model is that you have to have a predisposition, that you have to be genetically inclined to get addicted. It’s true that genetics can predispose people for addiction. But many of the guys showing up at our site had never had any other addictions. They were just regular guys, who started watching and got hooked. What’s interesting is that once they got off of porn, they returned to their “normal” selves.

3. Understanding how heavy porn use affects the brain is very helpful to users.

When you understand how the brain works, it really allows you to steer your ship a lot better when you’re trying to unhook from porn. Very importantly, it reduces guilt and shame. Hopefully, it reduces beating up on yourself.

Here are the basics: Porn overstimulated your brain, and your brain changed. Being hooked on porn is due to the same brain changes that occur with all addictions. These brain changes are behind your cravings. They keep you coming back to porn—even if you want to quit.

See, Internet porn is what we call a “superstimulus.” What that means is that it is way more intense than what we encountered during our evolution.

Here’s the big picture. Your brain is a hunter-gatherer brain living in a modern world. Our environments have drastically changed. Yet our brains have barely evolved in the last 100 thousand years. This means we are not well suited to many aspects of modern life—from living in isolated boxes, to going to work in desk jobs, to worrying about global warming or the economy.

We’re supposed to be sitting around a campfire, not sitting in front of a computer watching Internet porn for hours a day. Here’s another example of our environment changing—and our brains not quite catching up: You haven’t seen many pictures of fat hunter-gatherers, right? Seventy percent of Americans are overweight.

So, what’s going on? Our brains are programmed to love high-calorie foods. That program was necessary for survival. But such foods were very rare: honey, sweet fruit, nuts. Today we have refined carbohydrates and high-fat junk foods. Our brains find these highly stimulating, so they constitute “supernormal stimuli”—way beyond anything our ancestors encountered. Just like Internet porn.

Brain Rule #1 says, “You must survive,” which means get calories! With food that means, get it while the getting is good, because you didn’t know when something was going to rot. A primitive part of your brain is urging you to binge at every opportunity, so you get as much as you can. This leads to overconsumption. This rule also applies to sexual partners.

Rats will get it up for novel females until they drop with exhaustion

Brain Rule #2 says, “Make babies!” Actually, maybe that’s “Brain Rule #1.” See, evolution’s top priority is making more “gene-packets,” more copies of you.

Here’s a question: In the lifetime of a hunter-gatherer, how many potential sexual partners would he or she meet? Not too many, I imagine. How many would they have sex with? A whole lot fewer. A heavy porn user would view more hot babes, or hot guys or whatever in one session than our ancestors would have met in several lifetimes.

So, Interenet porn is another “superstimulus.” Our brains never evolved to handle heavy porn use like this. Moreover, unlike junkfood, you can never get “full” from Internet porn use.

Here’s another reason Internet porn is so stimulating (and so addictive): It hijacks an old program in a primitive part of your brain. This subconscious program is what got you started on the porn path.

Consider this experiment, which has been done many times. What happens when you drop a male rat into a cage with a receptive female? At first you see a frenzy of copulation. Progressively the male tires of Female No. 1. She wants more, but he has had enough. He just can’t get excited anymore.

Now, replace the original female with a fresh one. The male revives and valiantly struggles to fertilize her. He keeps on going. Then, the male loses interest in Female No. 2. Starting to see a pattern here? This process can be repeated again and again…with novel partners. I’m not sure exactly how many times it can be repeated, but you can continue until the male nearly dies of exhaustion.

This is a genetic program. It has nothing to do with your genitals. It’s all happening in the brain. The purpose of it is to make more babies, but even more important, it increases the genetic variety of the male’s offspring.

Here’s an interesting graph, which happens to be about rams.

The Coolidge Effect overrides satiety

We have “Female Presentation” at the bottom, and time to ejaculation in minutes on the left side. And we have a male. In one experiment, he had the same female over and over again. In another, he had different females. How long did it take him to ejaculate? Well if you look at his performance with the same female, it took longer and longer. By the end of the experiment, it took 18 minutes. But, of course, with different females, he ejaculated quite quickly. That means he was very, very excited (stimulated).

Heavy porn users often need more novelty—just like this rat—to get excited, to get it up, or even to get off.

Here’s what’s going on with the animals: It’s called the Coolidge Effect. It starts out with declining interest in the present sexual partner. Then, renewed vigor for a novel sexual partner. This is present in all mammals, and it also occurs in females. Again, it improves genetic variety of offspring.

This Coolidge Effect is what started you down the road to getting hooked on Internet porn. Porn turns you into a lab rat. Your primitive brain urges you to “fertilize” those two-dimensional females (or whatever is on your screen).

Here’s the question of the day: Why would any straight man cheat on Elizabeth Hurley? It’s as simple as “old” versus “new.” The Coolidge Effect.

Novelty is powerfully erotic

Now, I’m not picking on guys. It’s a myth that human males are always far more promiscuous than females. That’s not true. If you look at hunter-gatherer societies, the females are just as promiscuous. And recent research has confirmed that today’s women are just as promiscuous as men. So the Coolidge Effect applies whether you’re male or female, and regardless of sexual orientation.

Let’s say you’re happily married or partnered up. You’d say, “I’m never going to cheat.” Maybe you won’t, but the Coolidge Effect is still at work in your brain. The more rational, newer parts of your brain are saying, “No, I’m not going to cheat,” but the primitive parts of your brain are saying, “Whoa! Look at that!” Or, maybe you’re fantasizing about what it would be like to have sex. Or maybe you’re using porn.

These impulses are reminders of the Coolidge Effect, which is there to spread your genes far and wide.

Speaking of looking, maybe we are not so unique. Here’s a headline about some interesting research: “Monkeys Pay to See female Monkey Bottoms.” What do they pay with? Monkeys love sweets, such as fruit juice. So, in the study, monkeys would give up their fruit juice in order to look at images of female bottoms.

This is a bit like porn—or maybe a lot like porn. It’s monkey porn.

Monkey's 'pay' for porn