Your Brain on Porn Series - Part 5

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Addiction is a very powerful memory, combined with a numbed pleasure response. What makes this pathway so inviting is that your reward circuitry is really numb, and you’re craving anything to jack up your dopamine.

Your addiction is the “path of least resistance to relief.” That’s the best way to think about it. Porn is now your most reliable source of dopamine, and your limbic brain is just saying, “Yes, yes, yes! Do it!” This is the nature of cravings. This is what drives all addictions.

Cravings are normal. That’s what the brain does all the time to get us to eat, drink, have sex. A “cue” is a memory, thought, feeling, sensation that activates a craving. Your brain associates a cue with a reward. For example, the smell of cookies baking is a cue that urges you to eat some, even if you’re not hungry. Think of Pavlov’s dogs salivating whenever they heard the bell. If you are a smoker, finishing a meal could be your cue to smoke a cigarette. If you’re an alcoholic, walking past a bar could be a cue for you to drink—even if you’ve been sober for 20 years. For porn addicts, a cue might be being home alone, a sexy image popping up, or a flashback to a porn image.

Cues often lead to an altered state. They create a sort of “tunnel vision,” an uncontrollable urge to act out. Cues are so powerful because they activate the addiction memory. Here the porn cue is represented by the yellow arrow.

Cues activate addition pathways

What happens is that your limbic system is in charge, and your rational brain is basically “out to lunch.” If we acted on all of our random urges and thoughts, life would be somewhat of a mess.

The yellow arrow represents desire, the “Go for it” signal. Blue represents our rational processes, as we reflect on our desires. Normally, there’s a delicate balance between those two brain functions. The limbic system wants you to just “do it.” For example, “punch your boss” or “eat that pint of ice cream you just noticed in the fridge.”

Normally, the rational brain comprehends the consequences of our actions. It inhibits most impulses that we might regret. Addiction disregards consequences. As an addiction progresses, the brain continues to rewire. Your impulse control weakens—at the same time the addiction pathway strengthens.

The addiction creates a powerful “do it” pathway, or craving. This memory is the yellow arrow. Just as important, you’ve weakened the “don’t do it!” pathway as it related to the addiction, represented by the dotted blue line.

Addiction disregards consequences

You have trampled down the grass on the “Go for it” pathway,” and in a sense you have let the grass grow over the “Think about it” pathway. The rational brain has lost its influence, and it’s the part of the brain that remembers the past and understands consequences. It’s in a fog now.

Two things will happen when you quit porn—hopefully. With use, the blue, rational pathway will get stronger. You’ll gain more control. The yellow, addiction pathway will weaken. But even though addiction pathways will weaken, they may never completely disappear.

Remember “tolerance?” It’s the need for more of a drug or activity to get the same effect. It’s a major sign of addiction. Now, with porn you have two ways to escalate your use. You can spend more time watching porn, or you can watch porn that is more stimulating. This is where the rewiring of “tastes” kicks in. It’s not unusual to start out your porn career with images of, say, naked movie stars, and then maybe discover down the road that you’ve progressed to girls with goats or violent rape scenes.

Just as dopamine surges for novel mates in the Coolidge Effect, it also surges for novel types of porn. Adrenaline can also surge if you find a new kind of porn shocking or anxiety-producing.

Instead of getting bored with your current porn star, you get bored with whatever acts you’re used to watching. “Bored” means “not enough dopamine to get you excited.” Dopamine surges for novelty and adrenaline surges for strong emotions. So when you combine “novel” and “highly emotional,” you’re not only getting the biggest reward, but unfortunately, also the strongest memories. You are powerfully rewiring your brain.

This is why porn users seek out what shocks them. Or what is “forbidden” or fear-producing. They are seeking the biggest bang of dopamine and adrenaline. The more intense the emotions, the more they are repeated, the stronger the wiring. Each new experience wires new tastes into the brain. If your sexual tastes have changed…well, so has your brain.

The Brain that Changes Itself by psychiatrist Norman Doidge is a great book. It’s on brain rewiring, and if you read it (strongly suggested), you will understand how changeable and adaptable our brains really are. He even included a chapter on sexuality.

Doidge has treated heavy porn users. He’s clear on two things. First, porn addiction is real. That is, it changes the brain. Second, Internet porn can rewire new sexual tastes into the brain. He says,

The current porn epidemic gives a graphic demonstration that sexual tastes can be acquired. Pornography, delivered by high-speed Internet connections, satisfies every one of the prerequisites for neuroplastic change

“Neuroplasticity” means rewiring the brain. Wherever your porn journey has taken you, it’s important to keep this in mind. What you look at doesn’t matter to your brain’s reward circuitry. It simply craves stimulation. So, it likes “shocking” or “surprising,” even if you are disgusted by it. Even if your cerebral cortex (rational brain) doesn’t understand why you’re watching this crap.

So, maybe you can only get off watching Japanese girls vomiting, as in that famous Southpark episode. But keep in mind that you can return to where you started, before you got on the porn carousel. Again, the brain can change itself.

What makes Internet porn unique? Here are some factors that other people have mentioned:

First, there are social factors. It’s free, it’s used in private, it’s easily available, and no one knows you have an addiction.

But there are also psychological factors. Porn recovery sites often stress that the addictiveness of Internet porn is due to masturbation and orgasm becoming linked to the exciting visuals. No doubt, that can play a part. Also guilt and shame perpetuate any cycle of addiction, so they play a part too.

Yet another very important factor is the way Internet porn is used. And how it directly affects the reward circuitry and dopamine. Here’s my list of what makes Internet porn unique. These factors cause dopamine to be elevated for abnormally long periods of time, which of course overstimulates the reward circuit.

1. Internet porn affords extreme novelty. You can keep clicking and clicking, looking at however many images you want, and have an extraordinary amount of dopamine squirted into your brain. This separates Internet porn from porn of the past.
2. Unlike eating, or addictive drug use, there’s absolutely no physical limit on consumption of Internet porn—unless you fall asleep. This is a big point. With drugs or food, your brain says, “Stop!” at a certain point—and your dopamine and desire drop. With Internet porn, you can keep your dopamine elevated for hours on end by watching or edging. That’s what makes it very addictive. If you climax, for example, you can often override your normal satiation mechanisms (after orgasm) by finding something even more stimulating. More dopamine.
3. With other addictions, you can only escalate by eating, gambling or using drugs more frequently over time. With Internet porn, escalation can switch from “more actors” to shocking new genres of porn. There are no limits on extreme practices on the Internet, and all tend to goose dopamine.
4. Unlike food or drugs, Internet porn is always available, waiting to be replayed as a flashback—wanted or unwanted. When they pop up, they cause a rise in dopamine, which further strengthens those addiction pathways.

Comments

Dear Dr. Wilson,

So I'm confused on the neurochemistry on how cues and memories strengthen addiction. So are you saying that the cue will stimulate the reward circuit by raising dopamine levels? like how is the reward circuit "stimulated" by memories and cues neurochemically? thank you for your time.

best regards,

Aaron

Aaron Benson

I would have gone into more detail on this, and less detail on dopamine. We leanr from our mistakes.

What I'm referring to as "addiction memories" is actually sensitization. Here are some links:

So are you saying that the cue will stimulate the reward circuit by raising dopamine levels?

Yes. But with addiction sensitization the reward circuit is alos stimulated by glutamate.

like how is the reward circuit "stimulated" by memories and cues neurochemically? thank you for your time.

The simple PowerPoint drawing represents how: circuits that contain memories or circuits processing visual and auditory input send messages to the reward circuit. These messages are sensitized - much stronger than normal and strongly activate the reward circuit. These circuits use glutamate, which can also activate the reward circuit.