This Is Your Brain on Porn
May 31, 2012
Michael John Cusick is an ordained minister, spiritual director, and licensed professional counselor who has experienced firsthand the restoring touch of God in a deeply broken life and marriage. Mich... Read More
If some malevolent being held a competition to create the perfect delivery mechanism to enslave our human desire, Internet pornography would win the grand prize. Online pornography is fundamentally different from the Playboy or Penthouse of past generations. If the magazines, videos and DVDs of the past were like the Wright Brothers’ plane at Kitty Hawk, then Internet porn would be a supersonic jet.
Although supersonic jets are impressive for military use or high-speed travel, you wouldn’t want one landing in your backyard. But this is the impact Internet porn makes on the brain. Its sheer power and intensity create a heightened level of stimulation that your brain was never intended to experience. Because of this, the brain of a person regularly using porn can change and shape itself to resemble neuropathways similar to those of an alcoholic or drug addict.
Every thought, feeling, habit, skill, or behavior in your life has a corresponding neuropathway that fires in your brain.
Without understanding porn’s impact on the brain, too many people either quit trying to change or carry unnecessary guilt and shame when their spiritual zeal and will power aren’t enough. Can you relate? Here’s what you need to do to combat porn’s powerful hold on your mind.
First, know the basics
If you remember anything about the brain as it relates to porn, remember the chemical neurotransmitter dopamine. Known as the “gotta have it” molecule, dopamine has been described by one brain expert as the gas that fuels our desire engine. This neurotransmitter involves anticipation and expectation.
When we imagine eating at a favorite restaurant, shopping for a new gadget or having sex, the brain releases dopamine and our senses call out, Gimme, gimme, gimme! The more intense the experience, the more dopamine is released in the brain. Without this neurotransmitter, we would stay in bed all day with no motivation to eat or pursue meaningful goals, relationships, or sexual pleasure. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter behind all motivation in life.
How porn rewires your brain
Every thought, feeling, habit, skill, or behavior in your life has a corresponding neuropathway that fires in your brain. These pathways are designed to function optimally. However, as the brain’s reward circuitry gets entangled in a tug of war, the brain rewires itself for addiction and new neuropathways are created.
Every time a person views porn, or eventually even thinks about porn, the burst of dopamine strengthens the connections between cells. The stronger the connection, the easier it becomes for cells to communicate on that path. This idea of the brain changing itself is called neuroplasticity. Whether learning to ski, learning to speak a foreign language, or looking at porn, the more we use a particular neuropathway, the more our brain changes, making the pathway stronger.
These neuropathways are like footpaths across a field of waist-high grass. Walking across the field when the grass is so high requires significant effort. But each time you walk along the path, it gets easier. The grass gets trampled, worn down, and eventually becomes a dirt path.
Someone who doesn’t watch porn, or is not yet addicted, has yet to develop sensitized “weed-whacked” pathways. But the porn neuropathways of someone whose brain is addicted are weed-whacked and trampled down so that they have become the path of least resistance. Porn becomes the path of least resistance in the brain. And the easier the path, the more likely we are to take it, even when we don’t want to. The creation of this path of least resistance is called sensitization.
You can reboot your brain
The good news is, your brain can be changed in a positive and healthy direction. Our brains can be rewired from their addictive patterns. Just as you can reboot your computer and reset the hard drive, you can reboot your brain and restore the sensitivity of your brain circuits. On a computer, it’s as simple as pressing the power button or clicking a pull-down menu to restart. However, rebooting your brain may be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done.
How do you do it? Here are three ways to give your porn-saturated brain a reboot.
Practice intentional thinking. What you think about is ultimately what you become. What we once called “the power of positive thinking” is increasingly backed by scientific evidence. The more attention your brain pays to given input, the stronger and more elaborately it will be wired and retained in the brain. When we give our attention and focus to good things, like peace, joy, and self-control, our brains rewire themselves in a way that allows us to experience those good things. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to be intentional about what we give ourselves to?
Pursue alternate passions. The famous philosopher, novelist, and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was right when he said we are shaped and fashioned by what we love. Certainly this applies to our brains. The life focus of a person struggling with porn leads to tunnel vision. When people view porn on a regular basis, their passions are held captive, and they forfeit the ability to direct their life in the way they would otherwise choose. Pursuing alternative passions expands your horizons and rewires your brain at the same time.
Employ the power of repetition. Studies show that repeated behaviors, over time, cause structural changes in the brain. These changes can be negative, causing compulsion and addiction. Or they can be positive, rewiring the brain so the stimuli of porn and lust are no longer a reflexive reaction. Repetition helps lock behaviors in the brain in the same way an athlete develops muscle memory. Be encouraged. Your struggle with porn is a learned response, in many ways, just like the athlete. Your brain can unlearn, and it can change.
Adapted from Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle by Michael Cusick. Copyright ©2012. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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