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Yellowbrick Blog

The Brain On Porn

An article published 12/29/2019 in Neuroscience News highlights the concerns generated by the prevalence of pornography viewing. According to statistics published by the major site, PornHub, over 33.5 billion site visits occurred during 2018 alone. Pornhub reports 70% of users are men and 70% of U.S. adults ages 18-30 visit a porn site at least once a week. Given that this is also the window of brain maturation into adulthood, research has focused on what if any brain changes are associated with porn use. A 2014 JAMA article by Kuhn and Gallinat was among the first to sound the alarm regarding maladaptive changes in those areas of the brain regulating sexual arousal, reward seeking, novelty seeking and compulsive behavior patterns.

These areas of the brain involved in what Panksepp refers to as “seeking motivations” are mediated by dopamine as a neurotransmitter. Along with its power as an engine of initiative, dopamine also has a powerful influence on mediating what we will remember. Dopamine emblazens into our memories those experiences which offer extraordinary pleasurable stimulation so that we will know how to return to find it again and again. These experiences also set the bar on new thresholds for what will actually trigger the pleasure response; tolerance is an outcome of these repetitive dopamine mediated experiences.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Germany, found that the consequences of frequent porn use range from lack of arousal in actual human intimacy, diminished interest in relationship mediated pleasures, and an accelerating need for ever more intense forms of erotic stimulation which often takes the form of embedding aggression or transgressing moral taboos into sexual arousal. This is consistent with PornHub analytics where viewers migrate away from viewing conventional sex practices.

The findings have far-reaching consequences about the future of a generation of young peoples’ brains and relationships. What is to be done is not clear as there are powerful resistances to weaning off compulsively rewarding behaviors even when they have known negative consequences or lose their glimmering appeal. Limiting access to electronic stimulation, while it has a place for younger children, also serves to enhance the appeal of forbidden fruit. While not pretending to have an answer, my sense is it must lie in establishing within society, groups, families and friendships a fundamental value and experience of the rewards of relationships, however challenging they can sometimes be otherwise.

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