-By A. Scott Roberts M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling, Addiction Specialist
Scientists call the brain a “team of rivals” because the brain is a multiple structured system in which different structures fight against each other for dominance. In order for our brain to operate properly, it must be at balance.1
The main brain structures that continually push and pull against each other are the prefronal cortex and the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is rational and logical and understands consequences. While the limbic system is concerned with seeking pleasure and escaping pain.
When dopamine (the primary neurotransmitter of addiction) spikes, the brain alters in favor to the limbic system.
Because of how our brains are built, pornography is a “perfect drug delivery system”2 because it exploits the very mechanisms that our brains have built to enable us to survive. Dopamine’s role isn’t only to help us “feel good” but it is also central to motivation, learning and memory. This neurotransmitter is released, not just upon receiving a reward, but also during anticipating a reward.
What this means to addicts, is that a spurt of dopamine will release during a “trigger” because of the anticipation of a reward - before you have even begun to take the drug itself. For example, the smell of a cigarette to a smoker, the sight of a beer bottle to an alcoholic or a picture of a half-nude woman flashed on the computer screen to a porn addict will squirt dopamine in the brain.
Researcher, Dr Childress put it this way:
“It’s like having a miniature high before they even get there... and this is why some addicts report tasting the drug in the back of their throats when triggered."3
When dopamine spikes at the anticipation of a reward, it creates a seductive pull in which the limbic “reward” system starts to dominate the rational brain structure.
It is important to note that all addictions are really chemical addictions inside the brain regardless if it is to cigarettes, drugs, food, alcohol or pornography. The reason these addictions often “feel different” to the user is how they affect non-dopamine neural networks.4 This is why some people prefer some drugs over others.
But when it comes to pornography, it exploits our neural networks and limbic "reward" system in a remarkable way. Additionally, dopamine has shown to spike at higher levels when we receive a "reward" unexpectedly or if the "reward" is novel (or new characteristics).5
In one study, researchers placed a male rat in a cage with a female rat. As was expected by researchers, the rats mated. When the rats were done mating, they resumed normal behavior. Where this research gets really interesting is when researchers replaced the female with a completely new (novel) female. All of the sudden the uninterested male rat, seeing he has a new female in his cage, will boost inenergy and stamina and jump to mate with her.
Researchers continued to replace the old female with a new one. Shockingly, when the male rat saw a new female in his cage he went into a sexual frenzy. This process was repeated about 7 times until the male rat nearly fainted from exhaustion!6
The reason that the rat will go after a new female when previously tired of the old one is because of the spike of dopamine in his brain. Dopamine is also the key neurotransmitter in motivation. And because the brain spikes dopamine at the anticipation, unexpectedness and novelty of a reward, it drove the rat to not leave any potential mate unfertilized.
One story caught the eye of the public when a male guinea pig in South Wales broke into a cage of 25 females. This story was covered by BBC news. The public gave this guinea pig the nick name "Romeo," because this male guinea pig didn't just chose one female guinea pig to mate with, but had a sexual escapade and produced 42 babies. This male guinea pig was later found in the corner of the cage exhausted and slept for nearly 2 days.7
Humans and animals have a near identical limbic reward system. The major difference between an animal's brain and a human's brain is the large prefrontal cortex.
However, humans are more pair-bonders, and when they copulate with the same partner their “reward” system starts to deliver less and less dopamine. As a result, habituation occurs. Studies show that ejaculation takes much longer when dopamine decreases. But when novelty is present, it spikes dopamine and biological sexual responses continue to build. This what scientists call the “Coolidge Effect.”
Because humans have a much larger part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, it usually keeps our limbic system in check. But at the huge spike of dopamine the limbic system starts to subdue it. In fact, during orgasm, the prefrontal cortex (the rational brain) is completely shut off.
Pornography addicts report flipping from scene to scene and erotic clip to clip for hours on end. They may see over 300 (novel) images in just an hour.Anticipation, unexpectedness and novelty are flagrant characteristics of pornography. These images spike dopamine at remarkable levels, and just like the rat and guinea pig, humans will continue until they are exhausted.
This leads to why pornography causes problems in relationships.
In one human experiment, participants which were shown 18 pictures of the same erotic viewings got bored and quickly lost interest, but right when the researchers displayed novel erotic images to these human participants, dopamine surged and the participants boosted in energy and sexual responses (women had similar effects).7
Studies show that because of the Coolidge Effect, pornography addicts have a hard time getting down to business with their life partner, because they are flat-lined just as the guinea pig. Humans begin to suffer from erectile dysfunction.
When a married man who is addicted to pornography goes back to his wife, he is presented with a problem. The novelty is not present and studies show that the brain may actually make your partner appear less attractive.8This is because when our brain receives such high spikes of dopamine, the brain starts to believe that the quantity of the dopamine corresponds to the actual value of the stimuli.
One study found that just looking at different nude models caused a participant to devalue his wife and he perceived she was less attractive than before. But it didn’t stop there, he started to perceive her to be less intelligent as well.9 Participants that consumed pornography had a depreciated perception their life-partner. The affection, appearance and sexual performance of their life partner declined.10
Obviously, pornography can become a problem in relationships, but it also changes the brain. Pornography taps into our primal reward system, exploiting essential components the brain developed for survival.
-A. Scott Roberts M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling Addiction Specialist
1. David Eagleman. (2011) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. London: Penguin Books
2. The Brain on the Stand, New York Times Magazine, Mar. 1 1,2007
3. Brain Study Illustrates Intense Pull Of Cocaine, Associated Press, April 11, 2003.
4. Neese R.and Berridge. K. (1997) Psychoactive Drug Use in Evolutionary Perspective. October. Vol. 278 no. 5335 pp. 63-66
5. Getting the Brain’s Attention, Science, Oct. 3, 1997.
6. Dennis F. Fiorino, Ariane Coury, and Anthony G. Phillips. Dynamic Changes in Nucleus Accumbens Dopamine Efflux During the Coolidge Effect in Male Rats. Behavior Therapy 35:667–688.
7. See the report here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1048327.stm
8. Flirty strangers sway how men see partners. Jennifer Viegas. Discovery News. Monday, 26 March 2007
9. Flirty strangers sway how men see partners. Jennifer Viegas. Discovery News. Monday, 26 March 2007
10. Dolf Zillmann, Jennings Bryant (2006) Pornography’s Impact on Sexual Satisfaction. Article first published online: 31 JUL 2006
A. Scott Roberts - M.S. Rehabilitation Counseling, CRC
About the Author
A. Scott Roberts is a counselor, author and outdoor enthusiast. He struggled with addiction himself, and has taught people all over the world to beat their addiction long-term. He earned his Master's Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling and is a certified rehabilitation counselor.
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