Pornography addiction and the reward pathway
Norman Doidge, author of the Brain that Changes Itself posits that deep inside your brain, there’s something called a “reward pathway.” We all have one, your cat has one, laboratory rats have one —all mammals have them, there is a reward pathway in all of us. The reward pathway’s job is to help keep you alive and happy by doing exactly what its name promises: it rewards you when you do something that promotes your life and well-being, like eating good food or cleaning up your apartment.
The reward pathway releases chemicals in your brain—mainly one that’s called dopamine, but others, as well, like serotonin and oxytocin. For example, when you eat something delicious, your brain releases dopamine, and it makes you feel good. Or if you hold hands with someone you care about, your brain releases a chemical called oxytocin, which helps you bond with people.
A neuron is a brain cell. A neuro chemical, is the chemical a neuron or brain cell releases to send a message to other cells. When a lot of brain cells get activated at the same time by something you see, taste, hear or smell, they release chemicals that help strengthen the connection between themselves and other brain cells (or neurons). Think of these brain cells being cemented together with neuro chemicals to build this reward pathway, in other words a reward superhighway. So, every time you went to visit your Grandma Martha she gave you a big hug, walked out on the porch, sat with you talking about what had changed for you since you last visited, while rocking with you on that big porch swing and she gave you a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup to unwrap. You probably feel pretty great about Grandma Martha. Your brain has built a superhighway connecting thoughts of Grandma Martha with feeling happy, being loved and eating peanut butter cups. You have many of these of brain pathways for all sorts of things: talking to Grandma, riding a bike, eating lunch, walking the dog, and when a person looks at porn, their brain creates a new pathway for that, too.
Viewing porn stimulates the release of these pleasure chemicals. This rush of neuro chemicals happens over and over again, eventually creating a new reward pathway. Ultimately, constant porn use turns the reward pathway into a superhighway directing the viewer’s decision-making brain to want to view pornography for the quick rewards of the dopamine rush, rather than seeking healthy but less stimulating rewards, like eating a piece of chocolate or holding a girl’s hand. This changes the make-up of the viewer’s brain, and eventually results in an ever increasing appetite for porn.
Dopamine is sometimes referred to as the “pleasure chemical.” You may have heard that dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain, but these are not technically, accurate assumptions. Dopamine is all about wanting, seeking and searching for rewards, the anticipation of getting something. Dopamine is the motivation that drives us to pursue potential rewards or long-term goals. Although controversial, research suggests that driving “the want” best captures what dopamine does. The final reward, the feeling of satisfaction, arises from opioids, brain chemicals such as mu opioids and endocannabinoids, which are the brain’s natural versions of heroin and marijuana. As psychologist Susan Weinschenk explained in a 2009 article, dopamine does not cause people to experience pleasure, but drives a seeking behavior. “Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search,” she wrote. It is the opioid system that causes one to feel pleasure and satisfaction. Yet, “the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system,” she explained. We seek more after we are satisfied, we eat when we are not hungry.
Addiction may be thought of as wanting on overdrive. Just like other addictive substances, porn floods the brain with dopamine. The brain gets overwhelmed by the constant overload of neuro chemicals that comes with addictive porn use. It fights back by taking away some of its dopamine receptors, which is like closing the garage door on a neuron cell so that the truck carrying dopamine’s payload can’t come into the loading dock. With fewer receptors (fewer garage doors open), the user can’t feel dopamine’s full effect, even if the brain is producing all that it can. As a result, the pornography viewer isn’t as stimulated as they were before. So they go hunting for more porn, more novelty porn or more hardcore porn with the goal of receiving the same jolt of dopamine they received the day before. As the porn addict’s brain adjusts to these higher levels of dopamine flooding through it, regular activities that would normally set off a burst of dopamine to make the person feel happy, no longer work. Happy moments with their children, watching a football game with friends or a simple walk with their spouse leave the addict wanting a more stimulating jolt. So they return to porn, not more activities with their kids, nor more spousal contact. They go to view more porn because it delivers such a reliable and massive jolt. That’s one reason why pornography can be so addictive.
There is another reason porn is addictive, we get bored with the same old, same old. Researchers tested this theory. They wired up some 45 guys, each one a healthy 25 to 36 years old. Each participant had sensors on their penises that were linked to a computer. Researchers played the same erotic film repeatedly for these dudes. They had to watch porn. The researchers had to watch them watching porn and monitor indications of arousal, yes, in these guys’ man parts. This went on for three days. Torture, right? Well, the reports revealed a progressive decrease in sexual arousal after the 15th viewing of the same tape. The “same old, same old” gets boring. Seeing the same pornographic video, or even having sex with the same partner using the same position, over and over again, reduces dopamine production, and eases the jolt. After 18 viewings of the same erotic video, test subjects were nodding off. So researchers introduced a different, more erotic video for the 19th and 20th viewings. Bingo! The subjects and their penises sprang to attention. And yes, this theory also worked on women, for whom research showed similar effects.
Internet porn is especially enticing to the reward circuitry because a new mate, an unusual scene, a strange sexual act, or—fill in the blank—is just a click away. Something different every click. With multiple windows open and clicking for hours, one can experience more sex partners in ten minutes than our hunter-gatherer ancestors experienced in a lifetime.
Research confirms anticipation of reward and the many varied sexual selections (called novelty by the researchers) can amplify and increase excitement, and begins to rewire the brain—in other words, paves the porn superhighway in the brain. Pornography and erotica have been around forever, yet today’s version of Internet pornography is a completely new animal. Thanks to the power of the Internet, porn now stimulates the most powerful natural dopamine releases through a never ending stimulus cocktail using these elements:
- Endless novelty, shock, and surprise
- Strong emotions: surprise, fear, disgust, anxiety
- Seeking and searching: exploring territories, foods or mating opportunities
- Anything that violates expectations: unexpected bonanzas or dangers
All of these situations have been scientifically proven to increase dopamine surge. And because Internet porn offers an endless stream of variety, users can flip to a new image every time their high starts to fade, keeping dopamine levels elevated for hours. Virginie Despentes is a French writer, novelist and filmmaker. Her most famous novel, and film of the same name is Baise-moi, a contemporary film with a graphic mix of crime, mystery, violence and very explicit sex scenes. The title translates to: F**k Me. She states:
“Consuming pornography does not lead to more sex, it leads to more porn. Much like eating McDonalds everyday will accustom you to food that (although enjoyable) is essentially not food, pornography conditions the consumer to being satisfied with an impression of extreme sex rather than the real.”
Next week’s post will continue with the consequences of prolonged pornography use.
Resources used in this article:
Doidge, Norman M.D., (2007), The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, James H. Silberman Books, Penguin Books, New York, NY
Inna Schneiderman, Orna Zagoory-Sharon, James F. Leckman, Ruth Feldman (2014) Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity, Pyschoneuroendocrinology, Aug, 20913 37(8) 1277-1285. Accessed from the National Institute of Health National Library of Medicine at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3936960/
Hilton DL, Watts C. Pornography addiction: A neuroscience perspective. Surgical Neurology Institute [serial online] 2011 [cited 2015 Jan 9]; 2:19 http://www.surgicalneurologyint.com/text.asp?2011/2/1/19/76977
Hilton DL , (2013) Pornography addiction – a supra-normal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity, Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, Vol 3 (2013) incl Supplements. Accessed at: Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 2013, 3: 20767 – http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767
John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine (2012), Neuron – 8 November 2012 (Vol. 76, Issue 3, pp. 470-485)Accessed at: http://yourbrainonporn.com/mysterious-motivational-functions-mesolimbic-dopamine-2012
Your Brain on Porn.com web site, the video of Dr Robert Sapolsky describing anticipation and dopamine. Accessed at: http://www.yourbrainonporn.com/dopamine-more-about-anticipation-dr-robert-sapolsky
Your Brain on Porn.com web site featured: Is the Pleasure Molecule Dopamine? (2008), Accessed at: http://yourbrainonporn.com/is-the-pleasure-molecule-dopamine-2011
Susan Weinschenk, PhD. (2009)100 Things You Should Know About People: #8 Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information, Team W Blog Accessed at: http://www.blog.theteamw.com/2009/11/07/100-things-you-should-know-about-people-8-dopamine-makes-us-addicted-to-seeking-information/
Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.
Terry E. Robinson and Kent C. Berridge (2008.) The review of the incentive sensitization theory of addiction: some current issues. Philosophical Translations of the Royal Society. B (2008) 363, 3137–3146 doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0093. Published online 18 July 2008, Downloaded from http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/ on January 9, 2015
Ingrid Meuwissen, Ray Oliver, Habituation and Dishabituation of Female Sexual Around (19 90) Behavior, Research and Theory, Vol 28, No 3, p 217-226 Access at: http://www.mendeley.com/catalog/habituation-dishabituation-female-sexual-arousal/#page-1
Gary Wilson, (2010) Intoxicating Behaviors: 300 Vaginas = A Lot of Dopamine, Your Brain on Porn.com web site featured: http://yourbrainonporn.com/intoxicating-behaviors-300-vaginas-a-lot-of-dopamine
Your Brain on Porn.com web site featured: Novelty increases the mesolimbic functional connectivity of the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SN/VTA) during reward anticipation: Evidence from high-resolution fMRI (2011). Accessed at: http://yourbrainonporn.com/novelty-increases-mesolimbic-functional-connectivity-substantia-nigraventral-tegmental-area-snvta