Come see, come see, it’s all over the internet and it’s called pornography!
Ever since the widespread availability of pornography caused by the internet, its usage has skyrocketed. Estimations of porn consumption put it between a range of 50-99% in men and 30-86% in women. This indicates that many of us are familiar with pornographic content. While opinions on porn are divided, so are the research findings. After the legalization of porn in Denmark in 1969, there was a reduction in the reported sexual aggression. Thus, when looking at the advantages and disadvantages, one could argue that watching porn can be a safe recreational outlet which could even decrease sexual harassment or assault. However, there are also those who argue that consuming porn can lead to reduced relationship quality, sexual addiction or even could encourage sexual aggression. It’s just not all that simple when it comes to the effects of porn. As an example, researchers reported that for men, using porn would on average lead to reduced sexual intimacy, while for women the opposite was found. The researchers hypothesize that this finding could likely be explained by men tending to watch porn alone more, whereas women would be more likely to watch it in a shared experience. Furthermore, the kind of porn that men are attracted to on average lacks context, whereas women are on average more interested in softer forms with a storyline.
The research on pornography & our brain is having trouble getting started
The amount of research conducted on the effects of porn consumption on our brain is rather sparse, and I have to say that it’s hard to filter through the articles I encountered. One reason is, that from the limited number of publications, another reason is the limitations that many studies have, where one of the biggest is the small sample sizes used.
Consumption versus addiction
It’s important to state that there is a difference in the effects of porn based on the frequency it’s consumed at. A small subgroup of porn consumers watches porn on a daily basis and has a hard time kicking that habit. Men who suffer from porn addiction are more likely to withdraw emotionally from their relationship and are at an increased risk for developing depression. Since porn is watched by men to a much greater extent, the studies that focus on excessive use are often limited to samples with only men.
Our brain & porn
What happens in our brain when we watch pornographic content? For this part, I want to reintroduce the dopaminergic system. Dopamine is a hormone/neurotransmitter that has an important function in reward processing and evaluation. Certain activities or consumptions can increase our dopamine level, making it higher than baseline for a transient amount of time. When we eat chocolate, there will be a brief spike in dopamine, it spikes to an amount 50% higher than baseline. When we have sex, dopamine will rise to around twice the baseline level. We can imagine that if pornography lies close to this doubling of dopamine levels, the feeling of wanting to watch porn is then rooted in something very rewarding. The problem with repeatedly watching porn is that the high dopamine release will make it harder for different interactions (e.g. sex) to raise dopamine levels to equal or higher than the level caused by the porn consumption. This can potentially cause numbness to the dopaminergic response due to the inability of other factors to compete with or overthrow the effects of porn consumption. Therefore, excessive porn consumption may lead to difficulties in motivation and goal pursuit and affect daily-life romantic relationships or sexual interactions.
When we look at the brain of people who consume pornography excessively, impairments in executive functioning and working memory may be found, likely through altered activity in an area crucially involved in these functions: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. One way to obtain information about the brain exposed to pornography is to correlate hours of watching porn per week with gray matter volume. Researchers who investigated this for the caudate (among other functions, important for processing visual information, movement control, working memory and emotions and cognitive functions) and putamen (among other functions, involved in reward and addiction) saw a reduced volume in the right caudate and left putamen with increasing hours of porn watched weekly. Furthermore they used functional MRI (fMRI) to investigate the connectivity and revealed that higher consumption of pornography was associated with a reduced connectivity of the left putamen and right caudate to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. As I mentioned earlier, such studies investigating the effects of pornography on the brain are still sparse, in need of reproduction and larger sample sizes to draw more solid conclusions.
Take away message:
While many of us consume porn without problems, some people develop addictive tendencies which can have a negative impact on their life. While the effects of consumption are still under investigation, it seems that porn can have a negative effect on our dopaminergic system when used at high frequency and/or intensity. Thus, if you like watching porn regularly, try alternating it a bit with some delicious dark chocolate or sex.
Author: Kobus Lampe
Image created using DALL-E-2 open AI software