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Your brain on porn

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FMRI-BrainA modern-day phenomenon is causing a stir on discussion and support sites – that of internet pornography ‘addiction’. Linked to mood disturbance, relationship difficulties and erectile dysfunction in some users, compulsive porn viewing does seem to share enough features with substance dependence to become a member of the addiction club, though this is still seen as controversial by some.

A study in JAMA Psychiatry (The Brain on Porn) enrolled 64 German men who regularly viewed pornography and took a look at their brains using scanning techniques. They found a significant negative association between hours of pornography per week and the volume of grey matter in parts of the brain. They also found other changes and speculated that the intense stimulation of the reward system may have caused the changes. Of course the changes could have been there before the porn use, making the porn more rewarding when they first started to view it. The authors thought the former theory to be more likely.

This is an evolving area where the science needs to catch up with the widely reported experiences of compulsive consumers of internet pornography. It’s also controversial. Raising concerns can be interpreted as taking a moral stance. Reddit Nofap is a support and discussion site where shared themes from experience are beginning to emerge with a frequency that his hard to ignore. Perhaps the greatest indicator that there is a need for more understanding and support of this phenomenon is the fact that a TedX talk from Glasgow (The Great Porn Experiment) by Gary Wilson from a couple of years back has had almost 3 million views on YouTube. It is quite remarkable in how clearly it raises and addresses the issues – without moral panic or hysteria. Take a look:

    5 Responses to "Your brain on porn"
    1. Innocent Abroad says:

      I’m up for joining the stage of the research project which attempts to determine what is addictive consumption of internet porn and what is healthy everyday consumption. Or indeed what sexuality is functional and what dysfunctional.

      In (at least part) of the Arab world women are not regarded as adults. Why is this wrong? Because we in the western world find it grossly offensive? We didn’t 800 or so years ago. It’s the old, old story: I’m right because I’m me, you’re wrong because you’re you…

    2. Peter Sheath says:

      I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of anything that people say can be “proven” by MRI or something similar scanning. A friend of mine who is a Professor of Neurology from Arnhem University describes neuro plasticity as something that occurs as we repeat any behaviour and/or thinking pattern. It’s reinforced by a cocktail of neuro chemical rewards and, at it’s most basic, is simply how new neural pathways develop as we learn. London taxi drivers have significant changes in volume and density of grey matter, subsequent reward system activity in response accommodating learning every street in London but we never hear this being described as pathological.

      • djmac says:

        Well, some things can be proven by MRI – structural lesions for instance. The question around MRI scanning or any other neurobiological research is can it help us in any way? Addiction can be framed as ‘pathological learning’. What’s behind the lack of insight and the difficulty with making healthy choices that are often seen? If we say neurobiology and neuroimaging have nothing to contribute, then I think we’re missing a trick.

    3. chrisl says:

      I think it’s important to remember that the recent fMRI studies on porn users’ brains didn’t happen in a vacuum. They come on the heels of some 70 internet addiction brain studies showing very similar, very well established addiction-related changes, and those studies themselves build on thousands of animal brain studies demonstrating the changes associated with addiction right down to the molecular level. (Some are too invasive, i.e., fatal, to do on humans.)

      So while some fMRI studies are highly suspect, the ones in the addiction neuroscience field are less so. Addiction is perhaps the best studied, best understood of all mental disorders.

      • djmac says:

        The accumulated and accumulating evidence from fMRI scanning is impressive though there is still a fair bit of disagreement around what it means. I agree with you that our understanding is increasing and although neuroscience has its limitations, I think we should be seeing it as shining a light rather than a flashy distraction.

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