The Science Behind Pornography

Dopamine and Tolerance

Let’s talk about what is taking place in his brain as he clicks. First, I’ll define a word: dopamine. Dopamine is the drug of desire – when you see something desirable, your brain pours out dopamine, saying “Go for it! Do whatever it takes!” Dopamine fixes your attention on that desirable object, giving you your power of concentration. When you are about to do something meaningful, or enjoyable, or something that you’re really good at, you get dopamine pushing you forward saying “Go for it!”

So when someone clicks and sees a new pornographic image, his lower brain thinks this is the real thing, this is the lady he must win over with all his might, and so he gets an enormous dopamine flood in his upper brain, causing a wild amount of electrical energy.

This first exposure to a new female who is a potential mate wasn’t something that happened a lot to our ancestors; maybe only once in their lives; so the brain thinks this is a big deal. It doesn’t know that now the game has completely changed: it doesn’t understand that these are virtual females only; so with each new one it causes another flood of dopamine, time after time, click after click, as long as he continues. It’s a dopamine binge.

The brain’s can’t keep up with this; it’s too draining; something has to be done. Take an analogy: what would you do if you are talking with someone on the phone, and he starts screaming at you, so that your ears hurt? You will turn down your phone’s speaker volume to cope. But if the person goes back to speaking in a normal volume, all you will now hear is silence.

It’s exactly the same in the brain. If a person keeps up the dopamine scream by overstimulating himself with porn, his brain will turn the volume way down — the brain’s synapses (connections) do NOT like being overstimulated with dopamine, so they respond by destroying some dopamine receptors. It’s how it turns down the dopamine volume. But once the dopamine binge is done, it is left feeling a vacuum of silence, and so it feels depleted.

Escalation

This is why pornography causes a vicious circle. When someone views pornography, he gets overstimulated by dopamine; so his brain destroys some dopamine receptors. This makes him feel depleted, so he goes back to pornography, but, having fewer dopamine receptors, this time it requires more to get the same dopamine thrill; but this causes his brain to destroy more receptors; so he feels an even greater need for pornography to stimulate him.

So as guys keep gaming the dopamine system, they start to find that they have to use pornography for longer and longer periods to have the same effect, and they have to visit more and more sites. Still, eventually they cannot get the same excitement as before. This is the dangerous period. This alone is the number one reason not to get started with pornography.

People often discover a trick for increasing the excitement of dopamine when the effect starts getting weaker. If you want more bang, you need to add adrenaline in the mix.

How do you get more adrenaline?

You have to stimulate another emotion: fear or disgust or shock or surprise. For porn use, you need to start moving to kinkier things, things that make you afraid or make you feel a bit sick; and so you start experimenting with various perversions. You cannot predict in advance what perversion will really kick up your adrenaline; but once it does, watch out – the mix of adrenaline and dopamine is extremely potent. It triggers a new developmental stage for the brain – it triggers something called neuroplasticity, which means “rewiring.”

Ordinarily, our brains are most changeable when we are little kids, under age eight; during that time we can pick up languages and skills really fast. Pornography, we now know, turns this stage back on, so that major rewiring can occur. And what will be wired in now so deeply? Whatever images triggered the adrenaline and dopamine combined surge. The “record” button, which ensures that the thing viewed reshapes the brain, is orgasm, the most powerful natural reward.

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© 2017-2021 by Natalie D'Annibale, PsyD, LMFT