Brain Chemicals and Porn: How Porn Affects Your Brain
What does porn do to your brain? Can porn change or damage your brain in any measurable way? What are the psychological effects of watching too much porn? There’s a lot of information out there, so we’ve condensed it into this handy reference.
Does Porn Affect Our Brains?
Yes, porn does affect our brains—and it’s not good. The cravings experienced by someone hooked on porn can be like the cravings of a drug addict. With repeated exposure to porn, the portion of the brain responsible for decision-making and willpower actually begins to shrink. The chemical pathways of the brain designed for sexual pleasure are rewired to seek out porn instead of real sex.
So if you’ve ever felt like it’s hard to quit porn, there’s a good reason: it affects your brain! Let’s dig deeper into the science of porn use and the effects it has on the brain.
Brain Chemicals and Porn: What Happens When We Watch Porn
Your brain is an incredible biological computer, with billions of neurons processing countless bits of information, maneuvering your body, and shaping your emotions. It houses a whole pharmacy of chemicals, which work together to give you the experiences of pleasure, pain, and many other feelings. Your brain is also designed to adjust and adapt to different environments and stimuli.
In The Porn Circuit, Sam Black describes the various hormones and neurotransmitters involved when someone views porn and how each ingredient in this neuro-cocktail contributes to the problem:
- When having sex or watching porn, dopamine is released into a region of the brain responsible for emotion and learning, giving the viewer a sense of sharp focus and a sense of craving: “I have got to have this thing; this is what I need right now.” It supplies a great sense of pleasure. The next time the viewer gets the “itch” for more sexual pleasure, small packets of dopamine are released in the brain, telling the user: “Remember where you got your fix last time. Go there to get it.”
- Norepinephrine is also released, creating alertness and focus. It is the brain’s version of adrenaline. It tells the brain, “Something is about to happen, and we need to get ready for it.”
- Sex and porn also trigger the release of oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones help to lay down the long-term memories for the cells. They “bind” a person’s memories to the object that gave him or her sexual pleasure.
- The body releases endorphins, natural opiates that create a “high,” of pleasure throughout the whole body.
- After sexual release, serotonin levels also change, bringing a sense of calm and relaxation.
This system works the way it is supposed to work when you’re having sex with your spouse. Together, you can experience a high, an alertness of sexual pleasure, and a deep calm afterward (norepinephrine, endorphins, and serotonin). With each sexual embrace, you are emotionally bonding to this person (oxytocin and vasopressin). Over time, a craving for sex is transformed into a desire for one another (dopamine).
Something very similar happens when your brain is “on porn.” Porn activates the same pleasurable chemicals in your brain that make sex so enjoyable and meaningful. But porn isn’t real sex, and it actually short-circuits the system with disturbing side effects. In this short video, Matt Fradd talks about our brains and the chemicals at work when we look at porn.
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3 Ways Porn Affects Our Brain
Your brain is different when it’s on porn. The chemicals at work in your brain have at least 3 measurable effects that researchers have noted.
1. The brain is “tattooed” with porn.
Your brain is designed to remember important situations and events. When you see porn, your brain gets the signal that something important has happened. Consequently, porn can leave an imprint of the image on the brain long after is viewed. Many people who have quit looking at porn still have minds full of pornographic images—images that won’t leave. One of our readers recently commented, “Even though I haven’t viewed porn in quite a while, I still have very vivid images in my mind that make me want to go back to it.” This kind of experience with porn is extremely common.
Why is that? It’s because of the chemicals at work: norepinephrine, oxytocin, and vasopressin, which work together to form lasting memories. The effect on the brain is that looking at porn, even briefly, can leave your mind with a built-in library of images that you can’t erase. Neuroscientist Dr. William Struthers, the author of Wired for Intimacy, compares this to a “neurological tattoo, which is difficult to ‘unremember’ or to wipe away.”
2. The brain bonds to porn, not a person.
Sex is designed to bond you to a person. With porn, instead of forming a deep connection to a person, your brain ends up “bonding” to a pornographic experience. Your brain remembers where the sexual high was experienced, and each time you desire sexual stimulation, you feel a sharp sense of focus: I’ve got to go back to the porn.
In addition to this bonding, pornography gives the brain an unnatural high. Neuroscientist Dr. Donald Hilton says this is because porn is a “supranormal stimulus.”¹ In a popular TEDx talk, physiology teacher Gary Wilson explains that when men look at porn, they experience surge after surge of dopamine in the brain. The brain eventually fatigues, stopping the production of dopamine, leaving the viewer wanting more but unable to reach a level of satisfaction.
As a result, everyday pleasures stop causing excitement and the viewer seeks out more novel, more intense pornography to get the same high as before. This imbalance in the brain leads to many problems: impotence with your spouse, frequent masturbation with very little satisfaction, anxiety, fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, and escalating tastes for more bizarre or novel porn.
3. Porn shrinks your brain.
Porn users’ brains are actually smaller than normal. Cambridge Neuropsychiatrist Valerie Voon was featured in the UK documentary Porn on the Brain. Her research demonstrates that the brains of habitual porn users show great similarity to the brains of alcoholics. A brain structure called the ventral striatum plays a significant role in the reward system of the brain—the pleasure pathways. It is the same part of the brain that “lights up” when an alcoholic sees a picture of a drink.² A German study found similar results.
Dr. William Struthers sounds a similar alarm, teaching that viewing pornography and masturbating actually weakens the region of our brain known as the cingulate cortex—the region that is responsible for moral and ethical decision making and willpower. This means feeling the compulsive “need” to look at porn.
It may lead someone to engage in increasingly risky behavior, such as looking at porn at work, consuming more extreme or even illegal porn, or acting out sexually in other ways—such as visiting strip clubs or soliciting prostitutes.
The Psychological Effects of Porn on the Brain
We can look at the effects of porn on the brain at a chemical level, but we can also look at the effects of porn from a psychological perspective. Sex addiction therapist and porn recovery expert Dr. Kevin Skinner says:
Our emotions are heavily influenced by the chemicals that run through our bodies. Consequently, when the pornography addict is viewing pornography he is altering his normal emotional state… When a pornography addict comes down off the rush from the chemicals dumped into the system, he is likely to feel more depressed and emotionally down.³
One commenter on our blog said, “I hope I can stop this as it leaves me depressed and makes me feel worthless. Whenever I wake up I feel like a pile of bricks and I can’t get up because of how I feel. It destroys me emotionally every time…”
Here’s a short summary of research into the psychological effects of porn on the brain.
Porn may increase anxiety or depression.
At Covenant Eyes, we speak with people every day who are experiencing depression and anxiety related to porn. Research has found a correlation between watching porn and anxiety and depression, particularly those who want to stop watching porn but can’t. One study of university students indicated a strong connection between compulsive porn use and anxiety.4
Some experts are dubious about the connection between porn and depression or anxiety. Nonetheless, they acknowledge that porn can affect relationships, which in turn can result in depression or anxiety.5
Porn can change sexual beliefs.
We start to desire what we see in porn. We start to need more novel types of porn to get the same high we got with our first porn encounter. The more porn is consumed, the more it changes how we see women. It can even lead us to think violence is sexy. Looking at these images and videos can “pornify” a person’s outlook on life. and how they see the world and women as sex objects. Studies show that porn can change the way people view women. A 2020 longitudinal study found, “Compelling evidence shows that frequency of pornography exposure is associated with negatively perceived body image and sexual body image.”6
Dr. Dolf Zillmann and Dr. Jennings Bryant found that people who watched porn were desensitized to violent sex and rape. People who watched porn had a lower view of traditional institutions like marriage and family.7
Porn often intensifies shame.
At Covenant Eyes, we often refer to the “shame cycle.” People trying to quit porn often feel a deep sense of shame that can drive them into relapse and further emotional bondage. The negative feelings associated with porn, rather than giving them the motivation to quit, often contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
A recent independent study had similar findings. A group of men surveyed reported feelings of shame regarding their porn use. They also reported feelings of shame related to the way porn had affected their sexual preferences.8
Pastor, counselor, and research Jay Stringer has found a strong connection between porn and shame, “For those of us who have struggled with pornography, shame is an all-too-familiar companion.” Shame can be both a result of looking at porn, particularly for those whose moral belief system says porn is wrong, and a trigger for further porn consumption.
Porn can lead to memory loss.
In some cases, porn may lead to memory loss. Sound crazy? One study concluded, “[T]hat pornography addiction may be associated with impaired recent verbal memory in juveniles.”9 Another study looked more broadly at short-term memory with a group of 28 healthy individuals and came up with similar results.10
If you’re hooked on porn, you may have the experience of looking up at the clock and realizing you’ve burned through a couple of hours looking at porn when you have other things you should be doing. The bottom line is, there’s reason to believe that looking at porn may make it more difficult to retain the information you need for important tasks, whether you’re in school or working.
The effects of porn are so powerful they can feel paralyzing for some people. On top of this, when trying to quit porn, many people also report withdrawal symptoms. These can include mood swings, anxiety, and depression. Some have even reported headaches. One commenter asked us:
I want to get better but my withdrawal symptoms get real intense… I can’t seem to think straight or catch my breath. I also get flu like symptoms for the first week or so. How long do I have to hold out for the withdrawal symptoms to subside?
These symptoms result from the powerful neurological and psychological effects that porn has on the brain. Effects like this rarely last long, but they can be intense. But don’t be discouraged! This doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. See our post, 10 Symptoms of Porn Addiction Withdrawal (And How to Manage Them). Here you’ll find practical help on what to expect when quitting porn, and strategies to ensure your success.
We strongly encourage you to find an ally for your journey, so you have someone cheering you on and helping you stay the course when things get tough.
Can I rewire my brain from porn’s effects?
It can feel overwhelming, but change is possible. You can rewire your brain. Tens of thousands of men and women have broken free from the grip of pornography and reclaimed their sexuality. Every day, we hear from people at different stages of the journey. Here’s what some of them are saying:
“I need to change to get my life, my hopes, and my future back. Today is my first day with this program.”
“I was sexually abused as a kid growing and I got addicted to pornography and masturbation at a very young age, I have tried to stop many times but failed. Covenant Eyes is the first program that has given me real hope. Now I can go without porn for months and gradually am getting to the point of total freedom.”
“Today is my one-year anniversary free of porn! That is after 50 years of looking at porn! It is possible to defeat this even for us older guys whose neural pathways are deep canyons. I thank God that it is never too late to heal!”
While porn has a tremendous impact on the brain, your brain has an incredible capacity to change and adapt. Even if your neural pathways are “deep canyons,” it’s never too late to start the process of rewiring.
You can learn more and start your freedom from porn by downloading our free ebook below.
³Kevin Skinner, Treating Pornography Addiction: The Essential Tools for Recovery, 34.