Once upon a time, masturbation called for a lot of imagination. It was rehearsal for the real thing: "First I'm gonna do this...and then...." No longer.
"I'm part of the last generation to start masturbating before they had the Internet. I can't fathom having access to visual representations of every possible sexual taste before feeling the biological urge to whack it. When I was a kid, we were all desperate to look at boobs, but the opportunity only came by one or two glorious times a year [via catalog]. I honestly wonder how tits-on-tap affect later generations."
What does this shift mean? Internet porn use more closely parallels videogaming than real sex. It combines your genes' No. 1 priority—and biggest natural reward (sex)—with the constantly changing, ever-novel-and-surprising delivery of "World of Warcraft." Your left hand is applying more pressure and speed than intercourse. Your right hand is clicking away in "search mode," as your eyes dart from one screen to the next and moaning fills your ears. No imaginary orchestration needed.
Porn, and the way it is delivered to our brains, has changed. Alas, our brains haven't yet adapted, and this can create unexpected problems:
"I've used porn for years. I just like watching people have sex. My problem escalated about 18 months ago when I got high-speed Internet. All of a sudden, I went from just viewing pictures online, to viewing videos and movies online instantaneously. I never really gave it much thought, but after almost daily viewing—sometimes even binging for hours on end watching porn videos—I really began to notice a change in my personal sex life with my wife. I had never really had any ED problems at all. But now, whenever my wife and I start to have sex, I cannot get an erection. Sometimes I get one, but then it quickly starts getting soft. Sex has been almost non-existent for us."
"There's a difference between today's online porn and that of just a couple decades ago. Now, you can go to a variety of websites and find more free porn than you could watch if you quit your job and dedicated your life to it—all in living color. You can even pick your favorite fetish, whatever you find the most intense, and just watch video after video of it. If the intensity wanes for a few seconds, or you get bored with watching the same bodies for two minutes straight, you can jump to a new set doing new things. It has the potential to be far more destructive to your appreciation for the real thing than ever before."
Exactly. Internet porn exploits more than just sexual desire. It drives users beyond their natural libido: Users can watch porn in multiple windows, search endlessly, view constant novelty, fast-forward to the bits they find hottest, switch to live sex chat, fire up their mirror neurons with video action or cam-2-cam, or escalate to extreme genres and anxiety-producing material. It's all free, easy to access, available within seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can be viewed on phones at any age. Before long, it will be enhanced with sex toys that simulate physical contact.
Zoom into the brain
What drives this unnatural "mating" frenzy? Dopamine. It's the primary neurochemical behind reward-seeking behavior. Dopamine levels are the barometer by which we decide (and remember) the value of any experience. Not surprisingly, sexual stimuli raise dopamine far more than other natural rewards.
Most people think of dopamine as the "buzz," the "sugar high," or the drive towards orgasm. Actually, it spikes in response to stimuli associated with survival needs. It's motivation. It tells us what to approach or avoid and where to put our attention. Further, it tells us what to remember, by helping to rewire our brains.
Internet porn just happens to elicit spikes of dopamine for all of the "salient" stimuli for which we evolved to be on the lookout:
Erotic words, pictures and videos have been around a long time. So has the neurochemical rush from novel mates. Yet the novelty of a once-a-month Playboy evaporates as soon as you turn the pages. Would anyone call Playboy or softcore videos "shocking" or "anxiety-producing?" Would either violate the expectations of a computer-literate boy over the age of 12? Neither compares with the "searching and seeking" of a multiple-tab Google prowl.
"It was getting pretty bad. I would take a chick home and sometimes not even be able to get my d*ck up because porn had rewired my brain and conditioned it to have 5-6 girls at a time. One girl, even though she was there in person, was not doing the trick."
Why is constant dopamine stimulation so addictive? As neuroscientist David Linden explains, smoking hooks a far greater percentage of users than heroin, even though heroin furnishes a bigger neurochemical blast. Why? It's a question of brain training. Every puff of each of those 20 cigarettes per pack is training the smoker that cigarettes are rewarding. In contrast, how often can someone shoot up? At base addiction is "pathological learning."
In the case of Internet porn, think of the constant novelty, the shocking or anxiety-producing visuals, and the clicks in search of the perfect shot as puffs, and orgasm as something stronger. Both train the brain. However, we hear from guys all the time with porn-induced ED, who will give up masturbation to try to heal rather than give up Internet porn. They instinctively know where the dopamine drip is:
"I tend to think it's the porn that is the hyper-stimulus resulting in erectile dysfunction, not the masturbation. The odd thing I am finding about my personal experiment is that without online porn, I don't really feel like masturbating. Even when I try, am not aroused enough to masturbate. My mind doesn't fantasize anymore, like it used to when I was a kid in the pre-Internet days."
Today's porn use is more about dopamine hits than climax
Dopamine drives all arousal, but a steady stream of ever changing erotic stimulation is a far more powerful mind-training experience than occasional masturbation to orgasm. This is why online erotica can create powerful addictions in some brains.
Sadly, abundance of dopamine doesn't equal satisfaction. Its message is always, "Satisfaction lies just around the corner, so keep going!" Behavioral addiction research on food, gambling and Internet videogaming shows that too much dopamine numbs the pleasure response of the brain. This indicates addiction processes are creeping in. A numbed brain leads to cravings for more; even the perfect shot will not satisfy. Today's porn doesn't just meet your needs; it distorts them.
Watching a sunset, petting a cat, and watching your favorite team are not the same as more intense pleasures. With normal pleasures, you get dopamine signals and then your brain returns to homeostasis. In contrast, some activities have the potential to dysregulate dopamine long-term.
Indeed the medical doctors of the American Society of Addiction Medicine recently issued a statement citing sex, food and gambling as potentially addictive activities. They leave no doubt that all addictions—whether to alcohol, heroin or sex—are fundamentally the same. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, too, has pointed to the dangers of "arousal addiction." (TED talk The Demise of Guys?)
Even young men are warning each other about Internet porn. Bodybuilding thread: "Ask a recovering porn addict anything. (SRS)." Reddit thread: "Ask a guy who quit porn for 2 months now anything." They are also figuring out that porn causes escalation and creates bogus sexual tastes:
"Porn binges for 4-6 hours the last couple days. On the plus side, it did become obvious that transexual porn is unrelated to my sexuality. After watching for 30+ hours over the past 5 days , transexual porn started to become boring! I began searching for other, more disgusting and shocking stuff."
The qualities of Internet porn affect the brain in unique ways. In addition to constant stimulation, there's no inherent limit to consumption—unlike eating or drugs. Escalation is always possible because the brain's natural satiation mechanisms don't kick in unless one climaxes—which may not be for hours. Even then, users can click to something more shocking to become aroused again. Nor will Internet porn eventually activate the brain's natural aversion system ("I can't tolerate another bite/drink/snort!"). Who can't bear to look at another erotic image? Reproduction is our genes' top priority after all.
Become aware of the symptoms of excess
The belief that "porn use can cause no harm" arose in the era of monthly Playboy. Like it or not, Internet porn is as different from past erotica as "Super Mario" is from tic-tac-toe. Self-reports make this evident. Instead of being "just porn," Internet porn is a new phenomenon, for which evolution has not prepared many brains.
Your ancestors had no Internet or memory banks of porn-based fantasy. If they masturbated, normal libido and their own imagination got the job done. If your sexual responsiveness is decreasing, or you need porn to climax, then you are, in effect, overriding your brain's natural appetite mechanisms, and risking addiction. Wait until your brain returns to normal sensitivity. Withdrawal may be difficult, but tips and support are available.
Your brain didn't evolve to handle today's erotica-at-a-click. It doesn't just see videos; it perceives endless fertilization opportunities, and it will use its dopamine "whip" to make sure you fertilize as many as possible—whatever the cost to you. Instead of getting off and getting on with life, today's viewers often continue for as long as they can stay awake—unaware that they may be at risk for addiction or performance problems. As Eliezer Yudkowsky once wrote,
"If people have the right to be tempted—and that's what free will is all about—the market is going to respond by supplying as much temptation as can be sold. Market incentive continues well beyond the point where a superstimulus begins wreaking collateral damage on the consumer."
Learn the signals that indicate excessive porn use. (Read others' self-reports.) You can't go by what your friends are doing, or even by the advice of sexologists or doctors. Go by what you notice.
"Back in the day of dial-up, I was only able to download the occasional picture (very soft-porn) due to bad/slow Internet and not knowing where to find all the smuttery. But now with high-speed, even to mobile phones, it has made me continuously watch more and more and at higher resolution. It sometimes becomes a whole day affair looking for the perfect one to finish on. It never, ever satisfies. "Need more" the brain always says...such a lie."
NEW: Adolescent Brain Meets Highspeed Internet Porn (half-hour presentation on sexual conditioning and the adolescent brain)