Addiction

How Porn and Sex Are Different in the Brain

Neuroscience finds no evidence of porn addiction.

Posted Nov 08, 2019

Does watching porn warp and desensitize your brain? If you have encountered anti-porn advocates—such as legislators who frame pornography as a public health issue, or sex addiction therapists who liken porn to heroin—you may think so. However, science won’t confirm your beliefs. 

Nicole Prause, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist who researches human sexual behavior, addiction, and the physiology of sexual response, and is the founder of the independent research institute, Liberos. She and her fellow researchers found that the brains of those who watch a lot of porn react nothing like those of, say, a drug addict when exposed to photographs of the drug to which they are addicted.

Prause shared some of her insights during one of my recent podcasts interviews with her. Here are some excerpts:

IStock by Getty Images
Source: IStock by Getty Images

What have you found from your neurological research about how people use porn or watch porn?

NP: We have people, for example, who come into our lab and interact with partners while we monitor their brains to try and understand how those brain responses with a partner are different from viewing pornography or masturbating, if they are.

One of the first big findings was a lack of activity. Curie activity, sometimes called the biomarker of addiction, is commonly found in substance addiction. It basically means your brain orients more strongly to the substance or behavior to which you’re addicted than other stimuli that we’re presenting you within the laboratory.

So, if you are addicted to pornography, and we showed you pornographic images, we would expect that your brain would respond more strongly to those images than other people who viewed these images and do not report having a problem. We actually found the opposite in this case. That’s not habituation evidence. Some people misinterpreted it that way. It just means that the early—we’re talking 300 milliseconds—curie activity that needs to be there for an addiction does not exist with respect to pornography.

People think someone who is spending all day watching porn must be addicted to something. What do you think?

NP: In each case, you have to think functionally. It could be that someone is depressed and watches pornography as a coping mechanism. Some think it presents a more obsessive-compulsive presentation; that watching pornography is a usual routine that interferes with everyday activities; that it has become a habit.

In both cases, these individuals could benefit from therapy to help cope with their real issues. Watching porn isn’t the issue. It’s important to get the focus off the substance.

What concerns me is that the sex addiction industry, instead of calling it OCD, or habituation, or values, or religion, wants to say it’s sex addiction. 

NP: At two university clinics that I know of, men are spending half of their treatment time trying to get out of the addiction mindset because they've gone through horrible addiction programs that teach them inaccurate information, which leads them to believe they will become a child molester, for example. That simply isn’t true. These people are having to spend countless hours in treatment to undo the damage from their porn addiction treatment.

Will you talk about porn addiction research and why masturbation is not discussed?

NP: The main problem with not talking about masturbation is that it means you cannot attribute any effects in your studies to porn unless you have controlled for the fact that people are always masturbating when they’re viewing porn. 

As a reviewer, if they don't control it, I reject the study because it’s that strong of a correlate. And if you can’t prove that it’s having an effect above and beyond that, you can’t publish.

Anti-pornography advocates are saying porn is a national health crisisthat it is ruining marriages. 

NP: I think that hits on the interpretation of what porn means to a couple. In an extreme case, a woman in a heterosexual relationship may feel porn is a sign of infidelity. If that’s her value, it’s a difficult one to overcome. The couple needs to have a values conversation. It’s really the insecurity, the common relationship concerns people have had for all millennia; these are not new to porn.

A lot of people are watching porn by the age of 10, when the brain is still developing. Is it true there’s no way to tell whether structural brain differences are a consequence or a cause of porn, or watching porn?

NP: Yes. To be able to tell something like that, you have to do random assignment in a trial. It’s illegal to show youth porn. Kids are developing sexual interests, and sexual motivations and they’re expecting that, in part, through looking at pornography. But, of course, the kids who have higher sex drives are going to look more at pornography, probably earlier. You really have to do an experiment to demonstrate that porn was the cause of any of those differences, and we can’t. It’s illegal.

There’s another missing piece: parents aren't talking with their kids about porn.

NP: When you look at sexual values, I think parents often are fearful their kids are being influenced by their friends to look at porn. But the sexual values of kids strongly align with their parents, not their peers. It’s really important that they know what their parents' sexual values are.

People are saying porn is different today than it was when I was growing up. Porn today changes the brain more. 

NP: Currently, there’s no evidence that porn today is anything different in your brain than when we were testing people watching it on VHS tapes. Certainly, it’s more accessible and there’s a wider breadth. But sexual arousal is sexual arousal in the brain. The brain patterns appear to be the same.

There are people who will disagree. They have found peer-reviewed journal articles that say you’re absolutely wrong, that there is a brain hijack. 

NP: There are a number of myths that people are capitalizing on to try and make that case. For example, we often see people say, “The dopamine hijacks the brain. It comes in, you get flooded with dopamine.” And, of course, words like, “flooded" or "hijacked" are a good way to know you’re reading pseudo-science. We don’t generally use those words in science.

I also would like to point out that there are lots of differences in the brain when you’re viewing porn versus interacting with a partner. This is part of why I always say I don’t fear the sex robots, because wherever our technology goes, there are certain things that are special to being with a partner. 

I'd like to add that we are on the cutting edge of studying something we preliminarily are calling the periorgasmic period. The brain seems to reduce cognitive control, and at some point, the nervous system drops off. We didn’t have this information a few years ago. If there is a periorgasmic period, then I would say you would never get there with porn. If you’re just sitting there watching it and not masturbating, you’re going to stay in the earlier arousal phases. It’s only when you add the masturbation or add a partner that you can get into this, we think, periorgasmic period. 

To hear this podcast in its entirety, visit www.SmartSexSmartLove.com

To learn more about Dr. Nikki Prause, visit her website: www.LiberosCenter.com