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This Is How Your Brain Reacts to Porn

For better or worse, the rise of the Internet made sexual images available any time, anywhere. How does this affect our brains? The way we see people? Our sex lives in real life? Let's take a look at the neuroscience and psychology of porn.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #341
The Quick And Dirty
  • Pornography use rose dramatically in the past two decades, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. There are still many open questions about how this might be affecting our brains and behavior.
  • There appear to be brain differences between those who use porn frequently and those who do not, especially in the reward-processing centers.
  • Frequent and problematic porn use might lead to enough brain changes to cause sexual dysfunction. Case studies have shown that reducing porn use may reverse those effects to restore healthy sexuality.
  • Both men and women seem to automatically process sexual images of women as they would objects, a pattern not seen for sexual images of men. How this affects the way we treat women in real life is yet to be fully researched.

In the past few decades, the Internet has put everything under the sun within reach ... whenever we want it. We can binge-watch every season of Friends if we wanted to. We can have toilet paper shipped to our front door. We can find out how many teeth a shark has. (It has 5 rows of teeth totaling 3000. Do what you will with that information.)

And of course, we can watch pornography. Hours and hours of sexual images and videos involving (mostly) people in every imaginable combination and location, and some unimaginable ones, too. Never before in history have we had such infinite access to so much sexual stimuli.

When governments around the world put pandemic-related stay-at-home orders in place in March 2020, weekly visits went up sharply in all the affected countries and kept climbing for months.

When COVID-19 struck, we humans took porn consumption up a notch. All the social isolation and boredom drove people to porn on a scale never seen before. In 2019, Pornhub received a whopping 42 billion visits. But when governments around the world put pandemic-related stay-at-home orders in place in March 2020, weekly visits went up sharply in all the affected countries and kept climbing for months.

So, how does porn affect our brains? A 2014 study found that men who watched more porn had less gray matter volume—they literally had smaller brains. This finding caused a whirlwind of headlines and opinions. But is it true? What does it mean? Is porn really bad for us?

As usual, the answers are complicated. Let’s take a look at some interesting themes from neuroscience research on just how exactly pornography affects the way we see, think, feel, and act.

Brains on porn are different

One thing seems true: Brains on porn do appear to look and act somewhat differently. That infamous study from 2014? It found that the more porn men reported watching, the less volume and activity they had in the regions of the brain linked to reward processing and motivation, specifically the striatum.

They also found that connectivity between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex (which is the part of the brain used for decision making, planning, and behavior regulation) weakened the more porn the men reported watching. The researchers thought that, perhaps, we see these differences due to intense stimulation of the reward system, almost as if too much porn was wearing down this system and making it less sensitive.

This brain activity pattern looks awfully similar to the patterns in addiction.

Another brain imaging study found that the brain reward centers of men with problematic pornography use—those whose porn habits were interfering with their life or relationships—responded not only to sexual images but to cues predicting sexual images. In other words, their brains got a hit of intense reward just thinking that porn might be happening soon. This brain activity pattern looks awfully similar to the patterns in addiction.

However, before you make a blanket porn celibacy pledge, there are three caveats:

  • In the study showing less brain volume in the striatum, all the participants were mentally and physically healthy. So, their slightly different brains did not seem to negatively affect their health or functioning. In the study showing addiction-like brain activity patterns, the participants were specifically men whose pornography use was so problematic that they were seeking treatment for it. They probably don’t represent most porn users.
     
  • Porn isn’t the only thing that changes brains. Anything you do frequently, from smoking pot to playing the piano to riding a motorcycle, can change your brain. The bigger concern is whether it causes problems for your health or functioning.
     
  • These studies only captured a snapshot (the participants weren’t followed over time) so we don’t know the answer to the chicken-or-egg question of whether porn changes your brain or whether having a particular type of brain makes you watch more porn.

By the way, you've probably already noticed that the studies I've referenced so far only included male participants. And unfortunately, the rest of the episode will be similar because there's almost no research on women's use of porn. It's important to acknowledge that women consume porn, too, although fewer do than men—most studies have found that about 18% of women view porn on a weekly basis, compared to 67-81% of men. I hope more researchers will venture into this topic, because women's sexual behaviors and well-being are important to understand, too.

Porn and the way we see men versus women

What’s more concerning to me is how our brains actually process sexual images and what this means for much bigger societal issues. For example, one fascinating and frightening study found that when we look at sexual images of women, we see objects, not people. 

Let me explain: Our brains automatically recognize people differently than we recognize objects. They use a process called configural processing as a shortcut to help us readily see people, and even to be biased toward seeing people. This is why sometimes you can’t help but see faces where there are none, like in the burn patterns on a piece of toast.

One fascinating and frightening study found that when we look at sexual images of women, we see objects, not people. Does this bias translate to how we consciously or unconsciously treat women in real life?

Upside down images of people are more difficult for the brain to recognize because the spatial relations aren’t right. So, it’s easier for configural processing to fail when the person is upside down. In the study, researchers showed people upside-down and right-side-up images of sexy men and women posing in lingerie and took note of people’s configural processing shortcuts. As expected, right-side-up men were processed as people, but upside-down men were often processed as objects.

But here’s the kicker—sexy women were processed as objects regardless of whether they were right side up or upside down. And the pattern was true for both male and female participants. This is disturbing because it shows the automatic mental shortcuts we take to objectify women without even being aware of them. And if we watch porn frequently, would this help us to practice these mental shortcuts? Does this bias translate to how we consciously or unconsciously treat women in real life?

Frequent porn use might cause sexual dysfunction

On a widespread scale, Internet porn replaced good ol’ fashioned Playboy magazines probably around the mid-2000s, when large-scale porn streaming websites mushroomed. A fascinating pair of studies captured the rates of erectile dysfunction around the world before and after this shift. In 2002, only 2% of young men aged 18-40 had erectile dysfunction. A decade later, in a new 2012 study, this number had spiked to between 14% and 28%.

Could there be a link? It’s hard to say because the evidence has been mixed, with some showing a link between the frequency of porn consumption and erectile dysfunction and some finding no connection.

Researchers were seeing healthy young men develop difficulty maintaining an erection or reaching orgasm as they consumed porn more and more often.

But when some sex researchers zoomed into individual case reports of sexual dysfunction, they became convinced that porn was at least a major part of the story. They were seeing healthy young men develop difficulty maintaining an erection or reaching orgasm as they consumed porn more and more often.

Experts speculate that this pattern could be due to the brain undergoing “neuroadaptations”—changes in the way it responds to reward and creates motivation. The most obvious neuroadaptation is that, with unlimited access to dizzying amounts of new material, the brain becomes desensitized to sexual stimuli and needs more and more “hardcore” or fetishized content to be stimulated. In contrast, real-life partners simply can’t match the pace of increasing stimulation.

The good news is that the brain is very good at adapting, so changes to the reward system can be reversed. In the case studies I mentioned, upon reducing the amount of porn they watched, the men’s sexual function also returned to normal.

The verdict

Should we all swear off porn forever? Not necessarily. In this case, as in any other, the answer is complicated, but the best way to sum it up might be: Moderation is key.  Moderate amounts of porn might affect the brains of men but don’t seem to affect the mental or sexual health of all men.

As far as how moderate amounts of porn affect how men treat women in real life? Well, that’s another podcast unto itself. It seems that both men and women—for reasons that still lie beyond the cutting edge of research—are objectifying women’s bodies on a basic perceptual level, even without realizing it.

We can give our reward systems a break from overstimulation, and even practice mindfulness to become grounded in our own bodies again.

Thankfully, our brains are complex and adaptable. We can give our reward systems a break from overstimulation, and even practice mindfulness to become grounded in our own bodies again. We might even help our brains to see the whole picture, instead of objectifying the sexual parts of it, by cultivating self-awareness.

Happily, global processing—seeing the whole picture—goes along with being in a good mood. Studies show that happier moods allow us to focus on the forest, while negative moods reduce our view to the trees. So a nice side effect of your own personal pursuit of happiness may be seeing all people as just who they are—people.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD Savvy Psychologist

Dr. Jade Wu was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast between 2019 and 2021. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine.