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Your Brain on Porn and Other Sexual Images

Is porn bad for the brain?  The Savvy Psychologist explains 3 studies that looked at how we process porn and other sexualized images, and reveals the potential effects on the brain--and on how we see our fellow men and women.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #027

Upside down images of people are more difficult for the brain to recognize because the spatial relations aren’t right. Therefore, upside down pictures of people often get processed as if they were pictures of objects.

However, the researchers found that pictures of sexy women got processed as objects regardless of whether they were upside down or right side up. Pictures of sexy men were processed as objects only when they were upside down.

Right side up, the sexy men were seen as people, whereas the sexy women were objects no matter how they were viewed. 

What’s more interesting is that both male and female participants had the same results; apparently, both genders see attractive women as objects at a basic cognitive level.

Study #3:  Think Globally

Another 2012 study showed that the difference in perceiving men and women isn’t limited to sexualized images.  In the study, researchers asked participants to look at pictures of average-looking men and women who were fully clothed—no swimsuits or come-hither looks here.

After viewing each picture of a fully clothed man or woman, participants were then presented with a pair of pictures.  Half the time, participants saw whole bodies: one was the original picture they had just seen. The second was a slightly doctored body where the waist or chest was modified.  (Waists and chests were chosen because eye-tracker studies show that people focus on waists and chests to categorize clothed people by gender). 

The other half of the time, participants saw the pair of pictures reduced to parts: a pair of just waist or chest regions without the context of the full body. One image was a waist or chest slice of the original image, while the other was the slightly modified waist or chest.

So what happened? Both genders were better at recognizing women from the isolated waist or chest parts of their bodies—local processing—while they were better at recognizing men from the whole-body pictures—global processing. 

In a nutshell, women were perceived in the same way as objects—reduced to their parts—while men were recognized as whole people.  Keep in mind that both genders did this; it’s not just guys reducing women to their chests. 

The Results

From these studies, we can take away that sexual imagery is both not as bad as we think, and worse than we think.  Moderate amounts of porn might affect the brains of men, but don’t seem to affect the mental health of all men.  As far as how moderate amounts of porn affect how men treat women, well, that’s another podcast unto itself.  And, both men and women—for reasons that still lie beyond the cutting edge of research—are objectifying women’s bodies, even when fully clothed. 

But does the sexy underwear have a silver lining? Thankfully, yes. Global processing—seeing the bigger picture, not just the parts—is the brain’s default mode across cultures. That means that it may be pretty easy to toggle ourselves into our preferred global processing, despite the evidence that we all tend to view women as parts. 

How? Happily, global processing goes along with a good mood. Studies of processing and mood 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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Photo of adult keyboard courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

References:

Bernard, P., Gervais, S. J., Allen, J., Campomizzi, S. & Klein, O. (2012). Integrating sexual objectification with object versus person recognition: The sexualized body-inversion hypothesis. Psychological Science, 23, 469-471. 

Gasper, K. & Clore, G.L.  (2002).  Attending to the big picture: Mood and global versus local processing of visual information.  Psychological Science, 13, 34-40.

Gervais, S.J., Vescio, T.K., Forster, J., Maass, A. & Suitner, C. (2012).  Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 743-753.

Kühn, S., Gallinat, J.  Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption: The brain on porn. JAMA Psychiatry.  Published online May 28, 2014. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.93.

Maurer, D., LeGrand, R., & Mondloch, C.J.  (2002).  The many faces of configural processing.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 255-260.

Navon, D.  (1977).  Forest before trees: The precedence of global features in visual perception.  Cognitive Psychology, 9, 353-383.

 

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