Book Review – Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction

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“The content of what [young porn viewers] found exciting changed as the Web sites introduced themes and scripts that altered their brains without their awareness. Because the brain maps for new, exciting images… they began to find their girlfriends less of a turn-on.” ~ Gary Wilson

By Jason Worth

(Note: If not specified otherwise, any quotations in this book review refer to text by the author from the book being reviewed.)

Prior to reading Your Brain on Porn by Gary Wilson, if a medical professional had told me that viewing pornography was leading young men to experience diminished libido, delayed ejaculation and anorgasmia (the inability to climax), I would have been surprised. If that medical professional told me that it was also causing in young men erectile dysfunction, anti-social behavior, “brain fog” (inability to concentrate), low energy or fatigue, irritability and a loss of attraction to real partners, I would have been dubious. And if that medical professional also told me that porn addiction can be so bad as to lead to insomnia, severe social anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, I would have been highly doubtful. And yet, all of these things appear to be true and are happening.

I’ve heard on more than one occasion that watching a little bit of porn is part of a normal, healthy sex life. It’s somewhat of a rite of passage for a teen to stumble across his first Playboy or Penthouse magazine, or catch glimpse of an adult video while over at a friend’s house. I suspect porn has even been proscribed in marriage counselling sessions as a way of helping couples to become more intimate and sexually active, too. So, how is it that porn can simultaneously be a somewhat healthy part of adolescent development and at the same time driving teens and young men to potential suicide? The answer lies at the intersection of modern Internet video streaming technology, the abundance and easy access to unlimited and free porn video clips (much of which you could call “hard core”), and human biology.

The “rite of passage” I just referred to harkened to an earlier time. A nudie magazine, like Penthouse, or even a box of nudie magazines, was good enough to interest a young man for a few viewings. But they were static images on glossy paper, and it required a good deal of imagination to be put to full effect. Grainy VHS tapes were a step up, so to speak. Unlike static photos, they left less to the imagination. And even the advent of higher quality DVDs still didn’t create the perfect storm that we’re dealing with today. One could only have so many DVDs or VCR tapes, they would typically only be played one at a time, and a certain boredom factor entered into the equation when watching the same disk for the fifth, sixth or seventh time.

But now, we have the Internet. And along with it high-bandwidth video streaming. And it didn’t take too long before websites proliferated and offered unlimited porn clips from across dozens of different genres. The slang term for multi-genre, high-bandwidth porn sites is “tubes,” because they serve up videos just like YouTube. And to make a drug analogy, if nudie mags and VCR tapes were like marijuana, tubes are crack cocaine.

To understand why tubes are the porn equivalent of crack cocaine, we need to understand the physiology behind the utilization of porn. Millenia of evolution and Darwinian self-selection have resulted in a human male species that craves sex. You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression that men always have sex on the brain, and there’s a lot of truth to that. You and I are walking the planet today because our fathers and forefathers were horny bastards. And they were that way because their brains were programmed to seek sexual pleasure and gratification. In fact, biochemists have identified that upon sexual climax, the human brain rewards men with a surge of dopamine. And the human body likes dopamine. Dopamine is also what is released when humans abuse hard drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, and there is no question that those are addicting substances. Porn can be also.

The cycle goes a little like this…. man views porn, masterbates, gets “rewarded” with a surge of dopamine. Man repeats process, but gets slightly less dopamine the next time. Man repeats process, and gets slightly less dopamine the next time. Porn abusers suffer a tolerance factor not unlike alcoholics or drug addicts who need to drink or shoot more each time to get the same buzz. Dopamine surges also trigger the production of a protein called DeltaFosB which “accumulates slowly in the reward circuitry in proportion to the amount of dopamine released when we chronically indulge in natural rewards (sex, sugar, high fat, aerobic exercise) or virtually any drug abuse.” Dopamine and DeltaFosB work in tandem to make porn addictive to the human brain. Scientists have proven that dopamine production declines when you watch the same porn scene over and over, but switch the channel and watch something new, and you can get dopamine levels back up, temporarily. In fact, porn abusers will often seek to keep themselves close to the point of climax, without actually climaxing. It’s something called “edging,” and young men edge because it is the point at which they are able to maximize their exposure to dopamine.

This is where the tubes come in. Apparently it is not uncommon for high-use porn users to switch from video clip to video clip, in some cases with multiple videos playing on one or more computer monitors at the same time, all in the quest of keeping the dopamine producing part of their brain in high gear. New, novel and unexpected scenes will trigger more dopamine. And as porn abusing males build up a dopamine tolerance, they can fool their brains into producing more dopamine by surprising it with new, novel and unexpected scenes. This typically involves watching more graphic scenes, which could include fetish, bondage, group sex, gay sex (if you’re heterosexual), transgender, sadomasochism, bestiality, etc. Depending upon your internal moral compass, watching porn can become a slippery slope drawing you down into ever more extreme and questionable things, all served up via an all-you-can-eat buffet from tube providers who have them nicely categorized by porn genre and made available free-of-charge. As there are no real age verification services in place to prevent underage viewing of these tubes, this means that children of any age are able to access and view this material. And, unfortunately, many of them do.

In fact, this is where the already troublesome aspects of brain conditioning via dopamine addiction becomes further magnified, because adolescents still in their growth and development stages can have their brain circuitry “mis-wired” at an early age. The anatomical/medical term here is “neuroplasticity,” and it basically means our actions can have a direct impact on our brain physiology and development. There is an expression among neurologists that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” And, young brains watching too much porn can cause their brains to develop in a way that is harmful to their long term development. Neurologists have found a correlation that more exposure to pornographic material results in less grey matter (i.e. less nerve connection pathways) “in sections of the reward circuitry (striatum) involved in motivation and decision-making.” The practical result of all of this is young men who consume too much porn come to associate sexual gratification with something they see on a two-dimensional screen, perhaps in a rapid-fire sequence consisting of scene after scene, often-times escalating in explicitness and strangeness, in an effort to keep their brains occupied and stimulated.

After a while of this, it’s entirely likely that a porn-addicted young man who happens to find himself in bed with a young woman won’t be sexually excited by her. She’s not what his brain has become accustomed to, sexually. He won’t be able to get an erection. The process will end badly for both parties, usually with heaps of guilt and shame and confusion over the inability to get it up. And the already socially-stunted young man will now have a terrible real-life experience under his belt that will cause him to further shun physical contact with women only to shrink back into the dark and safe world of porn watching and self-gratification. But, this presumes that the young man even took some kind of initiative that resulted in him being in bed with a woman in the first place, which many porn abusers don’t even do.

(As a side note, the author of another book, The Precariat, also reviewed here recently on the Solari Report, mentioned that men in the United Kingdom were delaying marriage until older years, and that the country’s marriage rate had fallen to its lowest levels since, I think he said, World War 2. Diminished economics opportunities and a lack of reliable job income were blamed for that. But after reading both books, I’m now wondering how much of a role pornography might be playing in that low marriage rate statistic, too. You can’t get married if you don’t date, and porn addiction is discouraging many young men worldwide from dating.)

I don’t recall exactly when high-speed Internet services went into mass deployment, but I think it’s safe to say that high-bandwidth porn “tube” delivery is a decade old (or less) at this point. And, it is telling that many of the first victims of this new form of porn addiction, according to Wilson, were young men working in the information technology and computers services fields. By being on the cutting edge of technology and well immersed in the Internet, they got an early look at this material, and became some of the first sufferers for it.
Because this is a very new affliction, and one that men are not too apt to discuss publicly (other than in anonymous chat forums that we’ll get to) by virtue of the shame and guilt that typically accompanies these acts, the medical community has been largely caught unaware. A young man presenting himself for treatment today, for one or more of the many ailments from porn addiction mentioned in the introductory paragraph, most victims likely won’t have made a connection between his problems and his porn watching, so he probably won’t bring it up with his doctor. His doctor also is not too likely to know about the connections between too much porn viewing and things like erectile dysfunction, anxiety and depression. Even if the patient did bring his porn habit up, a large portion of the medical community may still view it as “a little bit of porn watching” which is “part of normal, healthy sex life,” not realizing that there is an addictive habit at play supported by a community of free tube sites dishing up varieties of hard-core porn so powerful that human brains are being rewired in the process.

So, perhaps with the best of intentions on the part of the doctors, these men get prescribed anti-anxiety meds for their social awkwardness, anti-depressants for their depression and suicidal thoughts, sleeping pills for their insomnia, ADHD medication for their inability to concentrate, and erectile dysfunction meds for their boner problems. The pharmaceutical industry once again treats the symptoms at great profits while the underlying causes go unaddressed.

One young man quoted in Your Brain on Porn said he even considered a surgical operation proposed by his doctor for his erectile dysfunction that would have cost $25,000 to $30,000 out-of-pocket to have some kind of penile revascularization surgical procedure. (He decided instead to quit porn and has no more problems down there.) And the Daily Mail just published an article this week indicating that “experts at the University of Wisconsin… have created a heat-activated metal coil” which gets surgically inserted into the base of the penis of men suffering erectile dysfunction. Men with these new “bionic penises” would then use a remote control to activate the coil which in turn heat-activates an implant further down the shaft to produce an artificial erection. I’m sure we’ll hear of even more creative and invasive surgical solutions for boner problems in the years to come. Erectile dysfunction is outside of my field of expertise, so I can only surmise that there are legitimate needs for this kind of technology aside from porn addiction. But after reading Your Brain on Porn, it’s natural to wonder how many of these surgical operations will have turned out to be unnecessary in the long run once we more fully understand how much erectile dysfunction is coming from porn abuse, and how quickly the problems fade once the porn is removed from the equation.

How many young and older men are afflicted by porn addiction? It’s difficult to say, but data suggests it is a growing problem. “A 2008 study reported that 14.4 percent of boys were exposed to porn prior to age 13. By the time stats were gathered in 2011, early exposure had jumped to 48.7 percent. Similarly, daily porn viewing was relatively rare in the 2008 study (5.2%), but by 2011, more than 13 percent of adolescents viewed porn daily or almost daily. What would these statistics be today given universal smartphone possession?”
Another insight into the magnitude of the problem can be found in Italy. “Urologist Carlo Foresta, President of the Italian Society of Reproductive Pathophysiology and author of some 300 academic studies, has been tracking the effects of internet porn for close to a decade. In a 2014 lecture, he highlighted the results of his annual surveys of high school seniors from 2005 to 2013. He saw a doubling of teens experiencing sexual problems. The most dramatic was a 600% jump in ‘low sexual desire’ in just eight years (from 1.7% to 10.3%.) Says Foresta, ‘When the frequency of access to pornographic sites becomes routine… [it] results in a reduction or loss of sexual desire.”

The US military undertook a study in 2014 among males aged 21 to 40 and found that erectile dysfunction rates had doubled between 2004 and 2013. Another 2014 poll undertaken of young voters in America (ages 18-40) showed that “33 percent said porn was having a negative effect on their sex lives. Another nineteen percent were unsure.”

“Also in 2014 a Canadian sexologists’ study showed that problems in sexual functioning are curiously higher in adolescent males than in adult males (which are already rising.) Said researchers: ‘53.5% [of male teens] were classified as reporting symptoms indicative of a sexual problem. Erectile dysfunction and low desire were the most common.’ ”

It is interesting that the Internet, which plays a very large part in creating this problem, is also a medium by which young men are finding help. Several websites have sprung up in recent years where young men are posting their thoughts, experiences, rants and mutual support and encouragement for each other in their efforts to overcome porn addiction. These sites go by names such as YourBrainOnPorn.com (created by the author of the book reviewed), Reddit/NoFap (“Fap” is slang for masturbation to porn), NoFap.org, and RebootNation.org. Because they feel somewhat comfortable posting their experiences anonymously, men are sharing quite a bit online about their frustrations and successes trying to kick porn addiction, including how most if not all of their symptoms go away over time once they discontinue watching porn (typically 2 to 6 months, possibly longer depending upon severity). But it appears from the postings that nearly all men who successfully disengage from the porn are able to return to problem-free, happier lives.

Another set of statistics which might indicate how large the problem currently is: the numbers of users on these sites. Back in 2014 when Gary Wilson published Your Brain on Porn, Reddit/NoFap had 132,000 members, Reddit/PornFree (19,000), NoFap.org (30,000) YourBrainRebalanced (13,000) and RebootNation.org (2,500). Gary reported that his website, YourBrainOnPorn.com, which also serves as a forum for men seeking information and support, gets as many as 20,000 unique visitors per day.

Gary Wilson concludes his book with recommendations for men on how to go cold turkey from porn. Much of his advice is supported by actual blog postings from users/posters on the sites mentioned above recounting their own results. They’re all common sense steps and they include: removing all porn from your immediate surroundings, changing the configuration of your furniture (which helps break your pre-established patterns of behavior), installing porn and ad blocking software, joining a support forum and being assigned a support counselor or accountability partner, keeping a journal, exercising more, spending more time outside and in nature, forcing yourself to socialize with others, meditating, and pursuing hobbies, among other things. (Interestingly, many recovering addicts reported very good results with frequently taking very cold showers!)

Quitting porn is not as easy as you might think. Those going cold turkey, or “rebooting,” report a variety of addiction withdrawal symptoms ranging from the physical (shakes, sweats, pains in various places) to the mental (brain fog/an inability to concentrate, edginess, tension, anxiety and mood swings.) A great many report a “flatline,” where they no longer can attain an erection without porn and everything around them seems dull, grey and uninteresting. This is most likely the result of prior chronic overstimulation where in the post-porn phase you can’t help but fall into a zombie-like numbness to pleasure and emotion. But, over time, and with patience and abstinence (from porn or other dopamine releasing substitutes like video gaming, gambling and fast food), colors return, moods improve, emotions enhance, and life becomes worth living again.

A very quick note regarding women and porn addiction. Although to a much lesser degree, women can also become victims of porn usage. However, whereas men are very visually focused and therefore drawn to and aroused by explicit videos, women are affected less visually. As a result, the non-visual equivalent for women is reading romance novels.

As I said in the introductory paragraph, I was surprised that there could be so many ill-effects from something (porn-induced self-gratification) that I’ve been told and often thought was part of a normal, healthy, sex life. By the same token, I’ve also been surprised by the sheer volume of ads on TV for “little blue pills” and increasing numbers of articles like the one in the Daily Mail about surgical penile implants to help men get it up. What the heck is going on with men’s peckers worldwide that all these drugs and surgical procedures are increasingly becoming necessary??? After reading Gary Wilson’s book I think I might have a better viewpoint on that answer, now.

Related Solari Reports:
Entrainment, Subliminal Programming and Financial Manipulation

Related Review:

Addiction by Design

More Reviews by Jason Worth:

Book Review: The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class
Book Review: The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts
Book Review: Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare
Book Review: The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age
Book Review: Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era
Book Review: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future