By: William M. Struthers, Ph.D
Pornography is a powerful force that has become increasingly widespread in Western culture since the advent of the Internet. As the culture has been “pornified,” the ways in which men, women, and sexual attitudes and expectations have been affected are of considerable concern. While pornography is influencing and shaping assumptions about identity, sexuality, the value of women, and the nature of relationships, little discussion has focused on the neurobiological aspects of its allure, addictive properties, and long-lasting effects. Perhaps the appeal of pornography to so many is because it activates a part of our brain that is specifically organized to look for sexual cues. What if pornography merely hijacks a part of our nature that is intended for something better?
What if our sexual drive and our neurological nature are wired for intimacy and not just sensuality? In this article, we examine how pornography affects the brain—its hormonal, neurochemical, and neurological consequences that play a role in developing attachments. In addition, by highlighting the sensitivity that many men have to be drawn into pornography, focusing on the male brain’s inherent predisposition toward sexually explicit imagery provides a window into our embodied, created, sexual nature that goes beyond simple reproductive biology. Because we are embodied beings, the impact of viewing pornography hijacks the normal functioning of the brain and the maladaptive patterns we adopt have profound psychological and behavioral effects. It affects not only how we form memories and make attachments but also how we understand sexuality and how we view each other. By grasping the neurobiological realities of our sexual development, we are better able to cultivate a healthy notion of relationships.
In a 2010 interview with Playboy Magazine, Grammy Award-winning musician John Mayer garnered a great deal of attention for his thoughts on former girlfriends (including Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson), racist comments, and altogether boorish behavior. What went under the radar, however, were some revealing comments about his experiences with pornography. In a startling series of quotes, he gave his impressions about how the availability and access to porn may be affecting our expectations of sexuality and sexual intimacy.
Pornography? It’s a new synaptic pathway. You wake up in the morning, open a thumbnail page, and it leads to a Pandora’s Box of visuals. There have probably been days when I saw 300 [women] before I got out of bed….Internet pornography has absolutely changed my generation’s expectations.…You’re looking for the one photo out of 100 you swear is going to be the one you finish to, and you still don’t finish. Twenty seconds ago you thought that photo was the hottest thing you ever saw, but you throw it back…How does that not affect the psychology of having a relationship with somebody? It’s got to.1
The on-demand availability of robust sexual stimuli presents a unique problem for developing and maintaining a healthy sexuality. The ease of access, variety of images, and the vigorous sensory constitution of this media go beyond the strength of mental imagery and fantasy. People can see whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. In doing so they can generate, serve, and satisfy their sensual nature. Pornography creates a world today where the consumer (usually men) has the ability to bring up at their whim graphic (and sometimes interactive) depictions of nudity and sexual encounters. Women are perpetually available for their pleasure with minimal immediate consequences. People become disposable.2
Debating the pros and cons of pornography takes place in our legislatures, in our pulpits, on news television, and on numerous websites and blogs. While there are voices on every side of the conversation—liberals and conservatives, atheists and theologians, feminists, First Amendment advocates, and sociologists—a critical voice is being left out. As a brain researcher, I believe it is essential that an understanding of how pornography affects the brain should be included in this discourse. By gaining a better understanding of how sexually explicit material is processed and how it influences brain development, we can begin to understand its effects on our understanding of sexuality, what harm it might lead to, and how our framework of sexuality is evaluated.
In the Christian worldview, sexuality holds a privileged place in human relationships. Sexuality maintains both a sacred and a moral dimension in human life (Gen. 2:22–25). At face value our sexuality is the most obvious aspect of our embodied nature; it is the biological manifestation of our life-giving, procreative nature and evident in our reproductive organs.
But if we understand sexuality as only a matter of biological reproduction (making babies), we miss a significant part of the story. Human sexuality is also about intimacy. In our culture, however, the term intimacy is often used to be synonymous with sexual intercourse. So as individuals feel the need for intimacy, it is not uncommon for them to think that sexual activity is the only “real” form of intimacy.
It is here more than anywhere else that pornography takes human sexuality out of its intended purpose—the establishing and deepening of intimacy between two human beings—and makes it a product to be consumed. Human beings become objects of consumption rather than individuals requiring dignity and in this process those involved in its production and its consumption are harmed. This harm is not only sociological and psychological, but also spiritual. The product, another human being’s nakedness or intimate moments, is consumed for another’s benefit. Searching for a video, magazine, or website that has just the ideal effect (evidenced in the John Mayer quote earlier) offers the promise of euphoria and connection. It has the potential to become a fixation, a compulsion akin to chasing the ever-elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The pornographic selection may be consumed once, occasionally, or on an ongoing basis, for as often as you would like. Whenever it fails to meet your standards for beauty or excitement, whenever it fails to stimulate your fantasy, or if you just become bored with the images, the people within are disposed of. Free from the need to recycle or acknowledge that real human beings were exploited, the law of supply and demand drives what the market will bear.
The need for human intimacy is ongoing. Like food or water, intimacy is not met once and forevermore fulfilled. The desire for ongoing, deepening intimacy is in our nature, it is part of being made in the relational image of God. Intimacy is what drives us to know and to be known. It pushes us forward through life and is at the heart of our relational nature; it is part of our design—our wiring.
If we understand sexuality as being first about intimacy, then viewing pornography becomes a voyeuristic invasion of the sacred space of another. Instead of being life-giving, it becomes destructive for the viewer as well as the one involved in its production. It provides a false, or counterfeit, way of feeding the need for intimacy. On a cultural and social level, men and women are portrayed as objects for our consumption. The undeniable message here is that people are pieces of meat for our consuming pleasure and entertainment. If that is how the brain is being forced to respond to these images, the objectification and commoditization of people will seep into other parts of the viewer’s mind. It will affect the way he views people when he is not watching porn. The regular consumer of porn will begin to find that he fantasizes throughout the day about sex. Each woman he sees will be seen through a pornographic lens. People become an object of consumption or a competitor against whom they compare themselves.3 They will be evaluated as to their stimulating ability. It should come as no surprise that that these consequences can destroy a marriage, family, ministry, or career. While it offers the promise of intimacy and connection, pornography only delivers isolation, disconnectedness, and depravity.
The human body consumes and digests food. In a similar way, we can think about the brain as a consumer of stimuli and information. When we eat, food is broken down by the digestive system and used to supply the body with the energy it needs to survive and thrive. Once it has been fully digested, whatever that is unusable (waste) is excreted. This helps to ensure the healthy functioning of the organism. If we take this analogy and extend it to the brain, the brain’s job is to consume and digest information. This information is taken in through the eyes and other senses and digested and stored with meaning and memories. Anything that might have strong emotional content or is highlighted as being important information is stored and used later. The brain doesn’t always get to decide what it wants to keep and what it doesn’t. Sexual images are inherently powerful and have emotional content. As such, pornography forces itself on the brain. Whether one consents or not, pornography becomes a part of the fabric of the mind.
In academic circles the working models of understanding how pornography affects people often focus on sexual attitudes and behaviors, with a special emphasis on social harm. This would include acceptance of rape myths, the prevalence and intensity of sexist attitudes, emotional insensitivity in sexual settings, and a variety of influences on sexual offenses.4 The majority of this research has been broadly psychological, looking at scores on tests and screening tools, but more recently brain researchers have the ability to look into the brain while someone is viewing pornographic materials and see what effects it has on its activity.
SEDUCTION OF THE BRAIN
There are few people today who would deny that the brain is the primary organ of psychological experience. While we can debate the place of the soul, the brain’s involvement in how we live and have our being is undeniable. The brain is constantly changing in response to what it is being given to process. The things that we see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and experience throughout our day affect it and modify it. The brain’s ability to be modified—to learn—helps us process information and integrate these experiences with our memories in order to choose appropriate responses. The brain integrates what it is being fed into memories, making sense of the world, and developing our sense of self. If the brain is being fed Scripture, it should come as no surprise that it sees the world through the lens of Scripture. If it is being fed images of political conspiracies or violent sexuality, it should not come as any surprise that it begins to see the world through a filter of politics, depravity, or sensuality. For some, this view of the brain’s role is a relief; it helps them understand depression, anxiety, or addiction as a wiring problem. It is a fundamental part of how they are put together and can be extraordinarily helpful in understanding why they struggle. For others that knowledge leads to a fatalist view, or a “my-brain-made-me-do-it” defense, when they sin or act out. Because the human brain is the biological anchor of our psychological experience, it is helpful to understand how it operates. Knowing how it is wired together and where it is sensitive can help us understand why pornography affects people the way it does. The plasticity of the beautiful, complex brain can be a blessing or a curse. While the brain is malleable, it typically follows a set of rules in performing its functions. These rules govern how connections are made, how images are processed, how behaviors are executed, and how emotions are triggered. It is here in some of these circuits that pornography seems to be exploiting one of the brain’s Achilles’ heels: the naked human form.
There are few things in the world that can grab someone’s attention like the naked human body, and fewer still than naked bodies engaged in an intimate sexual act. One need look no further than prime time television, DVD sales, and the most frequently viewed websites to see that a great amount of time, energy, and resources take advantage of this fact of life. Sexuality and nakedness are used to entice us to watch, to buy, to follow, and to arouse us to any number of other actions. Our sexual nature provides a powerful impulse that tends to drive us. While it is true that not everyone who looks at sexually explicit images develops addictive or compulsive patterns of consumption and acting out, it is important to note that these images of nakedness and sexuality tap into a reflexive arousal response in many men, which can lead to devastating outcomes.
From time to time, brain scientists confirm something that we seem to know intuitively. The question, “Do men like looking at porn?” would seem to be one that common sense and straightforward observation would be sufficient to answer. If, however, one felt the need to actually prove it with brain imaging technology such as a multimillion dollar fMRI machine, then one can rest assured that there is actual scientific data to make this claim. In a small number of studies where people have had their brains imaged while viewing sexually explicit material, the effects on sexual response have been observed, resulting in several interesting findings.
PORN ON THE BRAIN
It should come as no surprise that the majority of pornography viewers are men. And while it is true that women also notice sexual cues in their environment, there seems to be a sensitivity to pornography that many men have built into their neurological wiring. The male brain seems to be built in such a way that visual cues that have sexual relevance (e.g., the naked female form, solicitous facial expressions) have a hypnotic effect on him. When these cues are detected, they trigger a cascade of neurological, chemical, and hormonal events.5 In some ways they are like the “hit” of a drug—there is a rush of sexual arousal and energy that accompanies it. How a man learns to deal with this energy and to form an appropriate response to it is part of becoming a mature adult. The psychological, behavioral, and emotional habits that form our sexual character will be based on the decisions we make. Whenever the sequence of arousal and response is activated, it forms a neurological memory that will influence future processing and response to sexual cues. As this pathway becomes activated and traveled, it becomes a preferred route—a mental journey—that is regularly trod. The consequences of this are far-reaching.6
Another relevant finding by those who are conducting brain research is in the area of what are being called mirror neurons. These neurons make up a circuit located in the frontal and parietal lobes (the region near the top of your head). These neurons are involved with the process for how to mimic a behavior. They contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior. Consider this example: if you see someone grab a hammer and pound it, the same part of your brain that you would use to actually pound a hammer would also be activated. Other brain regions may hold that behavior in check, but you now have primed a neural circuit to hammer a nail. These neurons were originally called “monkey see, monkey do” neurons (they were first discovered in monkeys), and constitute the way we neurologically learn by observing others. Whenever we see a behavior, there is a silent echo; a neurological mirror of ourselves doing that behavior resides in the brain. This is a wonderful thing as we can learn by watching others, but it can also have negative effects, especially with respect to pornography.7
These mirror neurons are involved when someone views pornography because what they view, they vicariously experience and learn from. As men watch the sexually charged scene onscreen, they vicariously “mirror” this, which triggers sexual arousal.8 This mirror neuron system triggers the arousal, which leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet. The unfortunate reality is that when he acts out (often by masturbating), this leads to hormonal and neurological consequences, which are designed to bind him to the object he is focusing on. In God’s plan, this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen. Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.
But it would be wrong to think of viewing pornography as just a simple circuit board. The human brain is not like a computer; it has a chemical soup in which it operates and functions. There are hormones and brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters), which provide the chemical medium for brain activity. Viewing pornography does not just activate circuits; it generates feelings intended for sexual longing, desire, love, and romance. It also alters the chemical medium of the entire body in profound ways. These chemicals include the neurotransmitters that brain cells use to communicate with each other, as well as the hormones the body and the brain produce in response to sexual arousal and sexual activity.
THE BIG FIVE
In men, there are five noteworthy chemicals involved in sexual arousal and response. Testosterone is the male hormone that seems to drive sexual interest. It has long been known that castrating animals (removal of the testes that produce the majority of testosterone in males) is an effective way to decrease sex drive and castration also reduces interest in sex in men as well (i.e., eunuchs). Testosterone seems to be an enabler of sex drive and its production is triggered by the brain through a hormonal process that can be adjusted throughout the day in response to what is going on in the environment. When sexual cues are identified by the brain, a surge of testosterone production is triggered. This testosterone surge heightens sexual anticipation and prepares the body for sexual encounters. What is fascinating is that these cues can be produced by pornography or through sexual fantasizing. So it’s not just what you see that causes the testosterone surge to increase sexual interest, it is also what you dwell on that can produce the surge as well.
A second player in the cavalcade of chemicals is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is known to underlie all drugs of addiction. Dopamine seems to play an important role in helping people identify what things in their environment are significant. This chemical is going to be the primary reason why craving occurs. Often dopamine is referred to as a pleasure chemical. Its levels are increased when we do things that generally perpetuate our lives and the survival of our species. For example, satisfying hunger by eating a meal, satisfying thirst by drinking water, and satisfying the sex drive by engaging in intercourse all are correlated with heightened dopamine levels. External or internal sexual cues can trigger the release of dopamine in key brain regions that are also sensitive to testosterone. The key element to remember here is that dopamine is directing us toward resolving the tension that is being produced by the sexual images and anticipation of sexual release. It provides the rush that men feel when they view pornography.
Another neurotransmitter involved in heightening this rush is norepinephrine. It has two functions in the development of sexual addictions. First, norepinephrine is a significant player in promoting sexual arousal. It is a cousin to adrenaline chemically, and it is involved in helping the body prepare for sexual activity. In addition to preparing the body, it also is readying the brain to remember how the sexual drive is being met. Norepinephrine helps to store the memories of this event. It should come as no surprise that many men who can’t remember what they had for breakfast last week can still remember the image of the first Playboy centerfold that they ever saw. Norepinephrine serves to help store these memories and get these images stuck in the brain because, presumably, they were memories that were important to be stored.
While dopamine and norepinephrine may provide the immediate rush that men get from viewing porn, the key event in determining whether or not viewing becomes a habitual pattern is going to be the release of endogenous opiates produced during sexual release (most notably in response to orgasm). Many men will report that this experience is accompanied by feelings of transcendence and euphoria that are known to be related to the release of endogenous opiates. It has been known for decades that the brain produces its own opiates that are involved in pain relief and pleasure. Street drugs such as heroin and medicines such as morphine can produce feelings of euphoria and reduce pain. This ability of orgasm to produce euphoria or release from sexual tension is what provides the psychological reward to the sexual drive. The release of endogenous opiates during masturbation or sexual activity with a partner is part of a larger sequence of sexual arousal and response. Viewing pornography provides the stimuli that help prepare the body for sexual response. When the viewer sexually acts out, resulting in orgasm, it gets stored as a behavior that is known to have a significant payoff. That significant payoff is the release of opiates that provide the chemical substrate for the psychological experience of orgasm.
While the payoff for orgasm is powerful, it is not an easy thing to achieve. The highs of orgasm are not available on demand. In the real world with real people, considerable effort has to go into cultivating a relationship that may result in a sexual encounter. A great deal of neurological effort, hormonal preparation, and appropriate behaviors usually precede this high. Here is where pornography hijacks God’s intended pattern of sexual attraction, arousal, and response.
Viewing pornography for sexual arousal and using it to produce the release and euphoria of orgasm provides a merely transient fix to any number of psychological problems. Whether it is depression, poor self-esteem, anger, or any other number of things that cause a person to feel a need for relief or release, pornography becomes part of the ritual that is used to get a short-term fix. Like eating candy to satisfy hunger, pornography can feel like a healthy way to satisfy the drive for intimacy. In truth, it provides no nourishment whatsoever, and results in a greater degree of need. Even in the absence of acting out, the images have such a robust, salient character that they are stored as memories that can produce a warped sense of sexuality and objectification.
SO NOW WHAT?
How do we avoid falling into despair once we realize that the use of pornography can produce long-lasting neurological and hormonal effects on the brain? It is important to remember that the guidelines we are given in Scripture about how to conduct ourselves sexually are fairly straightforward.
When we follow these guidelines, we will be more likely to develop minds that focus on those things that are good and noble, right, and pure. When we choose not to follow these guidelines and act in a way that is sexually immoral, we are affected—our thoughts and bodies become polluted. The same can be said for watching immorality, that is to say, viewing pornography. It corrupts and pollutes our brains as it attempts to make sense of humanity’s sexual nature. But if we choose to follow the guidelines of Scripture, we will find that we are better able to appreciate the image of God in each person and have a healthy view of sexuality where we honor one another rather than consume each other.
This is not only a spiritual reality, but also a neurological one. When a husband and wife restrict themselves to each other, directing their sexual energies toward one another, they will find that they occupy each other’s thoughts. They will find that they will be more closely bound to each other. This is God’s plan for a husband and wife—that they will image God’s exclusive love for His people as they exclusively set this part of themselves (their reproductive nature) aside for one another. For the single person, realizing that needs for intimacy can be met in ways beyond sexual gratification is an important process. When someone is deceived into thinking that sexual intimacy (i.e., sexual intercourse) is a necessary part of living a life worth living, it comes as no surprise that pornography, masturbation, or promiscuity become a cycle of unmet needs and unfulfilled promises of intimacy, love, and connectedness.
These neurological habits of compulsion and depravity were not established overnight and the expectation is that they will not be changed overnight. But if we can appreciate that God uses our embodied nature and the laws that govern it to our benefit and His glory, then we should also appreciate that God can reveal Himself in a unique way through our brokenness. In other words, He exhibits both His grace and power through the process of redemption as we continue to walk with Him by faith. If we understand that our sexuality need not hinder us as we pursue sanctification but instead can be harnessed and used to propel us forward, we then can also see that it plays a critical in our life’s purpose, which is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). By moving beyond the lie of pornography—that people are nothing more than sexual objects to be consumed—we can appreciate each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We can begin to move beyond objectification and false intimacy to real relationships, which honor the dignity of each person.
Sexual intimacy is a complex neurochemical, hormonal, and spiritual event. It is one of the most powerful God-given means by which human beings form attachments. The question “Who or what are you bound to?” has to be asked in the arena of sexuality, and it has a neurobiological answer. There is no such thing as “just looking” at porn. There can be no doubt that it affects us neurologically in long-lasting ways. How we choose to exercise that knowledge—for sanctification or for depravity—is up to each one of us.
William M. Struthers, Ph.D., is associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where he teaches courses on behavioral neuroscience, men and addictions, and psychopharmacology. His research is in the area of sexuality, neuroethics, the biological bases of personhood, and the nature of integration in psychology.
1. Rob Tannenbaum, “Interview with John Mayer,” Playboy Magazine (March 2010).
2. Read Mercer Schuchardt, “Hugh Hefner’s Hollow Victory: How the Playboy Magnate Won the Culture War, Lost His Soul, and Left Us with a Mess to Clean Up,” Christianity Today, December 2003, 50–54.
3. Todd G. Morrison et al., “Exposure to Sexually Explicit Material and Variations in Body Esteem, Genital Attitudes, and Sexual Esteem among a Sample of Canadian Men,” TheJournal of Men’s Studies 14, 2 (Spring 2006): 209–22.
4. Gail Dines, Robert Jensen, and Ann Russo, Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (London: Routledge, 1998).
5. Harold Mouras et al., “Brain Processing of Visual Sexual Stimuli in Healthy Men: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study,” Neuroimage 20, 2 (October 2003): 855–69.
6. William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
7. Justin H. G. Williams et al., “Imitation, Mirror Neurons and Autism,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 25, 4 (June 2001): 287; Sarah Archibald, “Mirror Image,” NatureReviews Neuroscience 7, 4 (January 2006).
8. Harold Mouras et al., “Activation of Mirror-Neuron System by Erotic Video Clips Predicts Degree of Induced Erection: An fMRI Study,” Neuroimage 42, 3 (September 2008): 1142–50