Too much of a good thing can be bad – we know this. But in the case of PORN, it can literally ALTER the way that men’s brains work, and their ability to be intimate with real-life partners
Turns out that porn can rewire your brain, who knew?
There’s nothing wrong with watching porn. When consumed in the right doses, it’s a healthy and fun way to get turned on. Instead, the problem lies here: too much porn.
A study published following the 112th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Urological Association earlier this year confirmed that watching porn too often can leave men unable to get it up with their partners in real life. Furthermore, it found that excessive consumption of porn – habitual, and for hours on end – can cause severe psychosexual problems in men, the most common being erectile dysfunction. The same cannot be said for women consuming porn, though – the study found that women are hardly affected by it.
Fightthenewdrug.org, a non-profit organisation with a desire to make an impact on the world by using science, facts and personal accounts to help spread the message about the harmful effects of porn, goes into great detail about the topic. They note: scientists used to believe that once you left childhood, your brain lost the ability to grow, and that nothing except illness or injury could physically alter an adult brain. Now we know that the brain goes on changing throughout life, constantly rewiring itself and laying down new nerve connections, and that this is particularly true in our youth.
The brain is made up of about 100 billion special nerves called neurons, which carry electrical signals between parts of the brain and out to the rest of the body. Imagine you’re learning to play an E chord on the guitar [stay with us here]: your brain sends a signal to your hand telling it what to do. As that signal zips along from neuron to neuron, those activated nerve cells start to form connections because ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ Those newly connected neurons form what’s called a neuronal pathway.
Think of a neuronal pathway like a trail in the woods. Every time someone uses the trail, it gets a little wider and more permanent. Similarly, every time a message travels down a neuronal pathway, it gets stronger. With enough repetition, your neuronal pathway will get so strong you’ll be strumming that E chord without even thinking about it. That process of building better, faster neuronal pathways is how we learn any new skill, and practise does make perfect.
But there’s a catch. Your brain is a hungry organ. It may only weigh 2% of your body weight, but it eats up 20% of your energy and oxygen, so resources are scarce up there. There’s some pretty fierce competition between brain pathways, and those that don’t get used enough will likely be replaced.
That’s where porn comes in. Porn happens to be fantastic at forming new, long-lasting pathways in the brain. In fact, porn is such a ferocious competitor that hardly any other activity can compete with it. That’s right, porn can actually overpower your brain’s natural ability to have real sex. Why? As Dr. Norman Doidge, a researcher at Columbia University, explains, porn creates the perfect conditions and triggers the release of
‘I’d drink wine, getting off to webcam girls telling me I was a pervert’
the right chemicals to make lasting changes in your brain.
The ideal conditions for forming strong neuronal pathways are when you’re in what scientists call ‘flow’. Flow is ‘a deeply satisfying state of focused attention.’ When you’re in flow, you get so deep into what you’re doing that nothing else matters. You’ve probably experienced it before when playing a game or reading a great book. You were so focused on what you were doing that you lost track of time, and everything around you disappeared. You wanted it to keep going forever. That’s flow.
Now imagine a man sitting in front of the computer at 3am looking at porn. He’s so absorbed in his porn trance that not even sleep can compete for his attention. He’s in the ideal condition for forming neuronal pathways, and that’s what he’s doing. He clicks from page to page in search of the perfect masturbatory image, not realising that every image he sees is reinforcing the pathways he’s forging in his brain. By now, those images are burned so deeply into his mind he’ll remember them for a long time to come, maybe his whole life.
Referring back to the American Urological Association’s study, almost 4% of the men questioned said that they preferred masturbating to porn more than having sexual intercourse with another person.
Dr Joseph Alukal, director of male reproductive health at New York University and a part of the study panel, notes: ‘[Men] believe they’re supposed to be able to do what goes on in these movies [and in turn their partners], and when they can’t it causes a great deal of anxiety.’
So, does he need a porn detox?
A new 90-day masturbation-abstinence programme is helping men (and women) dependent on digital porn to regain control of their sex lives. But does it work?
Jack* would lose up to six hours a day watching porn, scrolling from clip to clip on YouPorn, or clicking through various streaming services. He drifted from vanilla scenes, to anal, to graphic group sex. And after every orgasm, he’d feel guilty and ashamed.
‘The final straw was when I woke up at 3am with my pyjama bottoms around my ankles and an empty bottle of poppers on the floor [to accentuate orgasm],’ says Jack. ‘I just cried.’
Unable to hide his habit any longer, he told his girlfriend. ‘She already knew and we both realised I needed help.’ That’s how Jack, 23, from London, discovered NoFap, the online abstinence programme founded in 2011 by former Google employee Alexander Rhodes, an American from Pittsburgh who was 21 at the time and whose personal story mimics that of Jack’s. Despite the somewhat crude brand name (derived from
Manga comics’ onomatopoeic expression for masturbation) NoFap’s model of recovery is common sense – avoid using your computer in a private setting, spend time pro-actively, and limit your browsing. The first ‘porn-recovery’ community of its kind, NoFap started as a simple reddit thread but fast became the go-to forum for anyone developing an Internet porn habit.
Today it has over 200 000 members worldwide, mostly men in their late-teens to mid-thirties, although 3% are women. NoFap is free to join and the ‘fapstronauts’ or ‘rebooters’ (as they call themselves) have their own forum and distinct terminology (‘blue petal’ is the female equivalent of ‘blue balls’, a term used to describe sexual frustration). Male or female, Alexander claims NoFap has a 50% success rate in leading members to a more sex-positive and fulfilling life.
Gary*, 19, from New York, started watching porn at 14; by 19 his threehours-a day habit had become a ‘secret shame’. He couldn’t look friends in the eye and had developed erectile dysfunction. It took the suicide of a close friend to shake him out of ‘porn daze’. ‘My friend was someone in a similar situation; he had a history of depression [too]. I realised my habit was masking my sadness and insecurities,’ says Gary. ‘It scared me into making major changes.’ Currently on a 90-day programme, he’s already noticed a positive change in his moods. Alexander believes that many young men (and women) born in the digital age are having their sexuality hijacked by online porn; that during our formative adolescent years when our ‘sexual template’ is being established, porn disrupts the process. The 90-day period of abstinence promoted by NoFap (no porn, no masturbation and, in ‘hard mode’, no sex) resets our sexuality back to its natural state.
‘We call this “rebooting”,’ says Alexander. ‘The most effective way of quitting porn is by rebooting your brain back to its default factory setting, like a computer that’s been infiltrated by viruses.’ Last year, 64 million people worldwide watched porn every day**. But when does watching porn go from something that people ‘just do’ to something more sinister? One scroll through the NoFap forum and a range of typical themes emerge, with rebooters describing feelings of loneliness and depression. Joy Rosendale, a psychosexual therapist specialising in sex addiction and couples counselling, says compulsive masturbation is more about issues with self-worth and rejection than sex. ‘The core of the continuous habit is deeper than “I’m bored” – it’s about escape.’
Like alcohol and drugs, porn is incredibly potent. And when it becomes an emotional crutch, it can be psychologically damaging, as well as harmful to real-life relationships. ‘If my wife was out, I would get home from work and not even eat,’ says Jon*, from Norwich, who became dependent on porn throughout his thirties. ‘I’d drink wine and watch verbal-humiliation videos, getting off to webcam girls telling me I was “ugly” and “a pervert”.’ Jon hasn’t watched porn for a year now, after completing the programme. He credits his wife for supporting him.
Holly*, 46, from Phoenix, Arizona, was married for 21 years before she discovered her husband’s habit. ‘I realised it didn’t matter how much I tried to initiate sex, he had no interest,’ says Holly. ‘He remained faithful to PMO [Porn/Masturbation/Orgasm – the NoFap term for a porn habit], but not to our relationship. I fell into a deep depression. I had no self-esteem and felt worthless. It hurt that the person I love, the same one who had convinced me I was perfect for him, no longer wanted me. I couldn’t compete with the infinite cycle of girls in porn.’ Joy says Holly’s experience is typical, and the challenge for partners is to not take somebody’s habit personally. ‘The nature of addiction is Jekyll and Hyde. There’s an honourable self and an addicted self.’
Many of the female partners Joy sees at London’s Marylebone Centre, the first clinic of its kind to work with sexual addiction in the UK, go on a 12-week programme to acclimatise to the idea that their partner’s compulsive porn viewing is not their fault. Joy says that only about a third of couples stay together afterwards, though. Does Joy believe the 90-day programme could work? She agrees that NoFap would help people to identify their problem and finding likeminded support, but warns it could be an oversimplified solution. ‘A lasting resolution can only really be found through counselling or similar,’ she says. That’s not to say that abstinence is the easy option. ‘Flatlining’ refers to the come-down of not masturbating for a month. Gary describes it as ‘facing a monster’ and the ‘most challenging stage’ of a reboot. After all, you’re only ever one click away from a support forum to a hardcoreporn site. For those tempted to relapse, the website has a ‘panic button’. Click it and you’re greeted with motivational videos and tweets, TEDx talks and pithy quotes. But the function of the emergency button is based on neuroscience.
‘The idea was to apply the dopaminergic system to support the user rather than work against the user,’ says Alexander. ‘Porn exploits the dopamine pathway – the reward circuitry in our brain – and by providing users with motivation rather than porn, we disrupt the cycle of addiction and rewire the rewards.’
For some men, the forum goes beyond reclaiming their sexuality and NoFap becomes a way of life. One user posts on their Reddit channel: ‘NoFap isn’t a challenge; it’s a lifestyle. What lies after day 90 is day 91. Don’t give up!’