Here's What Happens In Your Brain When You Watch Porn

For many people, watching porn may be part of an every day routine. It goes a little something like this: In a fleeting moment of boredom, arousal, or a combination of both, you head to your site of choice, make a few quick clicks to find your preferred content, stare at your screen for a few minutes, and possibly (hopefully) get off. Then, in all likelihood, you close the tab and go about the rest of your day or night without giving it another thought. So, what happens in your brain when you watch porn? Well, let's just say it can have a pretty powerful impact.

The conversation around porn and its physical and mental effects is a complicated one because psychologists, neurobiologists, and sociologists are all involved in the discussion, and given that their research methodologies differ quite a bit, so have their conclusions on the matter. But what we do know is this: While previously, it was believed that our brains become hard-wired during childhood, we now know that the brain is actually neuroplastic, meaning it can structurally change in response to repeated experiences (like regularly watching porn). As for how it changes, there have been multiple studies that focus specifically on the role of dopamine, also known as the feel-good chemical involved in motivation and reward.

A 2016 study published in the journal NeuroImage, which involved examining MRI brain scans of male porn viewers, showed enhanced activity in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain that plays a key role in decision making and reward-related behavior. What this suggested is that the viewers’ brains were releasing dopamine in response to viewing erotic images.

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The reward center is activated when we accomplish a goal, whether that’s getting a text back from your crush, devouring a slice of ‘za from your favorite late-night joint, playing your favorite jam on Spotify, or downing that long-awaited glass of wine after a long workday. When you experience the reward, your brain responds by releasing dopamine, which essentially reinforces the notion that you need more of whatever that reward is. In other words, these dopamine discharges are powerful enough to motivate your future decisions. Let’s not forget that dopamine is released during an experience that involves sexual excitement and novelty — you know, the kind you witness in porn.

Over time, your brain starts to become desensitized to these dopamine hits. In Normal Doidge’s book on neuroplasticity, The Brain That Changes Itself, he explains that the continued release of dopamine that occurs when someone chronically and compulsively watches Internet porn actually alters the reward system in the brain. To put it plainly, the more you watch porn, the more dopamine hits you get, and in turn, the more likely you are to watch it again.

Not only that, but Doidge further explains that these changes in the brain build new “maps” for sexual stimulation, and over time, the previously established maps are no longer able to compare to ones being watched by porn viewing. Think of it like this: When you build up a tolerance to a drug, you need to increase your intake of that drug in order to feel the effects. Similarly, Doidge concluded that a porn viewer may need to perpetually progress to increasingly explicit content to experience the same level of excitement.

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Based on these findings, it should come as no surprise that a 2014 study by Cambridge University found that the very same regions of the brain that are involved when someone with substance use disorder ingests drugs (including the ventral striatum and amygdala) were also activated when participants with compulsive sexual behaviors watched sexually explicit content. It’s also worth noting that the very same study, which involved 38 male subjects with an average age of 25 years, also found that 60% of participants reported having difficulty achieving erections/arousal with real-life partners, yet were able to get erections while watching porn. But let’s be clear: Just because you happen to occasionally scope out a video when you need some inspiration during a solo pleasure sesh doesn’t mean you’re mean you're reliant on porn.

A lot of it may have to do with just how much time you spend watching porn. A 2014 study published in Jama Psychiatry, which examined the effects of porn watching in 64 healthy male subjects (who showed no signs of compulsive sexual behaviors), discovered that watching porn for more hours per week and for a longer duration per viewing session was linked to lower gray matter volume in the right caudate of the brain, and less connectivity between the right caudate and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s a notable correlation given that according to the researchers behind the study, these kinds of volume changes and connectivity disruptions are associated with several types of substance-use disorder.

Another 2016 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that the nature of a person’s porn watching has a lot to do with the impact it has on their well-being. Researchers divided porn users into three profiles: recreational, at-risk, and compulsive viewers. And what they discovered is that recreational users reported higher sexual satisfaction and lower sexual compulsivity, avoidance, and dysfunction, while compulsive users experienced lower sexual satisfaction and higher sexual compulsivity and avoidance.

There's quite a spectrum when it comes to porn watching, which means its effects have a lot to do with just how big of a role it plays in your life. It’s worth noting that researchers pointed out that though some reported negative sexual consequences related to porn viewing, those individuals were in the minority.

“Despite strong social pressure for rapid closure, we should be cautious before concluding that pornography use is universally harmful or beneficial,” the authors wrote.

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Part of the problem with current research on porn’s effects on the brain is that it’s so limited. The majority of the studies that have been conducted focus on a very specific demographic: young males. So, we have little insight into whether porn impacts men and women in the same way. It's a little disappointing, TBH, considering a 2015 Marie Claire survey revealed that more than one-third of women watch porn at least once a week.

However, a 2019 review published in Current Sexual Health Reports stated, “Research indicates that men’s pornography use is negatively associated with relational well-being and sexual satisfaction, whereas women’s use is unrelated to relational indicators and unrelated to, or positively associated with, sexual satisfaction.” In other words, thus far, studies have shown that watching porn is more likely to have a long-lasting effect on men than on women. But it’s worth noting that there could be a number of reasons for these findings — for example, these studies studies have included more men with compulsive sexual behaviors, or who watch porn more frequently.

There’s so much we still don’t know about the effects of porn on the brain. But what science has shown us is that the more you watch it, the greater the chances that it will actually alter your brain. Not only that, but watching it regularly may make you more likely to seek it out compulsively, and furthermore, to watch increasingly hardcore content in order to get the same results.

As recent studies have demonstrated, occasional porn watching doesn’t appear to have any detrimental effects on someone’s overall well-being, or their relationship or sexual satisfaction. It’s only when that habit gets out of control that it can potentially become a problem. In other words, porn in and of itself isn’t a danger. In fact, it can serve to function in any healthy person’s sex life. So, whats the takeaway? At the end of the day, porn's effects on your brain depend largely on just much you engage in it.