Addiction Studies – Why Pornography Harms
By Aleah Taboclaon, MA Clinical Psychology Candidate
Is pornography really as harmless as you would like to believe? Scientific studies using a brain imaging technology called the fMRI disagree. Pornography addiction physically alters the brain, making it a disease.
“There’s no harm in it, I’m just looking.”
For quite some time, men have defended their addiction to pornography by saying that they are just using it and not acting on it. But is pornography really as harmless as some would like us to believe?
Pornography Consumption and Sexual Abuse
In a study (2000) done by Andres Hernandez, director of the Sex Offender Treatment Program in the US Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, he found out that majority of offenders convicted of Internet sexual crimes (specifically child pornography) have similar behavioral characteristics with those convicted of child molestation.
In fact, he said, 76 percent of offenders convicted with Child Pornography had “contact sexual crimes” and seemed to have committed sexual offenses more (i.e., 30.5 victims per offender) than those who were convicted outright of contact sexual crimes. Results of a more recent study by Hernandez (2009) have also shown that a lot of Internet child pornography offenders are also child molesters.
How Pornography Addiction Works
Psychologists have long debated about the appropriateness of associating pornography with addiction, pointing out that there are no diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV regarding porn consumption.
Other mental health professionals and neurology researchers, however, strongly agree that those who are hooked on pornography behave like addicts and should be treated as one. Mary Anne Layden, PhD, for example, said that increasing tolerance to addictive substances is a key feature of addiction. Porn addicts develop this, needing more and more pornography materials (increasing either the intensity or the frequency of use, or both) to get the same high.
To understand this tolerance better, brain scanning technologies have been used through the years to provide an objective measure of how addiction affects the brain. Unlike self-reports which are highly subjective and difficult to collect, tools like the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can look directly into the brain and “read” how addictive substances—including pornography—affect it.
Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is the pioneer when it comes to brain imaging studies. Her papers established how addictions physically alter the brain’s physiology through changes in the neurochemical composition of the brain’s frontal regions. These areas are responsible for regulating the motivation, drive, and pleasure impulses, and determine how addicted people think and feel when exposed to addictive substances.
Use of the fMRI in Addiction Studies
The fMRI had been discovered in the early 1990s but it only became increasingly used in addiction studies a decade later. It functions the same way as the MRI—a tool using a strong magnetic field and radio waves—but instead of taking pictures of the body’s organs and tissues, it tracks the brain’s blood flow.
Researchers using the fMRI to study psychological phenomena monitor changes in the brain’s blood flow while the research participants are subjected to a specific stimulus—a pornographic image, for example, in the case of a porn addict. The results would then show which parts of the brain are activated when the stimulus is shown.
Addiction is a Brain Disease
Years of research work at the NIDA using the fMRI has shown that instead of just being a compulsion, addiction is a brain disease. Continued exposure to addictive substances—such as food, drugs, alcohol, or pornography materials—releases neurochemicals that rewire pathways in the brain and affects decision making. It results in increased cravings for the substance and creates a dependency that requires more stimulation.
Studies have shown, for example, that it is the brain’s frontal lobes which are affected by these chemicals. When there is a pleasurable stimulus, the brain releases dopamine, which then activates the brain’s reward center and produces pleasurable feelings. With a porn addict’s continued exposure to these stimuli, there is a reduction in the amount of dopamine, resulting to the increased demand for the chemical.
The addicted person, whose dopamine receptors are already desensitized, must then find ways to increase the dopamine levels in the brain to feel good. In the case of porn addicts, more and more extreme pornography materials become needed through time to produce pleasure.
Changes in the brain due to pornography addiction can also be explained through studies on learning and memory. Julie Malenka and Robert Kauer (2007) called these “long term potentiation” and “long term depression,” where brain cells are changed and rewired with the constant search and evaluation of pornographic materials.
Findings of another study (2007) done in Germany on pedophilia showed that brain changes in pedophiles are similar to those who are addicted to substance abuse and food, providing further evidence that sexual compulsions including porn addiction can cause changes in the brain.
Implications to Treatment
There are a lot more studies showing the connection between addiction and how it changes the brain. What does this all imply, in relation to treatment?
Researchers say that if porn addiction is a disease, it follows that it can be treated. But treatment doesn’t start without recognition and admission on the part of the person that he or she has a problem with pornography.
However, the need for recognition that pornography harms should not only stop with the individual; the society needs to do it as well, for any global effort to curb the effects of pornography to be effective.