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What Viewing Pornography Does to Your Brain


Pornography has never been more accessible. The sheer volume of pornographic content now available online is staggering, and visits to one of the most popular porn websites topped over 42,000,000,000 in 2019 alone.

As the prevalence of pornographic content and the numbers of those who view pornography have grown, there has been a significant amount of research conducted by the scientific and medical communities to better understand pornography’s impact. Thanks to advances in neuroscience over the past decade, scientists are now able to articulate exactly how viewing pornography impacts the brain and the body (there clearly are social and psychological impacts as well, but we will unpack those another day).

What these studies have revealed is troubling. Exposure to pornography is formative, lasting, and unhealthy. In this post, we will provide a high-level overview of what porn does to your brain.

Viewing pornography tricks your brain.

There is an area in your brain known as the “reward center” that helps form habits. It releases chemicals, including dopamine, which establish connections between actions and the perceived desirability of that action. Dopamine is known as a “pleasure” chemical; it creates a link between certain habits and a “reward.” Activities like exercise, eating, and sex all trigger reactions in this part of the brain.

With pornography, however, the brain responds differently than it does with run of the mill stimulation, like a sugary snack or a simple game. For most daily behaviors, the brain has an “off” switch that stops the release of dopamine once a craving has been satisfied.

In contrast, pornography impacts the brain much like an addictive drug by triggering ever-increasing amounts of dopamine. Over time, the brain builds up a tolerance to the excess dopamine and requires either more access or more extreme content (or sometimes both) to achieve that same level of perceived pleasure.

Research from a Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction report indicates that extended exposure to pornography correlates with less activity in the brain’s reward circuit.

In short, when viewing pornography, your brain gets less pleasure while wanting more, often causing desensitization and an escalation in behavior.

Viewing pornography rewires your brain.

When your brain’s reward center triggers that release of dopamine and related chemicals, it also releases a protein (DeltaFosB) that serves as a “reinforcer.” In effect, it creates neural pathways to connect what someone is doing to how they feel—in this case, strongly connecting pleasure to the act of watching pornography.

This connection in turn results in greater demand for the activity, making it more and more likely that one returns to porn, according to the Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction report. If enough of this reinforcing protein builds up, it can cause lasting changes to your brain that leaves you even more vulnerable to addiction.

When neural pathways connect your brain’s reward center with something harmful, it can overwhelm previously held beliefs about what’s unethical or inappropriate and make you think those things are normal. One study found that people exposed to significant amounts of porn thought that things like violent sex were twice as common as those not exposed to porn thought.[1]

Viewing pornography influences your relationships.

Watching violent and/or non-consensual porn has toxic effects that can cause lasting damage to teens’ ability to have healthy relationships. For example, studies indicate that viewing hard-core porn can change attitudes about women; men who watch porn regularly are more likely to objectify women and have hardened misogynistic attitudes.

Because porn is the source for some teens of information about sex, these dynamics can create especially warped ideas.

Sexual aggressiveness is a major message presented in modern pornography, and one review of popular porn videos found that in 9 out of 10, a woman was being beaten, yelled at, or otherwise harmed.

Viewing pornography at a young age can be damaging.

The risk of becoming addicted to pornography is higher for teenagers as the reward centers in their brains respond 2-4 times more strongly than those of adult brains.  According to Psychology Today, teenagers who are exposed to sexual content are more likely to have sex at a younger age, and “early exposure to pornography is a risk factor for sex addictions and other intimacy disorders.

Canopy can help you protect those you love most.

Canopy removes pornographic images in real-time. It—literally—prevents such content from appearing on the screen of your child’s device. You can also be proactive in talking with your child about how to respond in case they are exposed to pornography. Learn more about Canopy’s technology and begin a free trial today.