Why Is the Pull of Porn So Strong?

Porn addiction is a widely debated topic, but the pull of porn has been around as long as humans have existed. In this article I explore the history of sexual desire and how it can be used to understand why we are so drawn to pornography.

This essay series is now available as a professionally designed, distraction-free paperback or ebook that you can read at your leisure while offline.

This week, we’re conducting a four-part series on the psychological repercussions of pornography. Comprehending the link between your noodle and dopamine, and how this interaction makes the draw of porn so powerful, is the first step in understanding these consequences. Understanding this relationship, in my opinion, is the most important step in deciding what role porn should play in your life and, eventually, eliminating this habit. As a result, I’ve gone into great detail in this and tomorrow’s posts. However, I have made the information extremely accessible, and I believe that those who read the pieces in their entirety will find them to be beneficial. If that’s not your cup of tea, go to the end and read the summary. 

Your Brain and Dopamine 

Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that communicate with one another through an electrical-chemical process. Without getting too scientific, the crucial thing to remember for this discussion is that the message-delivering neuron releases a chemical called a neurotransmitter into the synapse – the gap between the neurons – and across to a receiving neuron. The receiving neuron uses its receptors to capture the neurotransmitter and then creates voltage to communicate with another cell. Every day, this process occurs a bajillion (that’s a scientific phrase) times.

Different neurotransmitters connect with one other in different ways. What they all have in common is that their main goal is to guarantee that your carcass survives so that you may pass on your genes, not to make you “happy” or content.

The strong desire and drive to accomplish or seek out those things that would help us achieve those purposes is an important aspect of our brain’s mechanism for boosting our chances of survival and reproduction. We must want to eat, seek shelter, and engage in sexual activity. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that provides us the motivation to act on our urges.

When we meet incentives, or “natural reinforcers,” that help us survive, dopamine is produced. The natural reinforcer hierarchy is topped by foods, sex, novelty (new items may lead to new survival-boosting advantages), and friendship (you’re more likely to survive in a group). When we come across one of these powerful reinforcers/rewards, a brain pathway is formed (more on neural pathways below). Dopamine activates our brain’s reward system, causing us to repeat the same activities that got us those benefits in the first place.

The larger the “squirt” of dopamine our neurons get and the higher the desire to repeat the activity, the more it aids our survival and reproduction. Varying varieties of food, for example, produce different amounts of dopamine. Because our hunter-gatherer forefathers lived in a feast-or-famine world, it made natural sense to stock up on calories when the going was good. Our ancestors’ brains evolved to produce a lot of dopamine when they faced high fat and high sugar diets because they gave the biggest energy advantages. In the current world, our brains continue to do the same way, which is why, when given the option between a Five Guys burger and a dry salad, we instinctively choose the burger and shake. Dopamine makes us want sweet, carbohydrate-rich, and high-fat meals.

 

Our brain’s reward system gets the most natural dosage of dopamine from sexual excitement and orgasm. That’s understandable. The whole purpose of our creation, from an evolutionary standpoint, is to reproduce and pass on our genes. As a result, our main evolutionary urge should be to seek out and want sex. That large dopamine rush that comes with climax then instructs our brain’s reward system to repeat whatever activity got us sex in the first place so we can receive sex again in the future.

Isn’t Testosterone to Blame for My Sexual Attraction?

Contrary to common opinion and cheesy online advertisements, dopamine, not testosterone, is the key to a man’s sexual drive and ability to obtain an erection. By prompting the brain to create more dopamine, testosterone plays a more supporting role in our sex urge. While low T may lead to decreased libido, this is due to a lack of T to activate adequate dopamine for a healthy sex drive. A guy may have high total and free testosterone levels, but low dopamine (or dulled dopamine sensitivity – more on that later), and hence a low or nonexistent sex urge. The dopamine-stimulating properties of testosterone also explain why testosterone replacement treatment providers claim that boosting your T would give you more energy and motivation to accomplish other things in life. It’s the dopamine that T releases in the brain that gives you that lift, not the T itself. The more information you have, the better.

When you view someone beautiful, dopamine is released, which increases your desire for sex. This boost will encourage you to do everything your society dictates in order to court that individual and finally get them into bed. That procedure might take a long time if you’re the old-fashioned kind. If you’re a Don Juan and the gal is up for casual sex, a couple hours could be plenty. Whatever your schedule, your dopamine levels and, as a result, your sex drive will continue to rise as you get closer to fulfilling your need. The strong desire to copulate induced by rising dopamine levels as you come closer to actually having sex helps to explain why many claim, “I don’t know what occurred.” We were on the sofa watching Louie one minute and building the beast with two backs the next.”

The levels of this neurotransmitter decline after we attain the reward dopamine was pushing us towards. When it comes to sex, dopamine levels spike shortly before climax (to assist wire our brains to seek out sex again in the future), but then drop after we’ve fulfilled our biological drive to distribute our seed. (Your brain is unaware that your seed never made it beyond the condom’s end.) “Mission achieved,” as far as your neurons are concerned.) The male “refractory phase” following sex is partially explained by the post-coitus reduction in dopamine. (In case you didn’t know, it’s medically difficult for a male to have another orgasm for a length of time after he orgasms.) It might be minutes or days. It all depends on the individual.) When we orgasm, we produce a hormone called prolactin, which suppresses dopamine. There was no dopamine, sex urge, or boner.

 

The Coolidge Effect, Porn, and Novelty

Remember how I said that novelty is one of our developed natural reinforcers? Because new items might bring survival and reproduction benefits, our brains are designed to seek out novelty. We receive a jolt of dopamine whenever we come across anything new — a new email, a new device, a new cuisine — and it makes us want to seek for more new things. We all have an insatiable desire to find hidden wealth. The familiar doesn’t deliver the same dopamine rush as the unfamiliar due to a phenomenon known as habituation. After just a few weeks of driving about town in our new automobile, which we had been so excited to buy for months, habit explains why it doesn’t thrill us nearly as much.

When we meet a new beautiful lady who isn’t our present spouse, we receive a rush of dopamine as well. Our brains are designed to seek out as many new (sexual) partners as possible. Again, it seems logical that being exposed to a range of beautiful sex partners would increase dopamine in our sexual reward circuitry, especially in males, from a reproductive standpoint. The objective for men is to procreate with as many different ladies as possible in order to generate as many kids as possible with as much genetic variety as possible in order to expand our blood lines.

The “Coolidge Effect” is named after a chat the president allegedly had with his wife about the desire for several new sex partners even when one is already available and willing:

The President and Mrs. Coolidge were being escorted around an experimental government farm [in different groups]. When [Mrs. Coolidge] arrived to the poultry yard, she noted that a rooster was often mating. She inquired as to how often this occurred, and was informed, “Dozens of times per day.” “Tell it to the President when he comes by,” Mrs. Coolidge responded. “Same hen every time?” President inquired when informed. “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time,” was the response. “Tell it to Mrs. Coolidge,” the president said.

Let’s look at two tests to see how effective the Coolidge Effect is in increasing dopamine levels.

The first experiment included placing a fortunate male rat in a cage with four or five female rats. He had sex with all of them right away till he was exhausted. The female rats prodded and licked the male rat, who was panting and turned over in a sexual haze, to keep continuing, but he didn’t react. The drained rodent was no longer interested in carrying out the task. However, when the researchers added a new female rat to the cage, old Mr. I’m Too Tired became attentive and sagged over to have sex with the new female, neglecting his old harem. Dopamine was the key to this rat’s capacity to have sex with a fresh female despite being sexually satisfied earlier. Because, well, they were now uninteresting, the first crew stopped giving him those strong dopamine squirts. I’ve been there and done that. However, the novelty of the new female generated an increase in dopamine, and the male rat’s sex desire returned. The Coolidge Effect explains why individuals are motivated to cheat, even if their long-term spouse is much less appealing; the draw of novelty, any novelty, may be extremely powerful.

 

In humans, a similar experiment was carried out to demonstrate the Coolidge Effect. Rather of placing a single male in a room with four or five different women to have sex with (there would have been plenty of volunteers, but the ethics would have been questioned), researchers showed test participants an erotic video while their penises were hooked to sensors to detect arousal. Arousal had dropped considerably after 18 viewings of the same video. Dopamine levels declined as these males were used to witnessing the same lady having sex with the same guy. However, researchers played a fresh film on the 19th and 20th viewings, and atten-hut! arousal levels surged once again. Dopamine levels rose as a result of sexual novelty, which boosted sexual arousal.

How Has Online Porn Changed Your Mind?

Alright. So, what does any of this have to do with online pornography?

Dopamine, it turns out, is a big part of why you desire to watch porn. When you grasp how dopamine works, you’ll understand why you’re drawn to porn.

Your brain doesn’t realize that porn is a replacement for real sex. It responds the same way to a photograph of a nude woman or a film of people having sex as it does to a real-life naked woman or you having sex. When you see sexual imagery, your brain releases dopamine, which causes you to orgasm – whether that climax is created with another person or is self-created.

Dopamine also explains why certain forms of pornography are more appealing than others, and why some men prefer porn to genuine intercourse in extreme circumstances.

The first time you view a still image of a nude lady, your dopamine levels will spike, but after a while, the same image will no longer satisfy you. That sensation has gotten ingrained in your brain. You’d have to enhance dopamine levels by adding additional novelty into your sexual thoughts with a fresh image of a different nude lady in order to feel aroused again.

However, as time passes, merely gazing at a photograph of a nude lady will no longer thrill you. Something more is required. When you watch others have sex in a pornographic film, your mirror neurons are activated, making you feel like you’re the one having sex. The more intense the stimulation, the more dopamine is released into the reward system, and the stronger your want to watch that porn film.

However, as the research above shown, even a sexy video may become dull after repeated viewings. It just won’t provide the same dopamine rush as the first time you saw it, and it will ultimately cease to excite you. This is, once again, owing to habit. Increase dopamine levels by viewing something new, whether it’s a film with a new lady or a video with a new sex technique you’ve never seen before, to reawaken your sexual arousal. When you add novelty to the mix, dopamine levels rise, and sexual desire rises as well.

 

You’ve undoubtedly noticed a recurring theme: novelty. Dopamine has built you to desire sexual novelty, and porn provides it. The more new sexual encounters you discover, the more dopamine you receive, reinforcing your urge to seek out even more sexual novelty. One of the things that makes porn so appealing is the ease with which fresh “experiences” may be had.

This wasn’t much of an issue before the internet. Once a male in the pre-internet porn years became used to his “girly” magazine, he had to visit an adult bookstore or a convenience store in a shady section of town to get a replacement. He’d have to travel to a XXX theater or maybe a porno booth in the bookshop where he acquired his magazines to see a pornographic video. Acquiring porn involved a lot of hassle, whether it was getting magazines or watching movies, and there was also the possibility of being found and facing social humiliation. As a result, many males just did not bother. Even when he had the option of having periodicals or DVDs sent to his house, he only did so once or twice a month. If he had children, he would have to locate a safe location to store his porn and then find a moment when his family was not there to exhume and examine his collection in peace. Again, a bunch of nonsense.

While pornography provided some sexual novelty in the past, technological (or lack thereof) and societal mores erected obstacles that made access to fresh and original porn difficult and time-consuming. Because fresh and unique dopamine doses weren’t easy to get by, becoming hooked on porn was tough, and most guys didn’t have the issues that current porn users face.

Let’s fast forward to the present day. You may now access an unlimited variety of pornography 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thanks to the internet. Sexual novelty-induced dopamine spikes have never been simpler to create. There’s no need to drag yourself to the adult bookstore or go to great measures to conceal your porn. Simply open it on your laptop or mobile device in the privacy of your own home or at work’s restroom. You may open many tabs in your browser to access various porn sites with a variety of virtual sex partners. “You may ‘experience’ more unique sex partners in 10 minutes than your hunter-gatherer predecessors encountered in a lifetime,” Gary Wilson writes in Your Brain on Porn.

Pornography on the internet not only provides access to new sex “partners,” but also to new sexual experiences. You may observe a broad range of sexual practices, not only a couple having sex missionary style. Observing diverse sex activities raises dopamine levels in the same way as meeting new sex partners does. Dopamine levels also rise when we meet things that startle or disgust us, as we’ll cover tomorrow. When we watch porn, the more dopamine is released into our reward system, the more intense the emotional experience we have. That’s why, even if a part of you finds it unpleasant, you could find yourself looking for kinkier and kinkier porn. All of this amusement is just a mouse click away. Connections in your brain’s reward circuitry grow as more dopamine squirts into your reward system with different sorts of porn, enhancing your desire to seek even more sexual novelty. The cycle continues indefinitely.

 

Why Do You Feel the Need to Watch Porn When You’re Bored or Open Your Web Browser? Neuroplasticity, or Why Do You Feel the Need to Watch Porn When You’re Bored or Open Your Web Browser

Dopamine is the chemical that makes you desire to watch porn. And, due to the internet, you have access to an infinite number of sexual “experiences” that, when watched, cause your brain to release squirt after squirt of dopamine, driving you to seek out more and more porn.

Those dopamine squirts are also building neuronal connections that are accountable for the behavior that keeps those neurotransmitter hits flowing, without you ever realizing it.

Your brain is physically rewired by porn.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together,” you’ve undoubtedly heard. It’s an appropriate description of how we learn. Everything you know is built up of linked neurons firing in rhythm with one another, including how to walk, throw a football, and who won the World Series in 1989. The stronger the link, the less you’ll have to think about doing or remembering what you’re attempting to remember. You don’t have to think about walking, for example, since the neurons involved in walking have built a strong bond since you were a child. However, remembering facts for a history exam that you crammed the night before may be more challenging since the neurons involved in that memory haven’t fired together enough to make a strong association.

Our behaviors are created by neurons firing and wiring together. Your brain strengthens the neurons that fired and linked together to create the reward when you get a dose of dopamine after obtaining a reward, whether it’s food, sex, or novelty, so that you can repeat the process and get it again in the future. This rewiring entails linking the signals and behaviors that resulted in a particular reward.

The “Problem Loop,” as author Charles Duhigg refers to it, is the relationship between cue, action, and reward, and knowing it may go a long way toward helping you comprehend your porn habit (and break it).

Almost all signals (things that remind or prompt your brain to seek a reward via a certain activity) fit into one of five types, according to habit researchers:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional Condition
  • Other Individuals
  • Action Taken Right Ahead of Time

Your brain is paying attention to stimuli associated with the reward once again. Dopamine is generated when the brain registers the signal, making you want the reward and willing to go to any length to get it. Consider Pavlov’s dogs. Food was the only thing that got the dogs salivating at the start of the trial. They were subsequently exposed to the metronome’s cue, and after a time, simply hearing that sound would make them salivate for their reward.

When it comes to porn, one of the connected cues may be sitting at your computer late at night when everyone else is sleeping. The clue, if you’re John Mayer, would be being in bed when you first wake up. Being in bed immediately before going to sleep is a trigger for many males. When you stumble upon a porn picture while browsing Tumblr, it might be a sign that you should start exploring for more porn. Just going to Tumblr can be enough to make you want to start browsing for more porn.

 

External cues are not required. Emotional states are the most prevalent pornographic stimuli. When males are sad, bored, or preoccupied, they often turn to pornography for entertainment. Pornographic pleasure provides them with an escape from these negative feelings.

A behavioral pattern is immediately put in action after the stimulus activates dopamine production, which increases your drive to watch porn. A routine is a habit (or a series of activities) that leads to orgasm. So, let’s assume you’re at your computer late at night, after everyone has gone to bed, and you have the need to seek for porn. After that, you open your web browser (incognito mode, of course) and head straight to PornHub to begin a session of porn viewing and masturbation without even thinking about it. The circuit of cue-behavior/routine-reward is complete. Right around climax, your brain produces a massive burst of dopamine, strengthening the neural connections connected with the cue, routine, and reward so that the next time you have the same cue (at your computer late at night), you’ll have the itch to start your routine to acquire more porn. If you repeat this circuit for a few days or weeks, you’ll develop a strong neurological link that leads to you looking out porn without even realizing it. That’s how pornography may develop into a strong habit or even an addiction (we’ll go over the difference between habit and addiction in the future article).

Recap

Let’s take a look back at what we’ve learned today.

Dopamine is responsible for the allure of pornography. Dopamine is responsible for our desire for the pursuit of evolutionary favorable rewards. When we climax effectively, the biggest natural reinforcer of behavior is sex, which releases the most dopamine in our brain. Because our brain doesn’t distinguish between film-induced sex thoughts and actual sex, we receive the same large rush of dopamine and tremendously intense desire to climax when we watch porn. When you watch porn, your brain imagines you’re a brave tribesman out on the savanna, yelling “Atta boy!” Disseminate that seed! When you’re really slumped over your laptop, the light from the screen lighting your dead-eyed look as you grasp a wad of tissues, you’re shouting, “Spread that seed!”

Our brains produce less dopamine in response to a stimuli as we get used to it. To get the same sensation as previously, you’ll need to search for sexual novelty, which high-speed internet porn delivers in abundance. Because of the dopamine hits your brain receives every time you click over to a new porn film or image, online porn becomes even more appealing and desired.

Dopamine not only causes a desire to search for porn, but it also strengthens the brain connections in your reward circuitry that are responsible for the actions that lead to you looking at and masturbating to porn. Your brain learns to correlate particular external or internal signals with the pleasure of orgasm, and everytime you come across one of these cues, a behavioral pattern is set in motion that drives you to your favorite porn site. When you succeed in accessing porn and orgasming from it, your brain produces more dopamine, which reinforces the neural cue-routine-reward circuit, making porn surfing a tough habit to break.

 

And there you have it: the brain science behind why online porn is so appealing and addictive.

However, the issue remains: do you care? Why don’t you simply give the old brain what it wants and leave it alone? In part 3, we’ll discuss the course’s potential negative consequences.

Other Posts in the Series may be found here.

Introduction to Men and Pornography Porn’s Potential Pitfalls How to Stop Watching Porn

Visit YourBrainOnPorn.com for additional information on the science of porn on your brain.