Porn’s Impact on the Adult Brain

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The human brain is highly adaptive. This is actually one of our most useful evolutionary traits, helping us to not only survive but thrive. In fact, our wonderfully malleable brains are why we, and not tigers or sharks or bull elephants, are at the top of the food chain. Unlike other animals, humans are not entirely reliant on our instincts. Instead, our brains receive, process, and adapt to external inputs – learning and evolving along the way.

This neurobiological ability to quickly adapt and evolve is known as neuroplasticity, and, in most respects, it is a uniquely human trait. Sharks, for instance, think and behave almost exactly the same today as they did 100 million years ago. Their non-neuroplastic brains have not evolved in countless millennia. Meanwhile, human brains evolve almost by the minute in response to our environment and experience.

Neuroscientist Lise Eliot, an expert in early-life brain development, explains neuroplasticity beautifully when she says that although human brain composition and activity are indisputably biological, they are not etched in stone. She writes, “The crucial, often overlooked fact is that experience itself changes our brain structure and function.” What Eliot and other neuroscientists are telling us is that our brains are not hardwired with fixed and immutable circuits. Instead, they can and do change over time, especially during key developmental periods like infancy, early childhood, and adolescence.

Sex and the Brain

Once upon a time, sexologists thought that a person’s sexual arousal template was inherent, hardwired, and immutable. And to a certain extent, this is true – at least in regard to overarching, deeply ingrained things like sexual orientation. However, both psychologists and a wide variety of researchers have found that external inputs, especially inputs received during childhood and adolescence, can and often do create variations on these inborn attractions. This means that external factors can partially rewire the sexual brain. For example, a preadolescent boy who is spanked by an attractive female babysitter on whom he has a huge crush might unconsciously eroticize that experience. Then, a few years later, when his sexual desires awaken, a longing to be spanked or otherwise “punished” may be part of his arousal template.

This type of sexual development is quite normal. In fact, pretty much any person with any sort of kink or fetish attraction, if and when he or she explores the roots of that desire, can link it to an incident or series of incidents in childhood. Stated simply, our early-life experiences can and do rewire the brain in ways that manifest later in life, even after lying dormant for decades.

Let’s say that the boy who was spanked by his babysitter is now in his 40s and recently divorced. Feeling lonely, he turns on his computer to view a bit of porn, something he has done only occasionally in the past. This time he stumbles across a site that specializes in spanking videos. He was never very adventurous sexually with his wife (or any other woman) and was not consciously aware that spanking was a turn-on for him. Suddenly, however, now that he has seen it online, it is all that he can think about. This is because his brain was wired, all the way back in preadolescence, for this particular fetish.

Thus, it is clear that pornography, much like early-life experiences, can impact the sexual brain – even well into adulthood. At the very least, pornography can awaken dormant attractions, pushing the user’s sexual arousal template into new and (hopefully) interesting and exciting directions. Of course, it can also push the user toward compulsivity or addiction with porn, too. This all depends on the individual, in particular his or her life situation and vulnerability toward addiction, psychological disorders, and other adult-life behavioral issues.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with compulsive or addictive use of pornography, plenty of help is available. Residential treatment and online workgroups can be found at Seeking Integrity: Los Angeles. Free online podcasts, articles, webinars, drop-in discussion groups, and daily inspirations are available through SexandRelationshipHealing.com.