Understanding Why Pornography Addiction is a Brain Disease
Understanding How the Brain Works
By: Gordon S. Bruin M.A., L.P.C
“One ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Until the general public becomes more informed about the reality of how pornography impacts the human brain it will continue to be looked upon as a moral weakness or a form of mere entertainment. As a professional counselor who has worked in the addictions field for over 20 years I want to make it clear that pornography addiction is a CHEMICAL ADDICTION. In fact it is the PRIME CHEMICAL ADDICTION!
Pornography addiction is the most difficult addiction to treat because it hits at the very core of our humanity. Interest in sexuality is a primary driving force in human beings. It is pleasurable by design so that we continue to exist as a human race. If there were ever to be the perfect drug created pornography would be it. As one client recently put it, “It is the perfect poison.” Let me explain why.
Throughout my professional carrier I have spent countless hours treating those with chemical dependency addictions such as with alcohol, heroin/opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana etc. Through much research we have come to the understanding that these addictions are chemical addictions. Ingestion of these drugs affects how the brain works and changes the functionality of our microscopic brain cells.
Our brains are made up of tiny chemicals called neurotransmitters. These tiny chemicals drive our emotions, feelings and behaviors. I believe that many scarcely realize how powerful these tiny chemicals are and how deeply they impact our lives and behavior. At this microscopic level there is a constant interplay between a chemical and electrical interaction. In his fascinating book entitled “The Mind and the Brain” Dr. Jeffery Schwartz delineates between the mind and the brain. The mind is separate from the physical brain. My interpretation of this is that the mind or spirit is the electrical intelligence that lives in this physical body and chemical brain. There is a constant interplay between these two parts and each can have a powerful influence on the other. Addiction occurs when the physical brain has taken control of the mind. The mind is the intelligence part that is frustrated about the loss of control. It is in the mind that the conscience exists. This is the part that generates feelings of right or wrong. The physical brain has no concept of right or wrong. Its primary function is to keep us alive and it does this by driving one to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
The physical/chemical brain has a tremendous capacity to gain control of the mind. It can subject it and trap it. In other words it can take over the human will and influence how a person thinks, feels and acts. This state is known as addiction. It is a state where the physical/chemical brain demands or compels one towards a certain behavior regardless what the mind or conscience says. There appears to be something inherent in the human family that feels it is wrong to view the private sexual acts of others. In other words the mind, the electrical intelligent part of us simply cannot feel good about participating in it. I make this claim after listening to hundreds of stories of clients who have relapsed. The results are always the same. I have never had a client come in and tell me that they had a slip during the past week and they felt good about. NEVER! Viewing pornography leaves in its wake feelings of frustration, irritation, and depression.
Because of the power of the Limbic part of the brain and its capacity to mask or overshadow the moral and rational part of the brain, there are many who claim that this behavior in normal or mere entertainment. The rationalization and justifications that can come from the survival part of the brain are incredibly alluring and convincing for sure. It is the absolute reality that these individuals whether they know it or not are the ultimate drug pushers. It makes one stare in mute disbelief when you hear them say that they are family men or women. In one recent interview on MSNBC a female porn star stated that she had an 11 year old son at home. She has become so addicted herself that she can no longer think from her rational mind. She rejoices in her profession even though she stated that her son didn’t know what she did for a living. I wonder how this little boy will react when he comes to an understanding of what his mother is doing for a living. When she was asked if her son knew what she did for employment she said with a little smirk on her face, “Oh no, I couldn’t tell him that.” If she were to actually see the damage that she is helping create in our society, I wonder if even then she or those like her would really get it. These pornographers are the ones preying on the vulnerabilities of our natural instincts. One day they will stare in mute disbelief at what they have been involved in. In fact, those who find a way out of this world will tell you details of the profession that no one in their right mind would want to hear. Isn’t it a funny thing that we live in a world where we can no longer even call things right or wrong without great censorship and criticism?
In essence, the only difference between a heroin or cocaine addict is the way the drug enters the system. The brain responds from information received from the eye quicker than from any other source. Visual information is processed in the limbic system in nanoseconds. This is why pornography is such a big deal. Visual information is processed faster than from any of our others senses. Even the ingestion of heroin or cocaine is much slower in comparison. The brain responds to visual sexual images in microseconds where chemical reactions take place automatically. There is a release of powerful chemicals that can overrule the rational brain and drive one to behaviors.
Just as Dopamine is the chemical of pleasure, Oxytocin is the chemical of bonding. For example, when a mother gives birth, extreme amounts of Oxytocin are released, creating a powerful emotional bond between mother and child. Father's also experience this Oxytocin bonding when their children are born. Oxytocin is also released in high amounts during sexual experiences. This bonding creates companionship and a feeling of togetherness during sexual intercourse. Oxytocin is also released during visual arousal, however; When sexually aroused without a committed partner through means such as pornography, the recipient of Oxytocin is left feeling alone, depressed and confused, despite the rush of dopamine. See the dangerous irony? Oxytocin has the power to sexually bond a committed couple in healthy and meaningful ways or it can destroy an individual with feelings of emptiness and depression. Oxytocin is a chemical "glue" seeking something to bond with. When there is no bonding, isolation and secrecy result. Pornography is an Oxytocin powerhouse leaving a wake of emptiness and confusion to all those it claims.
So, I feel qualified to make the claim from a clinical therapeutic position that pornography addiction is the grand daddy of them all. It hits at the very core of our humanity and is negatively impacting the world in ways that most scarcely imagine. The greatest of all concerns is what will happen with the rising generation without education and help. The young have no immunity to it and the young are the ones who are being exposed at an increasingly alarming rate.
To those who have trouble accepting the fact that pornography addiction is a “brain disease” and the prime addiction of all addictions; Listen to the following email that I recently received. As you read this email ask yourself the question? Is this individual seeking this material as mere healthy entertainment or is he driven or compelled to have it? This email comes from a man who is highly respected in his community, loves his family and is committed to providing for them and caring for them.
“I am sick to my core by virtue of my indulgence in pornography. To be honest my appetite for porn accounted for why I got the internet in the very first place and now that I am down in a horrendous pit I seriously wonder whether there is hope of recovery for me for whenever I log onto the internet I must view porn. What is wrong with me? Why can't I change who I am presently? Is there any change possible in the future for me?”
The feeling expressed in this letter is common to what I am seeing in my clinical practice day in and day out. Pornography eats away at the inner soul. After one views it (almost always in secrecy – and isolation) it leaves in its wake feelings of absolute determination never to look at it again. It leaves one frustrated with themselves, depressed, discouraged and a very powerful feeling of all consuming hopelessness. Pay particular attention to the above email when this individual uses the words, “I am sick to my core.”
Nothing can be more frustrating to a strong willed man or women with high values to face the reality that he/she cannot control their behavior in regards to viewing pornography viewing. Again, pay attention to the words in the above email when he says, “whenever I log onto the internet I must view porn.”
To those who read this and still have a hard time accepting his statement that, “I must view porn” let me explain a little more about addiction and the compelling force which drives one to certain behaviors. In the simplest terms we in essence have two brains that work in concert with each other. How these two brains communicate with each other determines how we function in the world. For the purposes of this paper I will refer to these two different parts of our brain as the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex.
To understand more about how these two different parts of the brain work, I refer to the work of James Olds. James Olds was one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century. Indeed, many feel that his discovery of the "reward" system in the brain is the most important single discovery yet made in the field concerned with how the brain works and how it affects behavior. His discovery has given us a much-increased understanding of addiction.
What Olds discovered that is so significant to the understanding of addiction, is that our pleasure centers (where the addiction lives) are housed in the Midbrain or Limbic System, which is not under the direct control of the conscious mind or the Frontal Cortex. The Midbrain’s prime directive above all others is survival. This part of the brain has the task of keeping us alive. It is the part that monitors our basic survival needs. This part of the brain generates survival appetites that drive the rest of the body toward what it demands such as oxygen, water, food, sleep, sex, etc. James Olds discovered the power of the Midbrain when doing experiments with mice. When mapping out how the brain responded to pleasurable stimuli by placing electrodes on different areas of the brain, he was astounded when he saw what happened to the mice when he connected to the Midbrain. He found that when the mice had the capacity to tap into the pleasure centers of the Midbrain and receive continual pleasure they would do so at the expense of all other functions until they died. In other words, these mice would keep pressing a certain lever that delivered incredible pleasure until they would die of exhaustion or starvation. These pleasure centers simply overwhelmed the other functions of the brain. Our pleasure centers work in a similar manner. Now we are beginning to get a clearer glimpse of the challenging nature of addictions.
When one views pornography there are a whole cocktail of pleasure chemicals released in the human system that change the way the brain functions. Such chemicals as dopamine, norepinephrine, Oxytocin, and serotonin bind the brain to seek certain behaviors that will produce a feeling state. The person at the chemical biological level begins to lose control of their lives.
Scientific evidence now strongly supports an organic basis for all addiction. Neuroscience has shown that all addictions, both drug and natural, are caused by a deficit of dopamine in the reward system. This deficit can be facilitated by viewing pornography. The viewing of pornography disrupts the regular and natural production of dopamine and resets the cells internal thermostat. This deficit produces a very powerful craving which underlies all addiction. The power or driving force behind these cravings and obsessions can literally disconnect the pre-frontal rational brain and drive one to behaviors that can destroy lives. The very definition of addiction is that one continues to participate in behaviors where there are negative consequences despite their best efforts to stop. What we are now seeing is that if the limbic system is constantly unrestrained, it grows stronger and the pre-frontal cortex actually shrinks. In other words, the part of our brains that is able to put the brakes on begins to malfunction. It simply looses the strength to restrain the unwanted behavior. Fortunately, with abstinence and counseling support, there is evidence that the brain can heal itself.
This reality was hypothesized almost a century ago before we had the evidence to support it. William James made the follow state in the 1800’s, “I believe that we are subject to the law of habit in consequence of the fact that we have bodies. The plasticity of the living matter of our nervous system, in short, is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all. Our nervous systems have grown to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds.”
The Hope of Recovery
I know all of the above information can sound pretty discouraging but we must not lose hope. If one has the deep desire to change it is not only possible but probable. One can retrain the brain to turn away at an instant but this process requires help and support. Yes, it is difficult but possible. The words of Thomas Paine can provide hope and comfort when he stated, “These are the times that try men’s souls. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives ever thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
Here is the difficult truth I have seen. Most who struggle with this addiction are looking for the quick cure or more importantly, that they can do it on their own. This addiction cannot be wished, willed or prayed away. It must be treated with proven scientific principles along with faith. It is a chemical disease of the brain and in order to strengthen the pre-frontal cortex to learn how to deal with it, one needs to reach out and use the support of others in the process. Therapy by a qualified therapist along with 12 step meetings can prove invaluable in the healing process. Those who eventually reach out for help generally say that they wished they had done it much earlier. An addiction isn’t something to overcome in isolation. Regardless of the resistance to discuss addiction outwardly, one must reach out for help and break the isolation barrier. There are safe places to go where anonymity will be preserved. It is common for me to hear something similar to another email I recently received, “I haven't cried in years. I want to cry to somebody about my addiction. I want to yell and scream because I feel no one understands how I feel. I'm afraid if I open up I will be rejected and feel stupid.”
In his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien tells the story of how one powerful ring must be destroyed to save the land from destruction. “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them. In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie.” Pornography addiction can be likened unto this One captivating Ring, trying to find and bring all it can to the mental and spiritual land of Mordor where the shadows lie. In this story Frodo, a hobbit, is the one chosen to carry this ring to the dark land of Mordor and cast the ring into the Crack of Doom where it would finally be destroyed. It is interesting to note that Frodo hates the burden of carrying the ring but also doesn’t want to part with it. In fact, he becomes frustrated, irritated and angry when anyone tries to take the Ring away. By nature, Frodo is kind and thoughtful but he becomes cruel and selfish when this happens. It is also interesting to note that when he puts the Ring on, he becomes invisible while wearing it. How like the isolation of addiction is this? When one is acting out it is almost always in isolation apart from loved ones. Note the similarities of the Ring – the power to isolate, to make invisible and produce feelings of lust. Remember with pornography these feelings of lust are caused by very real biochemical reactions within the brain.
One of the most poignant parts of this classic story is that when Frodo comes closer to Mordor, he describes the great burden that he carries. He loses strength and finds that he cannot do it alone. He needs the help of his friend Sam. Sam says to Frodo, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo, Dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go” (The Return of the King, The Easton Press, 1984, 217-218).
Even at the end of this long and arduous journey he cannot throw the Ring away by himself. Those who have faced this addiction themselves or have struggled like Sam to help and carry a loved one will be able to recognize the similarities. Those addicted can feel like they are in an endless battle and struggle. They may lose all hope of ever being free. With great effort they will fight the continual obsessions and compulsions, only to slip and fall again and again. They must come to the conclusion that they cannot do this on their own. Sometimes the “ Sams” in their lives will have to carry them, although the “Sams cannot carry the addiction for them. Help and education on how to manage and deal with this issue are available. Many resources can be found at www.innergold.com. Of particular interest is the Innergold Manual and the book “The Language of Recovery.”