Does Porn Re-Wire the Brain?The Plastic Brain

The brains of human beings are 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. In other words, as humans we are not entirely reliant on our instincts like most other species. Instead, our brains receive, process, and adapt to external inputs – learning and mutating 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-plastic brains have not evolved in 100,000 millennia. Meanwhile, human brains are evolving almost by the minute in response to our environment and experience.

Admittedly, humans, like all other animals, are born into the world with certain inherent traits and behaviors – the need for air (and the ability to get it), the need for food (and the knowledge of how to obtain it), etc. That said, we also have the innate capacity, right from the start, to engage in abstract thought. Consider, for instance, the baby boy whose mother holds the phone to his ear so he can hear the voice of his father, who’s been away for a few days. Somehow the child seems to understand that his father is not in the phone, that he’s somewhere else and the phone is simply carrying his voice (unlike my dog, BTW, who tries to more or less eat the phone whenever I greet him digitally). In other words, the toddler’s highly malleable brain instantaneously incorporates the reality of this technological device; various neurons fire in a certain order and create a pathway that knows what phones are and how they are used. In short, the little boy’s brain “rewires” itself based on an external input: the phone.

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.” Basically, Eliot (and many other neuroscientists) are telling us 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 on 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, recent research confirms that this is true, at least in regard to overarching, deeply ingrained attractions such as homosexual vs. heterosexual vs. bisexual. That said, both psychotherapy practitioners and a wide variety of researchers have found that external inputs, especially during childhood and adolescence, may create variations on these inborn attractions. In other words, external factors can partially rewire the sexual brain. For instance, a preadolescent boy who is spanked by an attractive female babysitter on whom he has a huge crush might unconsciously eroticize that experience. As such, 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 actually quite normal. Furthermore, just about any person with any sort of fetish or attraction (beyond their basic sexual orientation), if and when he or she explores the roots of that desire, can link it to an incident or as series of incidents in childhood. Essentially, once we are born, our early-life experiences can and do rewire the brain in ways that manifest later in life, even after lying dormant for decades. For instance, let’s say that the boy who was spanked by his babysitter is now in his forties and recently divorced. Feeling lonely, he turns on his computer to check out some online 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.

Interestingly, the more videos he sees of this behavior, the better, as far as his libido is concerned. This is because human beings, especially men, are evolutionarily programmed to want variety and novelty. In other words, if this man watches a single spanking video over and over and over, he will eventually lose interest in it. But give him a new spanking video and… boing! He’s hot to trot, even if this second video isn’t as good as the first. And this isn’t just what I hear from my clients. Research confirms this dynamic, showing that heterosexual men ejaculate larger volumes of semen, more quickly, with more motile sperm when exposed to new imagery of women. So yeah, if you’ve got a fetish, even a hidden one that was surreptitiously wired during childhood, a quick trip into the online sexual wonderland can uncover it, nurture it, and turn it into an obsession.

Porn and Kids: The Great (or Not So Great) Social Experiment

So far, I’ve only talked about adult-life exposure to porn and the way in which it can reawaken the sexual wiring installed in childhood. But what about childhood exposure to porn? Can this actually create a person’s sexual wiring?

The answer to that question is that it most likely can, depending to a large extent on the individual and his/her genetics, environmental circumstances, and degree of exposure. However, as of now there is not a lot of scientific evidence to directly support this claim, meaning that it’s most just a theory. What we do know for certain is that adolescent brains are much more malleable (susceptible to rewiring) than adult brains. Furthermore, there is reason to believe this is even more true related to sexual stimuli, considering that a primary evolutionary task of adolescence is learning about sex. And when we add the intensity and endless variety of Internet porn to the mix? Frankly, it is possible that adolescents’ brains are rewiring to any and all of the sexual cues that they are finding online. And folks, they’re finding them all. In today’s world, sexual content of every ilk imaginable can easily and instantly be accessed by anyone who’s interested, regardless of age. In fact, current estimates place the average age of first porn use at 11. Because of this, as psychiatrist Norman Doidge states, “We are in the midst of a revolution in sexual and romantic tastes unlike any other in history, a social experiment being performed on children and teenagers.”

As of now, we don’t really know what the long-term outcome of this “social experiment” is going to be. However, the few credible studies that we do currently have rather strongly indicate that porn may indeed be rewiring kids’ brains in the same way that it awakens old wiring in adults’ brains. One study of 16-year-old boys found that 96% were using online porn, with 10% stating they were daily users. And the boys who used porn daily self-reported higher levels of risky sexual behaviors, relationship problems, truancy, smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use – all of which suggest that the brains of some adolescent porn users are being rewired to expect novelty, intensity, and constant stimulation, not just in the sexual arena but elsewhere. Another study shows that adolescent brains are more strongly affected than adult brains by highly arousing, constantly changing sexual stimuli (i.e., Internet porn), perhaps indicating the significant extent of the rewiring that is taking place.

It is important to point out, once again, that as of now we have only a very small amount of research, and that much more information is needed before we leap to alarming conclusions. Furthermore, the percentage of young people whose brains will rewire in problematic ways thanks to porn is likely to be relatively small – perhaps mirroring the percentage of young people whose brains rewire in problematic ways after early-life exposure to alcohol and/or illicit drugs. (For the most part, these are the kids who have always been vulnerable to various life problems – addictions, psychological disorders, and the like – thanks to a combination of genetics and unresolved childhood traumas.) The rest of the youth population – the significant majority – is likely to simply roll with the punches, letting their highly plastic brains evolve with the times, incorporating and enjoying technology (including digital sexuality) in healthy and productive ways, just as predecessor generations incorporated things like rock music and TV without widespread repercussions.

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