THE CHEMICALS BEHIND THE ADDICTION...
Just imagine you’re shredding the slopes
as a foot of awesome powder flies up around you. Now you’re face to face with
someone, experiencing the anticipation just before your lips touch theirs for
the first time. Now you’re base-jumping with the wind rushing at your body as
you free fall towards the ground. And now you’re alone, looking at pornography
on your computer.
Every day you have experiences like these, but one of these things is not like the others. Check out how this works—there are four main chemicals your body produces that help you feel good: Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Oxytocin, and Serotonin. Now I know this isn’t chemistry class, so we’ll keep this simple. When you’re out doing what you do, your brain releases these chemicals to give you a rush, or make you bond with people or remember the details of a moment.
While the chemicals are busy helping you feel good, your body and mind are linking that feeling to what you’re doing. Basically, it’s these chemicals, and the associations they reflect, that keep you coming back for more. Now that’s cool when the experiences are good things like adventures, or hobbies, or healthy sex, but when the experience is viewing pornography, the end result can get pretty ugly.
First up is Dopamine. Dopamine does a lot of things from helping you focus and learn to helping you control the movement of your body. But it usually is talked about as a pleasure chemical. Dopamine engages the reward-learning systems in the brain, so it’s also a kind of learning chemical (8). When you’re doing something cool, it rewards you with feelings of excitement, pleasure, and arousal (2)(6)(7), while simultaneously “taking notes” on what’s happening, so you can remember how to do it again.
This chemical is awesome in a relationship! When you have sex with someone you care about, Dopamine kicks in to help you focus on THEM, their positive characteristics stand out, they become more attractive to you, and you develop a healthier relationship (3).
When you use an image to trigger the release of Dopamine, there isn’t an actual person involved for you to focus on, so you end up focusing on the sex act and sex organs. You learn to look at others as objects and forget about their personality, talents, quirks, etc. Porn also releases exaggerated levels of dopamine, possibly due to the longer anticipatory stage and increased novelty (9,10). This means more gas, more seeking behavior. And what’s more it stops the release of prolactin (11), which is a “breaking” chemical that helps you feel full or done. [More on Prolactin below] A lot of gas and no breaks sounds like a problem.
This chemical may sound like the name of a new metal band (hey, that’s actually not a bad idea), but it’s really what gives you an adrenaline rush and makes your heart pound. The details of whatever you’re doing when this chemical is released are seared into your brain so you easily remember them later (2,6). They help make you hyper-aware of novelty and increase your general awareness as well (12,13).
Simply put, Norepinephrine makes sex exciting. When you’re having sex, it’s this chemical that makes your heart beat faster and creates a lasting memory of your time with that person.
When you use porn, Norepinephrine is released (14), making the images hard to forget. When you remember the image and the experience, there’s no personal connection, which can make you feel lonely and even worthless. The strong memories also make it hard to stay away from pornography, which can make for a vicious cycle.
This chemical helps connect you to your family. In fact, it’s what creates the bond between a mom and a newborn baby (15). The craziest thing is that Oxytocin helps people fall in love. (But don’t bother trying to put it in a potion or a bottle or anything—it doesn’t work. I’m not going to tell you how I know, I just know.) Oxytocin is released when people hold hands, embrace, and kiss (16). It is correlated with trust and decreases in anxiety (17). But it isn’t just about love, it’s about tuning us into social information so we can analyze it more appropriately.
When you have sex, kiss, cuddle, hold hands, etc., Oxytocin is released, making the bond between you stronger. When you have sex, a tidal wave of Oxytocin is released at climax. This helps you relax and creates an emotional bond between you and your partner as your fear decreases and your trust increases (4)(6).
When your “relationship” is being carried on with an image, there’s not as much social information to take in, but some oxytocin is still released at orgasm. The momentary feelings of contentment and calmness brought on by oxytocin can lead you back topornography when you need an emotional connection or to relieve stress. The problem is that an image will never fill your need for a relationship, or even a friendship, as effectively as a real person. Real people hit all of the oxytocin “hot buttons.”
Prolactin does a lot of things, it’s a very active little molecule. The root of the word is to encourage lactation, but it has a range of other effects from affecting hair growth to promoting brain development. In sexual process it surges after orgasm and acts to inhibit dopamine (11) in order to bring about feelings of satiety, or feeling done, just like with feeling full after a large meal.
After sex with a partner, prolactin is released in large amounts to bring the act to an end and begin a period of rest and satiety. Along with oxytocin, it enhances the sense of togetherness with another person.
Prolactin released after a heterosexual activity is 4 times higher than the amount released after self-stimulation to pornography (18). This means that real sex makes you feel 4 times more satisfied than pornography does. If you’re getting more dopamine and less prolactin than usual, you can see how pornography can quickly become repetitive and difficult to control.
Last up is the calming chemical. A lot of times people call Serotonin the “natural Prozac” because it helps you feel happy, calm, satisfied, and relieved of stress (4,6). Like prolactin, serotonin is generally inhibitory to dopamine and is released to signal the end of a sexual act (19).
Following sexual climax with a partner, the release of Serotonin relaxes you and makes you feel satisfied. You attribute those good feelings with your partner and you remember and associate that feeling with them.
When you regularly view porn, you may begin using it to self-medicate when you’re feeling blue, or to escape the trials and pressures of life. A lot of porn users can’t even fall asleep unless they’ve had their porn fix, because the release of Serotonin helps them relax and sleep. That’s why pornography becomes a lot of people’s “drug of choice.”
When it comes down to it, this natural chemical stuff is pretty cool. The coolest part is that there are lots of awesome ways, including sex, that your brain releases these chemicals that make you feel great. And when you choose to avoid pornography, you choose to avoid all of the negative feelings, emotions, and hassles that come with it. That leaves you free to live your life and experience it on your terms, without letting addiction hold you back.
- 1) Bryson, Bill; A Short History of Nearly Everything; Broadway Books, NY (2003).
- 2) Fisher, H. Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2004, p. 52-53.
- 3) Hyde, R.F., Christensen, B., (2010). The Brain science behind pornography addiction. The White Paper Series, Retrieved December 2010 from www.candeocan.com
- 4) Kastleman, M.B. (2007). The drug of the new millennium: The brain science behind internet pornography use. Provo, UT: PowerThink Publishing
- 5) Kurlansky, Mark; Salt: A World History, Walker Publishing Co., Inc, NY (2004).
- 6) Lemonick, M.D., The Chemistry of Desire, Time Magazine, January 19, 2004.
- 7) Wise, R.A. Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 5, 483-494 (2004).
- 8) Montague, R. (2006). Your brain is (almost) perfect: How we make decisions. New York: Penguin Group.
- 9) Redgrave, P., & Gurney, K. (2006). "The short-latency dopamine signal: a role in discovering novel actions?". Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7 (12): 967–975.
- 10) Previc, F. (2009). The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- 11) Ben-Jonathan, N., Hnasko, R. (2001). "Dopamine as a Prolactin (PRL) Inhibitor". Endocrine Reviews 22 (6): 724–763.
- 12) Yu, A. J.; Dayan, P. (2005). "Uncertainty, neuromodulation, and attention". Neuron 46 (4): 681–92.
- 13) Johnson, R.; Jr (1993). "On the neural generators of the P300 component of the event-related potential". Psychophysiology 30 (1): 90–97.
- 14) Kruger, THC, Schiffer, B., Eikermann, M., Haake, P., Gizewski, E., & Schedlowski, M. (2006). Serial neurochemical measurement of cerebrospinal fluid during the human sexual response cycle. European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 24, pp. 3445–3452.
- 15) Lee, H.J., Macbeth, A.H., Pagani, J.H., & Young, W.S. (June 2009). "Oxytocin: the Great Facilitator of Life". Progress in Neurobiology, 88, (2): 127–51.
- 16) Marazziti, D., Dell'Osso, B., Baroni, S. et al. (2006). "A relationship between oxytocin and anxiety of romantic attachment". Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health 2: 28.
- 17) Zak, P.J. (2012). The moral molecule. New York: Penguin Group.
- 18) Brody, S., & Kruger, THC. (2006). The post-orgasmic prolactin increase following intercourse is greater than following masturbation and suggests greater satiety. Biological Psychology, 71, 312–315.
- 19) Hull, EM, Lorrain, DS, Du, J, Matuszewich, L, Lumley, LA, Putnam, SK, & Moses, J. (1999). Hormone-neurotransmitter interactions in the c
- The Addiction Cycle
- Scientific Explanations of Addiction
- THE CHEMICALS BEHIND THE ADDICTION
- THE BRAIN & ADDICTION
- HOW IS PORNOGRAPHY REALLY A DRUG??
- COMPARING PORNOGRAPHY TO A HARD DRUG
- Choice Points: Stepping Out of the Addiction Cycle
- What Are the Effects of Pornography Anyway?
- STAGES OF ADDICTION & HOPELESSNESS
- UNCONTROLLABLE CONSUMPTION
- How We Got Here Part 4: The Media’s Drive for Higher Profits
- How We Got Here Part 3: Advancements in Technology
- How We Got Here Part 2: Slow Cultural Shifts
- How We Got Here Part 1: A Lack of Education and Awareness on the True Effects of Pornography
- PORN & RELATIONSHIPS
- PORN AND SEXUAL CRIME