Arousal Addiction and Porn

Arousal addiction, a concept that Phil Zimbardo and I presented in the TED eBook Demise of Guys and later Man (Dis)connected, refers to seeking out novelty in order to achieve or maintain a high level of arousal. Unlike alcohol or drug addiction, where someone wants more of the same alcohol or drug, a person that exhibits addictive behavior with arousing activities like video games or porn craves material that is constantly changing. Simply put, it is like saying, “give me the same but different.”

Over time, the things that turned a porn addict on when they first started watching will no longer turn them on the same way. This is because the old porn is not creating the same level of arousal. If an image or scene isn’t doing it for them they will then look for newness, variety, surprise factor in the content, more hard-core and stranger material, anything they haven’t seen in order to attain a sexual climax. Sameness is soon habituated; differentness is attention sustaining, even if it means morphing porn tastes that don’t line up with a person’s sexual orientation.

The porn industry is supplying a virtually endless variety of variety via online instant streaming; so porn addicts can always get their “fix.” Arousal addiction traps users into an expanded present hedonistic time zone during this quest for the fix. Past and future are distant and remote as the present moment expands to dominate everything. And that present is totally dynamic, with images changing constantly.

Brains on porn are being digitally rewired in a totally new way to demand change, novelty, excitement, and constant stimulation. Pornography is a dopamine-producing machine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with activation of the brain’s reward system. Its presence helps initiate feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. Rewarding experiences such as eating, taking drugs, and having sex release dopamine into two main brain regions: the nucleus accumbens and the frontal cortex. However, once a person develops an addiction, the dopamine pathways become pathological.

Neutral stimuli and events that are associated with the addictive substance or its process, such as gambling casinos or drug-taking sequences, can become conditioned to generate further arousal and add to the body’s chemical addiction. When excessive porn viewing becomes addictive, the brain lights up as if it were on heroin. The more aroused you are, the higher your dopamine level. The higher your dopamine, the more you crave something.

Though the impact of arousal addiction on behavior and physiological responses is going to vary from individual to individual, it is worth examining the potential physiological, mental, and emotional effects of watching too much of porn because few people consider how it is affecting their brains and their ability to become aroused during porn-watching sessions and in real-life sexual encounters.

The subtle and not so subtle effects of arousal addiction can negatively impact any part of a person’s life that are analog, static, involve planning, delaying gratification, and long-term goal setting (i.e. romantic relationships, school, job). People we’ve spoken with that demonstrated signs of arousal addiction feel very anxious in social situations in general, have less motivation to set and complete goals, feel out of control, and even discussed suicide.

Other symptoms can include erectile dysfunction (ED), performance anxiety, desensitization, brain fog, and depression. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “regular porn users are more likely to report depression and poor physical health than nonusers… The reason is that porn may start a cycle of isolation… Porn may become a substitute for healthy face-to-face interactions, social or sexual.” Guys themselves are even starting to talk about how porn has personally affected them, and what happens when they stop.

Before high-speed Internet people consumed porn much differently. Arousal addiction wouldn’t have been as possible as it is today. 60 years ago it was small photos in National Geographic. 30 years ago it was flipping through spreads in a Playboy or Penthouse magazine, or going to a theatre specifically for adult films. 20 years ago it was a pile of VHS tapes, and 10 years ago it was a burned DVD mix of selected clips. But today, you can have as many windows open as you want on your computer screen and all you have to do is click between them.

Everyone can remember the first sexual image or movie they saw, it leaves an ever-lasting impression. So if you’re a young sexually inexperienced person growing up watching hard-core porn (really, any person watching a lot of hard-core porn), and you masturbate exclusively to it, imagine how that will affect your future sexual experiences. If you’ve trained your brain and body to become aroused by hard-core porn scenes, most likely real-life sex partners will not turn you on nearly as much as they would if you hadn’t watched porn. You might objectively find the other person attractive, but they won’t physically or mentally arouse you.

If you’re a guy, you very well could have trouble becoming aroused or getting or maintaining an erection (i.e. erectile dysfunction, or porn-induced erectile dysfunction). Provided you’re in good physical health, a simple test (recommended by Gary Wilson of YourBrainOnPorn) is for you is to masturbate to your favorite porn on one occasion, and then, on another occasion masturbate without porn and without fantasizing about porn. If your erections and time it took you to reach climax is stronger with porn, or if you had difficulty reaching orgasm without porn, you may have a porn problem. Healthy young men should not have any trouble getting or maintaining a full erection and then masturbating to orgasm regardless of whether they are watching porn or not. (Just a note, if you still had a strong erection and orgasm while masturbating without porn, but have trouble with a real-life partner, you most likely have anxiety-related erectile dysfunction. See more causes of erectile dysfunction here.)

In relationships you may find yourself aroused at first (because of the partner’s newness), yet after several months of being intimate with the same person, you might find that they no longer turn you on. Dopamine, as mentioned above, is also the basis for the motivation to achieve your desires, and in the context of sex, it’s central to sexual desire and erections. An erection won’t happen if there is not enough dopamine to signal the reward circuitry. Dopamine skyrockets with novelty, so with every new sexual partner or sex scene, you are getting another surge of dopamine. If your dopamine starts to decline – that is, your erection starts to dwindle – you just click on something else to boost yourself back up. And with Internet porn, there is always something new, exciting, or shocking. Watch enough porn and your reward circuitry will essentially get burned out because it has been overstimulated by your dopamine system and thus become less responsive. At this point you become dependent on new porn, because you need more and more stimulation to become aroused and get an erection. Eventually, the porn pathway in your brain becomes so strong that you are no longer sensitive to normal or usual stimuli, such as sex with a real person. Viagra or Cialis won’t help these problems no matter how old you are, because they only dilate the blood vessels to sustain an erection, not create one. The brain needs to be aroused first; without arousal, nothing can happen. And that’s what porn does over time – it kills the arousal response. If you think you may have porn-induced ED check out these links to YourBrainOnPorn here and here.

Also, check out this documentary (and study) on porn addiction:

Overcoming arousal addiction can be simple, but not necessarily easy. A lot of people have found success with the Reboot program on YourBrainOnPorn and support on the No Fap forum on Reddit. This article isn’t meant to address addicts though. Mostly, I’d just like to put information out there about arousal addiction so more people think about how porn can affect them. One guy in his early 20s commented when we were writing Demise, “Growing up, people told me to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes because they were addictive, so I didn’t use any of it. But no one told me to watch out for porn. Now my sex life is suffering.” It doesn’t have to be like that. If you watch porn, ask yourself how much of what you’re attracted was influenced by porn. Clarify your relationship with porn so you can avoid its downsides. If you want to get aroused by being with people, porn can be a part of your fantasy life, just not the whole thing.

– Nikita