Your Brain on Porn

 

Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned

—Sharon Begley, Newsweek Science Editor1

Restart and reboot yourself. You’re free to go.

—U2, “Unknown Caller”2

“I know it’s not really true,” said Manny, “but it seems as if my brain has been conditioned by porn. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps.”

“Why do you say it’s not really true?” I asked.

“It’s like saying, ‘It’s not really my fault,’” he answered. “I can’t blame anyone or anything else for my problem. I’m supposed to trust God, right?”

“What if your brain really is conditioned to need porn?” I asked. “And what if acknowledging that meant that you were actually exercising faith?”

“Well, that would be pretty cool,” he said, chuckling. “I wouldn’t feel like such an absolute loser.”

My conversation with Manny is not unlike talks I’ve had with many men who have sincerely pursued recovering from porn addiction but who have not yet realized that porn physically changes the brain. Without understanding porn’s impact on the brain, too many men either quit trying to change or carry unnecessary guilt and shame when their spiritual zeal and willpower aren’t enough.

Any discussion about compulsive use of pornography is incomplete without understanding these physical changes. God created human beings in physical bodies, and David wrote of his own creation in the womb that he was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14). So are we. Defining ourselves and our problems in only spiritual terms not only is unbiblical but also hinders our recovery.

In the last decade, the field of neuroscience has exploded our understanding of the human brain. Recent discoveries have profound implications on treating various addictions and psychological disorders, and pursuing physical and emotional well-being. The consistent theme is that contrary to conventional wisdom, our brains are highly changeable.

When you fly on a major airline, your journey begins with a preflight announcement, which includes a review of the emergency procedure card in the back pocket in the seat in front of you. That card gives you important instructions about how to escape to safety in the event of emergency. You aren’t asked to master the finer details of airplane safety; you’re given basic instructions that could save your life if something goes wrong. My goal in this chapter is to give you the back-pocket version of how porn affects your brain, and how you can use this information to break free from porn’s grip on your brain.

Back in the day, a popular public service announcement on television touted the dangers of drug use. “This is drugs,” a man began, as the screen showed a sizzling skillet. “This is your brain on drugs,” the voice-over continued, as an egg is cracked into the hot skillet and is instantly fried. “Any questions?” the PSA concludes.3 Its meaning is clear. Behavioral addictions, like porn, affect the brain just like drugs—in all major respects.4

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How To Rewire Your Brain

One of the most profound discoveries in understanding the brain involves the concept of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that our brain changes as the result of experience. Porn changes the brain in an undesirable way. The man who doesn’t watch porn, or is not yet addicted, has yet to develop sensitized “weed-whacked” pathways. But the porn neuropathways of a man whose brain is addicted are weed-whacked and trampled down so that they have become the path of least resistance. But your brain can be changed in a positive and healthy direction. Rewiring your brain allows it to unlearn the addictive patterns and relearn impulse control. This occurs as the addictive “gotta have it” pathways are weakened and the “think about it” pathways are strengthened. Here’s how you can begin rewiring your brain.

Practice Intentional Thinking

What you think about is ultimately what you become. What we once called “the power of positive thinking” is increasingly backed by scientific evidence. The more attention your brain pays to a given input, the stronger and more elaborately it will be wired and retained in the brain.5 When we give our attention and focus to good things, like peace, joy, and self-control, our brains rewire themselves in a way that allows us to experience those good things. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to be intentional about what we give ourselves to?

With this in mind, consider the words of the apostle Paul: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8 UPDATED NIV).

When Scripture exhorts us to set our minds on good things, it concerns more than just the well-being of our souls. It also affects the well-being of our brains. Our neural circuitry forms itself around whatever we give our attention and focus to. That’s why Paul connected our transformation with the renewing of our minds: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

In the next chapter I discuss how you can practice focusing on what is pure, lovely, and admirable, in a way that rewires your brain to its original setting before porn—but better.

Pursue Alternate Passions

The famous philosopher, novelist, and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was right. We are shaped and fashioned by what we love. Certainly this applies to our brains. The life focus of a man struggling with porn leads to tunnel vision. When a man views porn on a regular basis, his passions are held captive, and he forfeits the ability to direct his life in the way he would otherwise choose.

Many men realize the importance of pursuing their passions. What is life-giving to your soul? What relationships have been affected by your use of porn? What enjoyable activities have stopped? Of all possible alternative passions, exercise is the most crucial. Studies show that exercise increases dopamine receptors, therefore helping to rewire the brain.6 Another study showed that the number one behavior associated with successful substance abuse recovery was exercise.7 If you have not been physically active in the past with some form of exercise, it’s important that you begin. Don’t assume you have to join a health club or sign up for the Ironman Triathlon. You can walk, hike, or ride a bike. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Recent attention has been given to children and adults who suffer from NDD, or nature deficit disorder, as a result of spending too much time online or engaged in electronic media. Avoid this disorder by interacting with the outdoors in the sunshine, fresh air, and natural beauty of God’s creation. Get out and move! Pursuing alternative passions expands your horizons and rewires your brain at the same time.

Employ the Power of Repetition

Studies show that repeated behaviors, over time, cause structural changes in the brain. These changes can be negative—causing compulsion and addiction. Or they can be positive—rewiring the brain so the stimuli of porn and lust are no longer a reflexive reaction. Repetition helps lock behaviors in the brain in the same way an athlete develops muscle memory. Or consider a concert pianist. When performing, he never thinks, Now I will reach my left hand exactly seven inches to the right while simultaneously moving my right hand two inches to the left. Instead, the pianist’s brain has learned to bypass the conscious cognitive step and follow a learned response.

So be encouraged. Your struggle with porn is a learned response, in many ways, just like the skills of a pianist or athlete. Your brain can unlearn, and it can change.8

1. Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007), 9.
2. U2, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois, “Unknown Caller,” on U2’s No Line on the Horizon (album), produced by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite, 2009.
3. Partnership for a Drug-Free America, “Brain on Drugs” (public service announcement), viewable on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dk9XY8Nrs0A&feature=related.
4. American Society of Addiction Medicine, Public Policy Statement, Definition of Addiction, August 15, 2011, http://www.asam.org/About.html.
5. John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008).
6. Marta G. Vucckovic et al., “Exercise elevates dopamine D2 receptor in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease in vivo imaging with (18F) fallypride (2010),” Movement Disorders, vol. 25, issue 16, 2777–84, 15 December 2010.
7. Chen Hsiun lng, et al., “Long term compulsive exercise reduces the rewarding efficacy of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine,” Behav Brain Res., 2008 Feb 11;187(1):185–9. Epub 2007 Sep 16.
8. I am grateful to Gary Wilson for allowing me to liberally draw from his collected research and simplified scientific explanations. His website http://yourbrainonporn.com is an invaluable resource.

Excerpted with permission from Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle by Michael John Cusick, copyright Michael John Cusick, 2012.

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Your Turn

Is pornography an issue for you or someone you know? How does it encourage you to know that the minds God gave us can be renewed and rewired? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

 

Michael John Cusick

Michael John Cusick is an ordained minister, spiritual director, and licensed professional counselor who has experienced firsthand the restoring touch of God in a deeply broken life and marriage. Michael founded Restoring the Soul, a ministry whose mission is to provide life changing soul care to Christian leaders. Michael's passion through 25 years of ministry is to connect life’s broken realities with the healing power of the gospel.

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