Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Your Brain on Porn and Understanding the Sex Addict

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This week, we are privileged to hear from Michael John Cusick, who wrote one of my favorite books for gaining insight into the mind of an addict. Michael is a licensed professional counselor, spiritual director, speaker, and author of several books. Having experienced the restoring touch of God's grace in his life and marriage, Michael serves as President and Founder of Restoring the Soul, a ministry offering intensive care to spiritual leaders and emerging leaders worldwide. Michael currently serves as an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary where he teaches on addictions, human sexuality, and spiritual formation.

Michael wrote Surfing for God: Discovering the Divine Desire Beneath Sexual Struggle, which was revolutionary for many men who were struggling with understanding the complexity of sexual addiction and the struggle to find freedom from pornography and addiction. I hope you find this article to be both instrumental and eye-opening for you and your spouse's journey through addiction and recovery.

If you were to ask a random man on the street to name his most important sex organ, the answer would be predictable. But sexual desire and arousal do not begin in the genitals.

A man's most important sex organ is his brain.

When changes occur in parts of the brain related to sex, it also changes the nature of our sexual desire and the ability to choose how to act upon it.

In the last decade, the field of neuroscience has exploded our understanding of the human brain. Recent discoveries have led us to understand that online pornography overstimulates the brain in at least four different ways. I briefly describe each of these below.

Four Ways Online Pornography Overstimulates the Brain:

1. By providing nearly constant novelty.

Our brains crave novelty, and the Internet provides an endless variety of novel sexual images. When I was a young man looking at magazine centerfolds, images lost their appeal within a short amount of time. But with online porn, new images are instantly available with the click of a mouse. With each new image, our limbic system releases a burst of dopamine, which tells us we gotta have it.

The connection between novelty and sexual arousal is well established by what scientists call the Coolidge effect. After dropping a male rat into a cage with a receptive female, researchers initially observed intense copulation between the rats. Eventually, the male rat exhausted himself; even when the willing female rat wanted more, he was spent.

Guess what happened next? When the original female was replaced with a new receptive female, the male rat immediately revived and began to copulate again. This pattern was repeated over and over until the male rat was literally exhausted. With the introduction of a novel sexual mate, this process will be repeated again and again until the male succumbs to exhaustion or death.

In the real world, even Hugh Hefner didn't enjoy an endless supply of women to revive his sexual capacities at any given time. But in the unreal world of online porn, new and ever more stimulating "mates" provide complete novelty without ever needing to step away from the computer.

As long as the novelty continues, the arousal continues - while dopamine fuels the desire engine. One man I recently spoke with averaged six hours a day viewing porn. In his case, every click on a new image released more dopamine, which inflamed his desire. You can see that a vicious cycle is set in place.

2. Because of an unlimited supply.

Internet porn overstimulates the brain because it provides no limits on the amount we can consume. In food and substance addictions, a person either runs out of the drug or food, or is physically unable to tolerate more. A man can eat only so many pizzas or smoke only so much crack before reaching the obvious limits. With Internet porn an infinite supply is available. And as long as a man has an internet connection, he can continue to binge. This is why it's not uncommon for addicted men to stay up all night viewing porn, and even lose track of time.

3. By sidestepping tolerance.

Tolerance occurs when a person needs more of the substance or activity to get the same effect. Over time, we grow increasingly tolerant to certain stimulants. With drugs and food, tolerance typically means eating or imbibing more frequently or consuming larger amounts. With internet porn, a man can overcome the tolerance effect two ways: he can increase the amount by spending more time viewing porn, or he can overcome his tolerance by escalating the intensity of the images he sees.

It's for this reason that men often move from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue to soft porn, from soft porn to hardcore porn, and finally from hardcore porn to degradation, bestiality, rape, or other scenes typically deemed repulsive and shocking. They do this not because they are predisposed to it, but because the strong emotions of shock, disgust, or shame provide the sought-after dopamine burst. Gravitating toward aberrant sexual behavior becomes the only way to get a fix.

4. Because it's on demand.

Unlike substances that require the user to arrange for a fix, a man carries a forever stash of porn in his mind without even turning on the computer. Every time the images come to mind, he experiences a burst of dopamine in his neuropathways. Not to mention most of us have instant access to online porn right in our pockets, just one right-swipe away.

Combine these four factors and you have a perfect storm brewing in the neurochemical sea of the brain. Over time, as the brain is overstimulated, physical and structural changes occur, and a man becomes addicted to his own brain chemistry.

Every addiction occurs because the brain has adapted to being overstimulated - too much dopamine. As a result of porn use, three troublesome changes occur in the brain.

Three Changes in the Brain from Overstimulation

1. Cravings

Cravings occur when dopamine (the "I want it" neurotransmitter) is released. When more dopamine is released, a person experiences cravings.

Cravings usually lead to viewing more porn. Viewing more porn leads to more dopamine being released. More dopamine leads to viewing more porn.

You get the picture - it's a potentially never-ending cycle.

2. Broken Reward Circuitry

In the center of the limbic system—the center of our urges and desires—there is a reward circuit flowing to the cerebral cortex—the rational part of the brain.

Ideally, this circuit works in harmony. When the limbic system urges you to have another piece of chocolate cake, the cerebral cortex reminds you that you can't fit into your jeans, so you say, "No, thanks."

In the case of a man whose brain is not yet addicted to porn, his limbic system may urge him to Google the words "naked women," but his cerebral cortex reminds him that his wife or girlfriend may not think highly of such an act.

Porn, however, throws the reward circuit off balance. Rather than complete the circuit in harmony, porn trips the circuit breaker, and disharmony occurs between the two systems.

When the "go for it" system is overloaded with excess dopamine, the "think about it" system responds by saying, "System overload!" and shuts down. Suddenly, rational thought is usurped by limbic impulse.

3. Numbed Pleasure Response

Across the synapse—the micro space between neurons—reward cells talk to one another through dopamine signaling. Dopamine, remember, is the message, and the receptors on the receiving nerve cells are the ears. When dopamine is released in large amounts or for long periods, two things happen simultaneously. First, the receiving nerve cells get overstimulated and start removing receptors. It's like when someone keeps shouting at you; you cover your ears. But the sending cells scream even louder (more dopamine) until they are hoarse, and can now only whisper (amount of dopamine sent is below normal). With the receiving cells half-deaf (fewer receptors) and the sending cells whispering (less dopamine released), you are left with two options: feeling awful, or finding porn, the one thing that now releases dopamine more than anything else. Low dopamine signaling leads to a numbed pleasure response and is known as desensitization. What this leads to is increased craving alongside decreased ability to experience satisfaction. It is precisely why men feel so helpless, so powerless, when they try to overcome their sexual addiction.

Addicts are always hungry, but never full.

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So, my takeaway from this

So, my takeaway from this article is that there is no hope for a man trapped in this addiction. As one who has been living with a spouse who has had a continued porn addiction for 26 years, as well as had several emotional and physical affairs, I guess I appreciate the honesty and truth displayed in this article. It definitely makes it clear that moving on is the best option. Thank you.

your takeaway....

Joyce, I'm so sorry that was your take away. I know Rick nor the staff would want that to be your takeaway. i think the article is more educational on what is going on inside the mind of an addict and what happens to their brain. there's only so much space on an article like this, but I assure you, change is possible. rewiring of the brain is possible at some level too when it comes to addiction. if your spouse is not committed or even willing to get help, then possibly, and sadly, it may be time to move on and pursue the next chapter in your life. but, if they are open, and willing to take action and get expert help, I'd be willing to bet there is hope indeed and change can happen. I'm sorry you are in so much pain and I don't want you to leave thinking there isn't any hope for you, your marriage or your spouse. there are a few things I'd recommend like our ems weekend, or hope for healing for your husband as those are excellent resources for him and for you. I hope you'll rethink moving on, unless of course, your spouse is unwilling to get help at all. very sorry for the impression you may have been left with.

This article made so much

This article made so much sense to me, as I have come to understand addiction since my husband is an alcoholic and gambling addict. He also has struggled with food, and has told me he has an addictive personality, but yet his porn use is only “occasional.” He is the BH, yet he became an UH with revenge affairs. Initial discovery was 2 years ago, and recovery has been unbelievably hard. I have been making strides in my own recovery and seeking self-love (knowing I only find it in God), but I still struggle with self-image and self-worth, and feeling like I’m not enough, especially after discovering he was looking at porn a week and a half ago. He dismisses it, saying that it’s not like he looks at it all the time. But given his addictive tendencies, and that he takes Xanax daily (not a good choice for an alcoholic, as I was told by a counselor at his last rehab stay) for his anxiety, which my infidelity caused, doesn’t it stand to reason that porn could just as easily become an addiction for him, considering it releases dopamine, just like every other drug of choice for him? To me, porn is just as hurtful and damaging as having an affair. I realize that is not everyone’s school of thought, but I truly struggle with feeling like I don’t measure up sexually and like I need to be more “porn-like” when he seeks out gratification from porn stars. (Plus, for one of his affairs, he had sex with a stripper, who is essentially a porn star in the flesh.)
I realize this thread is years old and I’m not sure if you’ll even see this, but I felt the need to ask anyway.
Thank you, Samuel, for all you and the folks at AR do. I don’t know if we would still be married if we hadn’t found your site.

Sex addict

I'd like to know how the sex addict cycle differs when the addict is taking sex hormones? He husband's affair partner is a pharmacist. She started by calling, sending numerous picutes of herself every morning and every evening, sex- texting throughout the day and sending him testosterone, steroids, Viagra, and Hgh ( without prescriptions). This while he worked away from home in North Dakota. When the affair began our children saw the immediate change in my husband. Constantly running to the bathroom to text, texting while we were in the car, sex texting while he and our daughter were on the sofa and she could see exactly what they were saying. He became very brazen with what he was doing. Our family could see the addiction take over his every thought. No longer could he be in the moment with the kids when on off time from work in North Dakota. He also started drinking heavily when away from home. So, I'd like to know if my husband is taking all the supplemental hormones and receiving incredible surges in dopamine, will the receptors response be the same? Since it's not his body making the dopamine will he continue to get the same initial "high"- fulfilling the craving?

Women get dopamine rushes too!

While it’s MOSTLY men who engage in pornography, this article sends the message that it’s ONLY men who get/crave dopamine bursts. Women do too. In my Hope 4 Healing course we learned these things and I want to encourage those women “who went back for more” knowing it was wrong. My spouse REFUSES to believe it was completely out of my control and that dopamine is a myth. In fact, I was just like an addict!! Please consider writing a FEMALE version of this. Thank you very much

While dopamine maybe be real,

While dopamine maybe be real, it is not “out of your control” to overcome it. This is where Rick and AR really loses credibility. So, you have a program stating you can “heal from this and heal from that,” the you Put out an article coddling people who have CHOSEN to fill their mind with filth. Then this is where Rick really misses the mark when he says you have two choices “feel awful or find porn.” OR their is the 3rd option, which is to “STOP.” It is about a CHOICE that is in your control. After all then, how do Porn addicts ever get healthy? How? They make the CHOICE to stop, get accountability, get a flip phone, own no computers, etc, etc.

Dopamine is not a myth, but the fact that you are saying it was “out of your control” is taking zero responsibility and blaming the “addiction” like it is a person other than you making your CHOICES!

I too believe that we always

I too believe that we always have a choice, but that choice gets harder when we become more tolerant of sin. That’s what I understood this article/video to be saying. God built into all of us a propensity to feel good when we have sex, it’s healthy in a marriage! That same “chemical reaction” can lead us down dark paths when we are lured by porn or illicit relationships. Then it becomes really, really difficult to make rational choices; it’s not impossible to choose health, but not as easy as it would have been had we never gone down that road.
I’m like that with sugar. I can go weeks without it if I steel my mind to stop, and eventually the cravings go away, but one piece of Halloween candy can throw me off for days. My example certainly isn’t as destructive as an affair or porn use, but an illustration of how failure begets more failure, especially when there is both a chemical and an emotional component. We always have a choice; but it seems that once addiction sets in it takes a soul-shaking disaster to jolt us into rationality. Then we have an upward battle. I’m sure that’s why scripture has plenty of warnings to avoid that initial temptation altogether. In the name of Jesus, get thee behind me satan!

Excellent information - thank

Excellent information - thank you for this clear presentation.
On the spiritual side of things, as I consider how God made and formed us, it’s clear that this design of our sexuality was meant so that we would bond closely with our spouse. I also see how the enemy of our souls works in our lives and uses our natural “healthy desires” to destroy us from the inside out. Porn is clearly one of his tools, he knows us too well.
In my husband’s and my story, porn played a role. What started as casual porn use a few years ago, led my husband to acting out in online affairs, and from there to a physical affair. That tolerance effect led to other types of addictive sexual behaviors. He isn’t struggling now, and hasn’t in the 9 months since D-day, so I don’t think it was ever a full addiction. It didn’t exist in the first 53 years of his life, just in the last 4, and it was an intermittent struggle. He says that he feels it could have easily gone down that road to a full fledged addiction if it had been allowed to continue, but with discovery God intervened on his behalf. He was certainly caught up in a cycle of shame and saw no easy way out. I think that along with the physical/chemical reaction to porn use, there is also an emotional reaction in our built-in shame response (our moral being). Shame drives us to hide from others, but porn makes us feel better momentarily; then that produces more shame, and so we need more porn. On and on it goes until we interrupt the cycle.

Disagree

Very disappointed. I read this as its ok to betray your spouse because you couldn't help it. What about all the hurt and pain they caused. Just forget it, it wasnt their fault, they chose that life. They made a deliberate decision to start looking at porn. It was a intentional act to betray their spiuses trust. There is no excuse for it.

Women and addiction

I too felt that as I watched this, what Wayne was saying could pertain to women also. I know it has for me. Everything that he says in this video I could understand and relate to. I have seen this take place in my life.
What I've come to learn about myself through a lot of hard work and help from SA and a sponsor is how far back my addiction goes. I am 55 years old and I began looking at porn when I was only 12 years old. That long ago, porn in magazines was not what it is today but that early in my life, it escalated to wanting more. I know that I was a functioning addict until the advent of the internet. Looking back now, I see the progression of wanting more and more of it. I now know that my infidelity actually began when my husband and I married over 30 years ago and I began to lie to him about my porn watching. It became my secret. Secret keeping is being unfaithful. I fed my addiction by also reading romance novels, which led to erotic novels which led to reading flat out porn. This addiction led me to meeting people online who were also addicts and we fed each other's addictions. I used people and discarded them when they no longer served my needs. When I needed more I moved on to sicker people. Through all of this, I began to disconnect from my husband. It did begin to consume my life. I did it at work and every chance I had. I stopped sleeping, I missed important things in our life. I opted to be with people who could feed my sickness rather than be at my son's college graduation or birthdays or vacations with my family. I couldn't stop, no matter how much I knew I needed to. My husband had so many dday's of actually walking in on me being unfaithful with people online. He couldn't take it anymore. I know that it was divine intervention that finally opened my eyes through a woman I didn't even know who heard my story and had the courage to come to me at a recovery program and tell me that what she heard was also her story and she had been free from her addiction for a year.
That was the beginning of my healing and recovery almost a year ago. It's taken the community of SA and AR to help heal me and our marriage. I know that without AR, my bh and I would not be together today. It was divine intervention that led him to AR because he also tried to heal himself without any help for years while I was still being unfaithful to him.
Sadly, not many women are told that they may have an addiction but I now know that it can happen for women the same way it can happen for men.

Does it ever stop?

Does the addiction and the urge for porn ever stop?? He just changed the context of what he views now. It went from videos and pictures to anything sexual that can be looked up but not named porn. Memes, gifs, photos, Facebook post, groups, etc. Other women in provocative pics, nasty memes, etc. It still hurts so bad. Can we please not tip toe around the truth of porn, the fact is is betrayal too!! It is cheating, it crushes hearts just as bad.