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

Your Brain on Porn and Understanding the Sex Addict

This week we are privileged to hear from Michael John Cusick, a gentleman 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 booksHaving 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 for at least four different reasons. I briefly describe each of these below.

Online porn overstimulates the brain 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 doesn’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.

Online porn overstimulates the brain 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.

Online porn overstimulates the brain 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.

Online porn overstimulates the brain 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.

Overstimulation Leads to 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.

Overstimulation Leads to 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.

Overstimulation Leads to 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.

 

If you are struggling to find hope in addiction, I’d encourage you to consider our Hope for Healing course for the unfaithful spouse. Hope for Healing is a safe place with practical solutions designed to help you find freedom and understanding. Remember, if you’re wondering what you can do right now to start the recovery journey, take a look at our free seven day First Steps Bootcamp.

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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.

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?

What type of affair was it?

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