The Dopamine Factor in Porn


In 2016, I published my book “Overcoming Porn”. At this time, it has sold over 20,000 copies even though I did little advertising and published it only in e-book format.

Over the next month, I will be excerpting selected portions for this blog. This second article reviews the role that dopamine plays when people use porn.

Porn does stimulate the production of dopamine, but in a much different way than opioids and chocolate. This difference changes the way we must approach kicking this habit.

To understand how porn causes unique brain reactions, we need to review a few things about how the brain works. At this juncture, it would be best to discard most of the metaphors you have ever heard about the brain. It is not a telephone switching system or a complex computer. There are no switches in the brain. You don’t remember things the way a computer does. There are no memory banks ready to spew out information like a laptop.

The brain is a complex chemical soup, able to differentiate between chemicals which some laboratory instruments could not detect. There are hundreds of different chemicals rolling around in the brain, and each of these can affect how you react to information and how you perceive the world. Every time your external senses detect something, the brain releases chemicals from the end of neurons to signal other neurons how to react. You do this a million times an hour, billions of times in a month.

I don’t want to get too technical, but this next part is crucial. Electricity is produced in the brain via biochemical reactions. These reactions take place in the tiny gaps between neurons called Synapses. The signal is carried across the gap by chemicals. When the chemical hits a receptor on the other side, it causes the message to be carried electrically down the next neuron to the next synapse. Think of Paul Revere passing word about the coming of the Redcoats. Your brain sends signals by chemical Paul Reveres.

When you remember something, your brain sends similar electrical signals down the same neural pathways as when you first experienced it. That allows you to see something again in your brain even though your eyes are not seeing it any more. You can remember a smell from the last time you smelled it. You can even have an itch in a place which isn’t there anymore.

Dr. Norman Doidge in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself” claims the brain is so powerful, it can re-create realities which no longer exist. He has written several chapters concerning people who have lost limbs. It is common knowledge people can have phantom pain in limbs which have already been removed. This is because pain is determined by the brain, not by the arm or leg. Pain is an electrical response from the brain to the area of the body which should be feeling pain. But what if that area of the body is no longer there?

It doesn’t matter. The brain still sends the signal for a while because it doesn’t know there aren’t nerve endings there. The shoulder still has the nerves even though they don’t extend all the way down the missing arm. In the brain, there is a neural group which remembers where the arm was through chemicals. Those chemicals keep being produced long after the arm is gone.

People who have lost limbs say the most annoying part, after the pain subsides, is the itchy feeling. The lost limb feels itchy but, of course, they have no way to scratch it. So, a San Diego engineer developed something called a “Mirror Box”. The person with the missing arm puts the intact arm in the box. The box shows the person two arms; one is real and one is a mirror image of it on the other side. Here is the amazing part. They can scratch the existing arm and because the person sees the mirror image being scratched, it appears as if their missing arm is being scratched. At that point, the brain stops sending the signal telling the arm it is itchy.

What this tells us is if we are going to solve a brain problem we must understand what the brain is doing and then figure out how to get it to stop.

Porn is certainly a brain problem as much as it is a mental health or addiction problem. Just as we can cure the itch on a missing limb, so too we can cure the itch which porn delivers, an itch from a phantom sexual partner.

Dopamine is the key to the problem and therefore key to the solution also. As we said before, dopamine is produced in the brain as a reinforcement when the brain wants to remember something. If your brain likes what you’re experiencing, dopamine transmitters put out lots of dopamine. This is what makes heroin so potentially dangerous.

But the brain handles psychological stimuli differently than chemicals like heroin. With porn, when a person begins to view it and gets sexually turned-on, the brain does produce a good amount of dopamine. That continues for a short while and then something unusual happens. The brain stops producing dopamine when you use porn. You can’t get the same reaction from your body after a while. The reason is quite simple: Your brain will only produce dopamine when something happens it doesn’t expect.

A now-famous study done in 1990 by Wolfram Schultz introduced this concept to the world. They fed high-sugar juice to rats and watched the dopamine receptors fire in their brains. But after a half dozen times, even though the rats still went after the juice, the dopamine receptors stopped firing. Why?

The brain had already created a pathway for it and no more dopamine was needed. In order for more dopamine to be produced, there had to be some unexpected results. When they added a small bit of meat to the juice, dopamine was fired again. The implications of this for porn use are huge.

The same thing happens in the brain of a porn user. At first, when they view porn and masturbate to orgasm, the brain produces all the chemicals associated with pleasure. Dopamine is then produced to help the brain crave that same experience again. But after several times of using porn, the brain is no longer surprised by what it sees. Therefore, there is no more dopamine produced. Because there is no more dopamine, the experience feels predictable and flat. What does the porn user do?

They view more explicit and unexpected porn. They gradually prefer more violent, more aggressive, more novel types of porn. This explains why almost all porn users eventually view porn which reaches far outside of their own experience. Bondage porn, animal porn, group sex, etc. all stimulate the dopamine production because they feature unexpected elements.

At some point, no matter how unexpected the porn, the brain stops producing dopamine. The other chemicals produced during orgasm (i.e. norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, nitric oxide, and the hormone prolactin) are still there, but in ever-diminishing amounts. Curiously, this is not true of person-to-person sexual encounters. Because dopamine plays such a small role in personal intimacy between people, the biochemical bonds are not nearly as addictive as they are with porn.

After a while, the brain does not produce dopamine as often to reinforce porn use. But then something even more bizarre happens. Because of the constant use of dopamine, the brain actually ‘turns off’ dopamine receptors the longer a person uses porn. This has a devastating effect. The more you use porn, the less you can get excited about other things in your life which used to produce pleasure. At some point, the only thing which excites you is porn.

We’ll talk more about dopamine when we explore solutions to these problems. The good news is recent studies in neuroplasticity demonstrate these effects in the brain can be reversed.

Excerpted from my book “Overcoming Porn” (2016, Mike Phillips Publishing). Available on Barnes and Noble and Amazon in e-book format.