Super-Novelty: Your Brain on Pornography
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
It was the coolest Lego helicopter ever! Rex played with it intently as his sister looked longingly at his new birthday toy. Rex could shoot the laser and soar his Lego pilot into the highest heights of the living room skies. Whenever Rex left it on the table, his sister caressed her hands over it and took it on a quick test flight, until . . .
“Mom, she is playing with my toy without permission!”
The helicopter, the source of contentment and contention in the living room for the next few days, was the children’s primary focus. When Grandpa brought Rex a new remote-control racecar, a late birthday present, then suddenly all the glory of the helicopter paled in comparison to the newest toy. Again, the sibling attention and contention hovered around the newest racecar. The helicopter sat sadly on the shelf.
Humans are extremely good at something called habituation. Habituation is defined as, "the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus." Humans get used to smells, sights, sounds and other stimulus after an extended period, and we begin to tune it out or ignore it. We often are drawn to more novel or exciting stimulus around us as things become dull and repetitive.
But what if there was a way that you could get unlimited novelty—that new racecar or helicopter—at the click of a mouse? How might that affect a person?
Internet pornography can be perpetually more novel and exciting, but this kind of super-novel stimulus can lead to the danger of addiction. When the brain has access to continual novelty (in this case newer more exciting sexual images) then your brain starts to desire more novelty and at a faster rate than before.
While compulsive Internet pornography users show stronger preference for novel sexual images than healthy controls, their dACC (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) also shows more rapid habituation to images than healthy controls, fueling the search for more novel sexual images.[i]
Due to the nature of the internet, finding more new and exciting images is easy, so easy that it starts to change the brain’s reward system. A 2015 study on novelty and habituation in compulsive Internet pornography users found that “the seemingly endless supply of novel sexual images available online [can feed an] addiction, making it more and more difficult to escape.”[ii] Not only that, but the correlation between pornography use and sexual dysfunction are widely studied and confirmed.[iii]
The good news is that a 2014 study showed that as soon as eight months of stopping all pornography use, patients who had had difficulties in their sexual performance due to pornography addiction, began to have healthy sexual relationships again.[iv] Reversing the negative affects of pornography use is possible! Addictions are not hopeless and returning to a healthy brain reward system as well as healthy sexual function can happen.
Rex had easily obtained his helicopter without effort, but what might happen when there is the delayed gratification for a reward of a greater value? What if he had worked months to buy that helicopter himself? How might his attachment to his helicopter change?
In a 2015 study, it found that giving up pornography for three weeks helped participants delay immediate gratification, even more so than a control group that gave up their favorite food![v] It is important to realize that real-life sometimes requires sacrifice, delayed rewards, hard work, and less-than-ideal circumstances. Things that require effort often bring the most valuable connections.
Pornography is only an internet connection, and this bonding is counterfeit to the real world. It has limitless novelty, ease of access, unusual expectations that don’t translate to the real-life partners.[vi] These internet partners do not get old, have a bad day, or make demands.
Real-life relationships—although sometimes difficult—are the true connections: This paradox seems to be lost in our novel-seeking world. The sacrifice and hard work is needed to fuel the true, long-lasting love. This kind of love doesn’t turn off, either, when the computer shuts down!
[i] Banca, P.; Morris, L.S.; Mitchell, S.; Harrison, N.A.; Potenza, M.N.; Voon, V. Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards. J. Psychiatr. Res. 2016, 72, 91–101 [ii] University of Cambridge. Online porn may feed sex addicts’ desire for new sexual images. Available online: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/online-porn-may-feed-sex-addicts-desire-for-new-sexualimages (accessed August 15, 2022.) [iii] By: Park, Brian Y.; Wilson, Gary; Berger, Jonathan; Christman, Matthew; Reina, Bryn; Bishop, Frank; Klam, Warren P.; Doan, Andrew P. Is internet pornography causing sexual dysfunctions? A review with clinical reports. Behavioral Sciences (2076-328X). Sep2016, Vol. 6 Issue 3, pbs6030017-bs6030017. 25p. DOI: 10.3390/bs6030017 [iv] Bronner, G.; Ben-Zion, I.Z. Unusual masturbatory practice as an etiological factor in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual dysfunction in young men. J. Sex. Med. 2014, 11, 1798–1806. [v] Negash, S.; Sheppard, N.V.N.; Lambert, N.M.; Fincham, F.D. Trading Later Rewards for Current Pleasure: Pornography Consumption and Delay Discounting. J. Sex Res. 2015, 1–12. [vi] By: Park, Brian Y.; Wilson, Gary; Berger, Jonathan; Christman, Matthew; Reina, Bryn; Bishop, Frank; Klam, Warren P.; Doan, Andrew P. Is internet pornography causing sexual dysfunctions? A review with clinical reports. Behavioral Sciences (2076-328X). Sep2016, Vol. 6 Issue 3, pbs6030017-bs6030017. 25p. DOI: 10.3390/bs6030017