Porn: Take It Seriously, Guys…

Catherine Lewis

It’s Saturday morning and you’re at brunch with your best friend Curtis, when he suddenly confesses “I think I have an addiction…”* Your heart sinks, but you’ve heard about AA and NA and other groups that help deal with these things.  As you open your mouth to offer your unwavering support in his time of need, he blurts out “I think I’m addicted to porn”.*

You fight the urge to burst out laughing.  Porn?  You can’t become addicted to porn.

Research suggests that you might be wrong.  A recent study shows that men with a form of compulsive sexual behavior called problematic pornography use (PPU) demonstrate neural and behavioral similarities to individuals with substance and gambling addictions.  The ventral striatum is an area of the brain involved in motivation and reward processing, and previous studies have shown that addicts demonstrate increased activity in this area in response to cues signaling the object of their addiction.  Men with PPU showed this same response to cues predicting erotic photographs.

Researchers designed this study in the form of a game, in which the rewards were either money, or an erotic picture.  Individuals were placed in two groups, men with PPU, and men without. Participants’ ventral striatal activity was measured throughout the experiment.  During the first stage, participants were given a cue of either a dollar sign or a symbol of a woman, indicating the type of reward they would receive after the game. What was the game?  To identify if the next picture shown was a triangle or a square.  During this second stage, reaction times indicated participants’ level of motivation.  The participant would then provide a rating of their reward on a scale of 1-9.

Ultimately, men with PPU showed higher ventral striatal activity when they were viewing cues associated with an erotic reward.  Due to this higher striatal activity, their reaction times in the game were shorter than men without PPU.  However, these two groups did not differ in striatal activity or rating in response to the actual reward.  Researchers define ‘wanting’ as a response to the anticipation of a reward, whereas ‘liking’ is a response to the actual experienced reward.  PPU participants’ shorter reaction times demonstrate a increased level of motivation, indicating a higher level of ‘wanting’.  The finding that there was no difference between the two groups in terms of response to the rewards, however, means that their levels of ‘liking’ were the same.

 

It is this disconnect between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ that is typical of addicts, and suggests that yes, it is possible to be addicted to pornography.  So there is reason to be concerned for your friend Curtis.

I know it’s overwhelming, but there is hope!  Researchers hypothesize that identifying Curtis’ PPU triggers, and working to separate them from pornography may help treat his addiction.

So the next time Curtis brings up his porn addiction, remember his condition is serious but potentially treatable.

References: Gola, M., Wordecha, M., Sescousse, G., Starowicz, M., Kossowski, B., Wypych, M., . . . Marchewka, A. (2017). Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use. Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use, 1-11. doi:10.1038/npp.2017.78

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