The Pull Towards Porn

Molly Byrne

Pornography is becoming more and more common with its accessibility, but for some it is less innocent than an outlet for a lonely soul. Some people use pornography to the point where it interrupts other aspects of their lives. They can’t stop viewing porn, at work, at home; they even ignore people to spend more time using porn. These people are characterized as having Problematic Pornography Use (PPU). PPU is not medically considered a behavioral addiction, but if it was, this classification could help doctors develop treatment. To determine whether PPU is an addiction, scientists first have to prove that PPU involves brain processes similar to other more common examples of addiction, like drug addiction.

Drug addiction is characterized by a strong desire for drugs, but not necessarily increased pleasure of the drug itself. The unconscious, physical urge to get a reward is called ‘wanting’. This is different from the regular use of the word wanting, which includes conscious desires; like wanting to do work to make money. ‘Liking’, the unconscious pleasure you get from consuming a thing, like the taste of a cookie, is different from conscious liking, which could involve more complicated pleasure, like accomplishment. ‘Wanting’ and ‘liking’ seem hard to differentiate, because usually a person would ‘want’ a thing they ‘liked’, but scientists have found that this isn’t necessarily true.

Drug addicts show levels of ‘wanting’, much higher than a person who is not addicted to drugs, but they indicate the same amount of actual pleasure, or ‘liking’ of the drug do non-addicts. If PPU was an addiction in the same way, then it would be expected that PPU patients ‘want’ erotic imagery more than the general population but ‘like’ it a similar amount.

Neuroimaging has shown that a part of the brain called the ventral striatum (VS) is associated with the amount of ‘wanting’. This means that fMRI scans can be used to compare the amount of ‘wanting’ by comparing the amount of activity in the VS. More activity in the VS would indicate more ‘wanting’.

PPU patients had increased activity in the VS after seeing a cue that predicted an erotic image, to a higher degree than normal . This indicates that PPU patients ‘want’ the image far more than normal subjects.

To prove that PPU patients show this abnormality only in relation to erotic images and not to other things, the experimenters looked at money as well as porn. They found that in these conditions the PPU patients had the same amount of ‘wanting’ as the normal subjects did. PPU patients don’t excessively ‘want’ money, they only ‘want’ porn.

This provides evidence that PPU creates abnormal activity in the VS; just like drug addiction. This lends validity to the theory that PPU should be considered a behavioral addiction, because it uses the same mechanisms that other addictions do. This could help doctors who are treating PPU and other addictions find strategies that can work for patients.

Bibliography:

Gola, M., Wordecha, M., Sescousse, G., Lew-Starowicz, M., Kossowski, B., Wypych, M., … Marchewka, A. (2017). Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use. Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(10), 2021–2031. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2017.78

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