Neuroscience now knows that willpower is a function of the prefrontal lobes of the brain. Scientific studies have also confirmed that using porn over and over actually reshapes these areas of the brain, literally eroding our willpower and our moral compass.
Neuroscientists call it hypofrontality. Hypofrontality is a state in which there is decreased blood flow to the prefrontal lobes of the brain. Hypofrontality is observed in schizophrenia patients, and is also observed in all manner of addictions.
What is Hypofrontality?
In his book, The Porn Circuit, Sam Black explains what hypofrontality is for the porn viewer.
“Compulsiveness is a good descriptor of hypofrontality. Many porn users feel focused on getting to porn and masturbating even when a big part of them is saying, ‘Don’t do this.’ Even when negative consequences seem imminent, impulse control is too weak to battle the cravings.”
The porn-addicted brain has trouble thinking logically. When impulses and desires come from the midbrain, instead of being moderated, the brain feels these desires as compelling needs. The prefrontal region is supposed to be able to weigh consequences and situations and judiciously shut down cravings, but hypofrontality means the addict’s ability to do this is impaired.
To the addict, when the craving for porn surfaces, their whole body gears up for action. As unhindered hormones are released and neurotransmitters fire, the craving consumes them. The heart begins to race, blood pressure rises, and the addict is consumed by a single thought: “Just one more time.”
What Causes Hypofrontality?
Compared to other creatures on earth, human beings have a very well developed prefrontal region. When our prefrontal lobes are working properly, then we have “executive control” of the processes going on in our brains. It is where we do our abstract thinking, make goals, solve problems, regulate behavior, and where we suppress emotions, impulses, and urges.
But the more one masturbates to porn, the more dopamine is released in the brain. Eventually dopamine receptors and signals in the brain fatigue, leaving the viewer wanting more but unable to reach a level of satisfaction. The viewer becomes numb to things once considered pleasurable. “To escape this desensitization, people, and men especially, expand their pornographic tastes to more novel stimuli,” Black writes. This leads, again, to more fatigue.
Desensitization impacts the prefrontal cortex. As dopamine receptors decline in the brain, so do the amount of neural cells in the prefrontal lobes.
How Do You Cure Hypofrontality?
To bring the prefrontal lobes back into working order, a two-pronged attack is needed: (1) the old neural pathways must be starved, and (2) new neural pathways must be built and fed, increasing dopamine levels in a way that build up the prefrontal cortex.
1. Starve: Stop All Pornography and Fantasy
Don’t give into the urge to look at porn. As the prefrontal lobes are given plenty of time to rest, executive control will be strengthened over time.
This advice feels to many like a catch-22. “You tell me I’ve killed my willpower by looking at porn. So now the way to increase my willpower is by willing myself not to look at porn. How does that work?” Isn’t that like telling the alcoholic to “just stop it”?
The big difference between “just stop it” and a conscious effort to rewire your brain is this: The man being told to “just stop it” has no hope that the cravings will ever be different. When he hears “just stop it,” he hears, “Live with these intense cravings the rest of your life and never give into them.” To the addict porn is life. Telling him to stop is like telling him to die.
However, informed by the process of how our brains can change, the addict can avoid porn and fantasy knowing that real change is possible. Change is built into the very fabric of our brains. Change is exactly what our brains are designed to do. When this person abstains from porn, he thinks, “Okay, this really stinks for now. I feel terrible. But I will not always feel this way. In fact, I aim to reclaim my brain so I can experience real, lasting pleasure again.”
Here are some helpful tips for avoiding pornography
- Redirection – When you feel the urge, get into the habit of distracting yourself with another activity that you can start immediately. This can be as simple as a breathing exercise or journaling your thoughts. It can be as involved as making a meal or going for a jog. It will be difficult to do, but each time you choose to redirect, your brain will build new neural circuits.
- Avoid All External Triggers – Remember, you’ve carved a grand-canyon-sized gorge of neural circuits in your mind. It is easy for everyday experiences to become triggers. If the trigger is a specific channel on TV, refuse to visit that channel. If the trigger is a type of person you see walking down the street, choose to bounce your eyes away from that person. Learn what your triggers are and for the first several weeks or months, completely avoid them—no exceptions.
- Avoid Internal Triggers – External triggers are things you experience in the world. Internal triggers are emotions or states of mind. For some, when they feel lonely, this has become a trigger for porn. Porn has become their release valve to make themselves feel good. Identify what your internal triggers are (loneliness, boredom, exhaustion, anger, etc.), and create an escape plan when these emotions pop up. Call a friend. Journal your thoughts. Do something creative.
- Avoid SUDs – “Seemingly Unimportant Decisions.” These are the rationalizations you say to yourself to get you one step closer to porn. “I’m just going to see what’s on TV.” “I’m just going to check my e-mail.” “I’m just going to get on Facebook.” Get honest with yourself and learn what your SUDs are. Be ruthless against these rationalizations.
- Avoid Inactivity – Fill up your social calendar to the brim. Refuse to give yourself an open window.
- Finish the Fantasy – When the thought of looking at porn enters your mind, immediately finish the fantasy: imagine yourself having just orgasmed and the feeling of shame, guilt, or disgust you feel. Vividly experience the emotions.
- Destroy Fantasies – As a fantasy or thought enters your mind, picture the image being eliminated. Draw a red X over it. Smash it with a hammer. Put it through the shredder. Flush it down the nastiest looking toilet you’ve ever seen.
2. Feed: Build Up Your Brain
Much like a muscle, the more you exercise the prefrontal cortex, the stronger it becomes. The goal is to engage in new habits that will increase your dopamine and dopamine receptors.
- Meditation – Making a habit of meditation has been shown to increase dopamine release up to 65%. Even after only 11 hours of meditation spread over a month, changes are observable. (For a Christian approach to meditation, visit CCEF.org or biblicalcounselingcoalition.org.)
- Exercise – Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase dopamine receptors and decrease cravings for those bound in addiction.
- Socializing – Porn-watching is a very anti-social habit. By reforging connections to real people, spending pleasurable time together, you will establish new neural pathways of pleasure.
Change is Gradual, But It Will Come
Summarizing these above two points, Sam Black writes in The Porn Circuit:
Whatever rewarding activity is pursued, it needs to be an activity that is reoccurring. Building new rewarding neural pathways requires time and ongoing repetition…
- Neurons that fire together wire together. Repeating a pleasurable activity instead of the compulsive activity, such as porn use, forms a new circuit that is gradually reinforced instead of the compulsion.
- Neurons that fire apart wire apart. When a person refuses to act on a compulsion, like porn and masturbation, it weakens the link between the activity and the idea that it will provide relief.
(Download the The Porn Circuit)
The prefrontal cortex is one of the things that makes us unique from other creatures on earth. By reclaiming it we are reclaiming more than our willpower. We are reclaiming our humanity.