How Science Helped Me Understand My Porn Use

I pride myself on having a strong work ethic and for being a self-starter. I’ve always enjoyed accomplishing a list of to-do’s, even adding things that I’ve already accomplished to a list just so I can cross them off. I recently re-took Tom Rath’s Strengths Finder survey, which had “achiever” at the top of my strengths list. Valedictorian of my high school class. Varsity athlete. Suma Cum Laude and Presidential Scholar in college. Learned a foreign language. Accomplished CPA and business advisor for Fortune 500 companies. Loving husband. Father of four amazing children.

But, I was powerless against porn.

science helped

For over a decade, it ruled me. I tried to stop so many times. And, although I experienced temporary victories, it always came back and WHAM! Like a blood-thirsty lion, the urge to click through endless online images and videos devoured my will. I was powerless. It controlled me. Trust me, I desperately wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. Unlike just about everything else I had set out to do in life, I discovered that my strength was just not enough to overcome porn.

For decades, opponents of pornography fell into one of two categories–religious conservatives or feminists. Now, with over 24 years of Internet usage behind us, many doctors, psychologists and scientists are starting to consider the real possibility of a correlation between prolonged pornography use and adverse brain development, fractured relationships, and overall poor mental health.

In the early days of my recovery, I came across the ebook, The Porn Circuit from Covenant Eyes, and for the first time, I started to understand that my issue was more between my ears than below the waist. It explained in very simple terms how my pornography addiction was releasing a potent chemical cocktail, which was hijacking my brain’s rewards center, and actually solidifying neuropathways to crave pixels instead of a person.

In ancient history, “all roads lead to Rome,” but in the neuroscience community, according to Dr. Donald Hilton “all roads lead to the rewards center.” The rewards center is the collection of brain structures that recognize certain stimuli as positive and “reward” the brain with a shot of dopamine in certain “good” situations. At the same time, because the brain is “plastic” or “malleable,” repeated exposure to certain stimuli–like porn–hyper-stimulate the brain with an overdose of dopamine (and other chemicals), telling the brain to solidify connections between certain neurons. In other words, neurons that fire together start to wire together.

This discovery was terrifying to me. I started to understand the very real scientific possibility that I could teach my brain to crave porn more than my wife. In fact, a porn addiction might even hijack my brain to begin seeing my wife as “competition” with the computer or device that so easily gave me the chemical rush my brain longed for.

Back in 2012, at TedxGlasgow, Gary Wilson gave a presentation titled, “The Great Porn Experiment.” He provided information in response to a growing demand for scientific evidence explaining why heavy Internet pornography consumers were experiencing sexual performance issues, changes in sexual tastes, an escalation towards extreme material, an inability to stop, irritability, and anxiety. In 2013, the Cambridge University neuropsychologist Dr. Valerie Voon performed MRI studies on the brains of men who described themselves as porn addicts, noting changes in their brain matter, specifically the rewards center, that mirrored those of a drug addict. In April 2016, Time wrote “Porn and the Threat to Virility,” an article exploring the stories of young men experiencing erectile dysfunction with real women, but have no trouble being aroused by hardcore pornography.

Of course, some in the scientific community are still skeptical. It’s impossible to isolate all variables that may have contributed to the behaviors of a porn addict. I get that. But, many smart people are starting to point towards a real correlation. Those same skeptics probably support the theory of evolution. Wouldn’t Darwinian thinking at least point to the possibility that my brain would be drawn towards an easy sexual rush? Wouldn’t that be the easiest way to ensure survival of the species?

I also wonder if any of the skeptics were ever addicts themselves. I may not understand all of the neuroscience, but I was different while addicted to porn. I had disdain towards my wife. I was short and impatient with my children. I became deceptive and sneaky. I felt drawn towards clicking on things that were slightly more graphic and distorted than last month’s flavor. I had no trouble staying up until 4 a.m. while dopamine cloaked my exhaustion. There was this intangible relational distance that existed between me and those I loved the most. I was a worse human being.

I don’t know exactly what my brain was doing, and I can’t prove porn was the reason for these changes, but the correlation between watching porn and the diminishing quality of my life felt very real to me.

Conversely, my life without porn is good. I think more clearly. I live more freely. I have a oneness with my wife that was absent during my addiction. I can stand in front of my sons and daughter with integrity and have nothing to hide. I can be an advocate for decency, real love, and freedom. I can remove any possibility from my conscience that my clicks are contributing to the slavery, exploitation or rape of a child. It feels good.

Life is better without porn. I don’t need science to tell me that.