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Defeat Lust & Pornography 12 minute read

Brain Chemicals and Porn: How Porn Affects Your Brain

Last Updated: March 1, 2024

What does porn do to your brain? Can porn change or damage your brain in any measurable way? What are the psychological effects of watching too much porn? There’s a lot of information out there, so we’ve condensed it into this handy reference.

Does Porn Affect Our Brains?

Yes, porn does affect our brains—and it’s not good. The cravings experienced by someone hooked on porn can be like the cravings of a drug addict. With repeated exposure to porn, the portion of the brain responsible for decision-making and willpower actually begins to shrink. The chemical pathways of the brain designed for sexual pleasure are rewired to seek out porn instead of real sex.

So if you’ve ever felt like it’s hard to quit porn, there’s a good reason: it affects your brain! Let’s dig deeper into the science of porn use and the effects it has on the brain.

Porn, Dopamine, and More: What Happens When We Watch Porn

Your brain is an incredible biological computer, with billions of neurons processing countless bits of information, maneuvering your body, and shaping your emotions. It houses a whole pharmacy of chemicals, which work together to give you the experiences of pleasure, pain, and many other feelings. Your brain is also designed to adjust and adapt to different environments and stimuli.

In The Porn Circuit, Sam Black describes the various hormones and neurotransmitters involved when someone views porn and how each ingredient in this neuro-cocktail contributes to the problem:

  • When having sex or watching porn, dopamine is released into a region of the brain responsible for emotion and learning, giving the viewer a sense of sharp focus and a sense of craving: “I have got to have this thing; this is what I need right now.” It supplies a great sense of pleasure. The next time the viewer gets the “itch” for more sexual pleasure, small packets of dopamine are released in the brain, telling the user: “Remember where you got your fix last time. Go there to get it.”
  • Norepinephrine is also released, creating alertness and focus. It is the brain’s version of adrenaline. It tells the brain, “Something is about to happen, and we need to get ready for it.”
  • Sex and porn also trigger the release of oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones help to lay down the long-term memories for the cells. They “bind” a person’s memories to the object that gave him or her sexual pleasure.
  • The body releases endorphins, natural opiates that create a “high,” of pleasure throughout the whole body.
  • After sexual release, serotonin levels also change, bringing a sense of calm and relaxation.

This system works the way it is supposed to work when you’re having sex with your spouse. Together, you can experience a high, an alertness of sexual pleasure, and a deep calm afterward (norepinephrine, endorphins, and serotonin). With each sexual embrace, you are emotionally bonding to this person (oxytocin and vasopressin). Over time, a craving for sex is transformed into a desire for one another (dopamine).

Something very similar happens when your brain is “on porn.” Porn activates the same pleasurable chemicals in your brain that make sex so enjoyable and meaningful. But porn isn’t real sex, and it actually short-circuits the system with disturbing side effects. In this short video, Matt Fradd talks about our brains and the chemicals at work when we look at porn.

3 Ways Porn Affects Our Brain

Your brain is different when it’s on porn. The chemicals at work in your brain have at least 3 measurable effects that researchers have noted.

1. The brain is “tattooed” with porn.

Your brain is designed to remember important situations and events. When you see porn, your brain gets the signal that something important has happened. Consequently, porn can leave an imprint of the image on the brain long after is viewed. Many people who have quit looking at porn still have minds full of pornographic images—images that won’t leave. One of our readers recently commented, “Even though I haven’t viewed porn in quite a while, I still have very vivid images in my mind that make me want to go back to it.” This kind of experience with porn is extremely common.

Why is that? It’s because of the chemicals at work: norepinephrine, oxytocin, and vasopressin, which work together to form lasting memories. The effect on the brain is that looking at porn, even briefly, can leave your mind with a built-in library of images that you can’t erase. Neuroscientist Dr. William Struthers, the author of Wired for Intimacy, compares this to a “neurological tattoo, which is difficult to ‘unremember’ or to wipe away.”

2. The brain bonds to porn, not a person.

Sex is designed to bond you to a person. With porn, instead of forming a deep connection to a person, your brain ends up “bonding” to a pornographic experience. Your brain remembers where the sexual high was experienced, and each time you desire sexual stimulation, you feel a sharp sense of focus: I’ve got to go back to the porn.

In addition to this bonding, pornography gives the brain an unnatural high. Neuroscientist Dr. Donald Hilton says this is because porn is a “supranormal stimulus.”¹ In a popular TEDx talk, physiology teacher Gary Wilson explains that when men look at porn, they experience surge after surge of dopamine in the brain. The brain eventually fatigues, stopping the production of dopamine, leaving the viewer wanting more but unable to reach a level of satisfaction.

As a result, everyday pleasures stop causing excitement and the viewer seeks out more novel, more intense pornography to get the same high as before. This imbalance in the brain leads to many problems: impotence with your spouse, frequent masturbation with very little satisfaction, anxiety, fatigue, lack of motivation, inability to concentrate, and escalating tastes for more bizarre or novel porn.

3. Porn shrinks your brain.

Porn users’ brains are actually smaller than normal. Cambridge Neuropsychiatrist Valerie Voon was featured in the UK documentary Porn on the Brain. Her research demonstrates that the brains of habitual porn users show great similarity to the brains of alcoholics. A brain structure called the ventral striatum plays a significant role in the reward system of the brain—the pleasure pathways. It is the same part of the brain that “lights up” when an alcoholic sees a picture of a drink.² A German study found similar results.

Dr. William Struthers sounds a similar alarm, teaching that viewing pornography and masturbating actually weakens the region of our brain known as the cingulate cortex—the region that is responsible for moral and ethical decision making and willpower. This means feeling the compulsive “need” to look at porn.

It may lead someone to engage in increasingly risky behavior, such as looking at porn at work, consuming more extreme or even illegal porn, or acting out sexually in other ways—such as visiting strip clubs or soliciting prostitutes.

The Psychological Effects of Porn on the Brain

We can look at the effects of porn on the brain at a chemical level, but we can also look at the effects of porn from a psychological perspective. Sex addiction therapist and porn recovery expert Dr. Kevin Skinner says:

Our emotions are heavily influenced by the chemicals that run through our bodies. Consequently, when the pornography addict is viewing pornography he is altering his normal emotional state… When a pornography addict comes down off the rush from the chemicals dumped into the system, he is likely to feel more depressed and emotionally down.³

One commenter on our blog said, “I hope I can stop this as it leaves me depressed and makes me feel worthless. Whenever I wake up I feel like a pile of bricks and I can’t get up because of how I feel. It destroys me emotionally every time…”

Here’s a short summary of research into the psychological effects of porn on the brain.

Porn may increase anxiety or depression.

At Covenant Eyes, we speak with people every day who are experiencing depression and anxiety related to porn.  Research has found a correlation between watching porn and anxiety and depression, particularly those who want to stop watching porn but can’t. One study of university students indicated a strong connection between compulsive porn use and anxiety.4

Some experts are dubious about the connection between porn and depression or anxiety. Nonetheless, they acknowledge that porn can affect relationships, which in turn can result in depression or anxiety.5

Porn can change sexual beliefs.

We start to desire what we see in porn. We start to need more novel types of porn to get the same high we got with our first porn encounter. The more porn is consumed, the more it changes how we see women. It can even lead us to think violence is sexy. Looking at these images and videos can “pornify” a person’s outlook on life. and how they see the world and women as sex objects. Studies show that porn can change the way people view women. A 2020 longitudinal study found, “Compelling evidence shows that frequency of pornography exposure is associated with negatively perceived body image and sexual body image.”6

Dr. Dolf Zillmann and Dr. Jennings Bryant found that people who watched porn were desensitized to violent sex and rape. People who watched porn had a lower view of traditional institutions like marriage and family.7

Porn often intensifies shame.

At Covenant Eyes, we often refer to the “shame cycle.” People trying to quit porn often feel a deep sense of shame that can drive them into relapse and further emotional bondage. The negative feelings associated with porn, rather than giving them the motivation to quit, often contribute to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

A recent independent study had similar findings. A group of men surveyed reported feelings of shame regarding their porn use. They also reported feelings of shame related to the way porn had affected their sexual preferences.8

Pastor, counselor, and research Jay Stringer has found a strong connection between porn and shame, “For those of us who have struggled with pornography, shame is an all-too-familiar companion.” Shame can be both a result of looking at porn, particularly for those whose moral belief system says porn is wrong, and a trigger for further porn consumption.

Porn can lead to memory loss.

In some cases, porn may lead to memory loss. Sound crazy? One study concluded, “[T]hat pornography addiction may be associated with impaired recent verbal memory in juveniles.”9 Another study looked more broadly at short-term memory with a group of 28 healthy individuals and came up with similar results.10

If you’re hooked on porn, you may have the experience of looking up at the clock and realizing you’ve burned through a couple of hours looking at porn when you have other things you should be doing. The bottom line is, there’s reason to believe that looking at porn may make it more difficult to retain the information you need for important tasks, whether you’re in school or working.

Withdrawal Symptoms

The effects of porn are so powerful they can feel paralyzing for some people.  On top of this, when trying to quit porn, many people also report withdrawal symptoms. These can include mood swings, anxiety, and depression. Some have even reported headaches. One commenter asked us:

I want to get better but my withdrawal symptoms get real intense… I can’t seem to think straight or catch my breath. I also get flu like symptoms for the first week or so. How long do I have to hold out for the withdrawal symptoms to subside?

These symptoms result from the powerful neurological and psychological effects that porn has on the brain. Effects like this rarely last long, but they can be intense. But don’t be discouraged! This doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. See our post, 10 Symptoms of Porn Addiction Withdrawal (And How to Manage Them). Here you’ll find practical help on what to expect when quitting porn, and strategies to ensure your success.

We strongly encourage you to find an ally for your journey, so you have someone cheering you on and helping you stay the course when things get tough.

Can I rewire my brain from porn’s effects?

It can feel overwhelming, but change is possible. You can rewire your brain. Tens of thousands of men and women have broken free from the grip of pornography and reclaimed their sexuality. Every day, we hear from people at different stages of the journey. Here’s what some of them are saying:

“I need to change to get my life, my hopes, and my future back. Today is my first day with this program.”

“I was sexually abused as a kid growing and I got addicted to pornography and masturbation at a very young age, I have tried to stop many times but failed. Covenant Eyes is the first program that has given me real hope. Now I can go without porn for months and gradually am getting to the point of total freedom.”

“Today is my one-year anniversary free of porn! That is after 50 years of looking at porn! It is possible to defeat this even for us older guys whose neural pathways are deep canyons. I thank God that it is never too late to heal!”

While porn has a tremendous impact on the brain, your brain has an incredible capacity to change and adapt. Even if your neural pathways are “deep canyons,” it’s never too late to start the process of rewiring. If you need help getting started, check out our blog post by sex addiction therapist Dr. Doug Weiss, How to Quit Porn: 6 Essential Steps.


¹Hilton DL Jr. Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffect Neurosci Psychol. 2013 Jul 19;3:20767. doi: 10.3402/snp.v3i0.20767. PMID: 24693354; PMCID: PMC3960020.

²Eric Schulzke. New UK study finds porn affects brain like drugs, alcohol. Desert News. 2013 Sept 25. https://www.deseret.com/2013/9/25/20526176/new-uk-study-finds-porn-affects-brain-like-drugs-alcohol

³Kevin Skinner, Treating Pornography Addiction: The Essential Tools for Recovery, 34.

4 Camilleri C, Perry JT, Sammut S. Compulsive Internet Pornography Use and Mental Health: A Cross-Sectional Study in a Sample of University Students in the United States. Front Psychol. 2021 Jan 12;11:613244. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.613244. PMID: 33510691; PMCID: PMC7835260.

5 Russel, Robyn. Is There a Link Between Watching Pornography and Depression? PsychCentral. 2021 May 28. https://psychcentral.com/depression/watching-pornography-depression

6 Paslakis G, Chiclana Actis C, Mestre-Bach G. Associations between pornography exposure, body image and sexual body image: A systematic review. Journal of Health Psychology. 2022;27(3):743-760. doi:10.1177/1359105320967085

7 Zillmann, D., & Bryant, J. Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography on Family Values. 1988. Journal of Family Issues, 9(4), 518–544. https://doi.org/10.1177/019251388009004006

8 Sniewski, L., & Farvid, P. Hidden in shame: Heterosexual men’s experiences of self-perceived problematic pornography use. 2020. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 21(2), 201 212.  https://doi.org/10.1037/men0000232

9 Prawiroharjo P, Ellydar H, Pratama P, Edison RE, Suaidy SEI, Amani NZ, Carissima D. Impaired Recent Verbal Memory in Pornography-Addicted Juvenile Subjects. Neurol Res Int. 2019 Aug 18;2019:2351638. doi: 10.1155/2019/2351638. PMID: 31531240; PMCID: PMC6721264.

10 Laier C, Schulte FP, Brand M. Pornographic picture processing interferes with working memory performance. J Sex Res. 2013;50(7):642-52. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2012.716873. Epub 2012 Nov 20. PMID: 23167900.

  1. I have been panic sexual sense the age of 5 how would porn affect me?

    • Keith Rose

      Hello Kenneth,

      Thanks for your comment! The studies that I’ve looked at, generally speaking, show negative effects of porn across many different sectors of the population. The precise impact that porn has on your specific brain can vary a lot depending on your circumstances, your biology, and other factors. However, the more research comes out, the convinced we are the porn negatively affects everyone in some way.

      Blessings,

      Keith

  2. todd

    Thanks

  3. todd

    My brain wont heal,its almost fall 2021,not just a young person issue.Still going through horrible withdrawal of lower back pain ,increased acne,weight gain,brainfog,headaches,memory impairment,destzed junk,frequent urination,lethargy,fatigue,flatline,semen leakage,mood swings ,my mom tells me something and less then a minute ill forget .Or shell tell me to do something and ill have problems rembering,i even forgot it was mothers day one yr?I Couldn’t imagine have alhezmers or dementia,on a side note robin williams had a porn addction,just saying ,hopless in wiscosin,stubbled into a relationship long distance with a girl ive known since childhood,kept making xcuses not to visit her,we broke up in sept 2017 and we dont talk anymore ,she called me a hot mess and told my sister i need someone else.She def.Making me feel worse and wasnt helping .She also told me she watches porn and even told me a sight she watches on porn hub,maybe her brain is all jacked up.Of course she never mentioned if she ms to it or not.Im still in a flatline and its 2021,ive tried many suppmnts lytorosine,mucuna ,ldopa etc.Aswaganda ,sams e,dopamax you name it nothing helped ,even tried nero star tms therapy was told it rebalnces nero transmitters in the nucleas accumbins,including dopamine,but i guess its more about the death grip.was put on weak wellbutrin bc i was told it works on dopamine,im done with big pharma and i take suppmnts bc my seratonin levels are also low ,gary said some guys are never going to heal,havent celebrated new yrs in god knows how long .The 90 day reboot is a lie,on ssi disabilty bc cant hold a job,no way i could remember even simple tasks,los my job bc of this garbage2014.Havent been social or even left the house since god knows when ?Almost the 7 yr anniveary of robin williams death,a miilion ssri meds ,but apparntly nothing for dopamine,i even asked to be put on levadopa as a off label parkensens but for depression.David leys ignorance on this topic is beyond insaine and his anolgies are beyond crap,on katie couric and doc.Chasing the carboard butterfly .Seriously starting to understand sucide,pretty sure i had this issue on are last dells trip 2013,the lines are blurred,another withdrawal is eyefloaters.49 still no change and man boobs,and i know its not low t bc you dont flatline and piss semen from low t .Back pain ,i wanna go on a trip next yr,possibly new yrs 2022 or summer 2022 ,been invited to many things but declined bc of this,cant make people stop every 2 minures to pee,been to several therapists bev.Doctors etc ,most are clueless ,put me on all kinds of crap ,done with them ,one idiot put me on a dopamine antognist called haderol.Stopped going to him ,he also is about as clueless about it and dopamine,miss being me.Everone says the brain can heal,including terry crews whom apparntly went to rehab in 2010,but terry crews can afford it,i can not,im sure insurance wont cover it,or least not all of it.He also talked about it on wendy williams show and dr.Phil ,his wife almost walked out bc of this.Seriously guys its summer 2021 still no change,thinking about another tms therapy round 36 treatments,thanfully insurance covers it .Wonder if chster Bennington had this issue ?He offed himself in 2017,same yr criss cornell,and same yr of my breakup whom i thought was supposed to be the one ,god must hate me,someone Please tell me this is fixabile ,was hoping to get back my ex but apparntly that aint happening,probably happy were she is.

    • Keith Rose

      Todd, thanks for reaching out to us! I’m grieved to hear about your struggles and the painful situation that you’re in. You are not alone, we are here for you, and there are many who are going through the same struggles as you. I pray that you’ll be able to find community, friendship, and support for your journey. Please look into the Samson Society for a support group where you can connect. If you haven’t already, you may want to join an online community like NoFAP to surround yourself with others who have gone through similar struggles. Better yet, join a local community, such as a church or Sex Addicts Anonymous group, where you can connect in person.

      Don’t give up! Recovery is different for everyone, and it sounds like there are a lot of different factors contributing to your struggle. You are valuable and you are loved. You were created in the image of God, and He can save and heal you! Every situation is different but no situation is hopeless. If you are thinking about suicide, PLEASE call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255. There are people who care about you and want to talk with you.

      Blessings,

      Keith

  4. Joao Zola

    I got exposed to pornography when i was 14, I battle the addition for many years, affected all my behaviors when comes to women in general, i was unable to commit to one single woman, i thought things will change once married, but didn’t, it was a long and hard battle, till my marriage (alnost 12 years) came to a blink from divorce, pornography and its effects being one of the reasons… I had to change, I seek for help, I got the help I needed, and as part of keep myself in the line I came in contact with covenant eyes family… i don’t have any issue with pornography anymore, but I need to keep both eyes open, pornography it’s like a bug, all it need it’s an ad, picture, a word, a sentence, a small thing to bring back those memories stored from the past… then the devil whisper, if God is not part of story, fully and truly, we can step out and fall again.

    Thank you for the article… keep up the good work! God bless

  5. Yeboah Yaw

    Hello you can call me Young Money and im in the process of breaking free from porn I really need help. I could stop dor a week but after rhe week i lose control. I really need help

    • Moriah Bowman

      Hi friend!

      Thank you for reaching out and asking for help! That is not an easy thing to do, and I commend you for your courage and desire to change. Before you do anything, first, pray. Ask God to give you the perseverance to fight this addiction. He will be your strength through this!

      Then, do you have a close friend, leader, or mentor whom you can reach out to? I would encourage you to share with them your struggles, and ask them to walk alongside you in this fight. Using Covenant Eyes together is a great place to start!

      Be strong! Fight hard. Porn can be defeated!
      Blessings,
      Moriah

  6. Ed

    Consciences are not completely inate, they come from outside experiences. Only turning to our consciences to turn away from porn is foolish. If you need help you need to change your external experiences thus changing your consciences.

  7. MJ

    This article was very informative. These resources provided by Covenant Eyes are so helpful. It is painful to discover some of this research and to know how much pornography impacts the brain and life in general. However, the only way that anyone (including me) can finally overcome this addiction is to face the truth and confront this issue from a fully informed perspective. Thank you, Covenant Eyes!

  8. Raechel Kaey

    Hello. I see many guys here and just wanted to let the women reading this know that girls can get addicted too. I’ve been addicted to porn since before I truly knew what it was. I remember being in 2nd grade and 3rd grade and watching it hours a day while telling my parents I’m doing homework. At first I didn’t know the effects it could have on me. Here I am 10 years later and still addicted but now I’m trying to stop. I’ve tried multiple times now. I’ve been trying for almost a year now and I’ve been struggling but I’ve recently learned that struggling is NOT giving in and that it’s good to struggle, because struggling means that I’m not giving in. I pray that for this year I can take my porn addicting as a one day at a time thing as Covenant eyes is teaching me. I pray for all you women and men out there to know that although porn isn’t a drug it can be especially when you add masturabtion to it. It may be pleasurable but stopping is powerful and quite a relief. Question is are you ready for that relief because I finally am and it took many MANY years. God bless all this reading

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