6 minute read

The Bible and the Brain

Last Updated: February 20, 2014

Sam Black

Sam Black joined the Covenant Eyes team in 2007 after 18 years as a journalist, serving as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines in six states. Sam is the author of The Porn Circuit, and he creates partnerships with like-minded organizations to strengthen the worldwide fight against pornography.

How Scripture strengthens, renews neurological pathways

biblical neurology - porn circuitThe Creator of the brain gave mankind a neurological handbook—the Bible. To live new lives we just have to embed its truths into our daily thinking.

Science shows us why the brain can so easily become obsessed with pornography, and it also explains the mechanics behind porn addiction. But aside from complex scientific terms, God has been trying to tell us these things for thousands of years.

Biblical truths kept ringing in my head as I researched and wrote the new e-book, The Porn Circuit: Understand Your Brain and Break Porn Habits in 90 Days. If we listen, the Bible teaches us how to renew our minds if we have been exposed to pornography. More importantly, the Bible points to redemption and a way of escape.

Hijacked by Porn Idols

Men and women were not born liking pornography. Instead the brain learns that viewing pornography and masturbating brings a “neurological reward.” The term used by therapists is “association”—you learn to associate sexual arousal with specific stimuli, writes Dr. Norman Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself.

Dr. Doidge explains that “human beings exhibit an extraordinary degree of sexual plasticity compared with other creatures” (p.94). By “plasticity” he means that our brains and our sexuality are molded by our experiences, interactions, and other means of learning, which is why people vary in what they say is attractive or what turns them on. The brain actually creates neural pathways that say a specific type of person or activity is arousing.

We were designed to say, “My spouse is attractive to me. When I bond with my spouse it captures my complete attention. When we touch, I feel aroused, cared for, loved, and I enjoy a spiritual connection. I feel not only a physical rush but also a deep bond with my spouse and sexual satisfaction. This person is part of me. Let’s do that again soon.”

Pornography hijacks this sex drive that God created, and we neurologically “bond” to images rather than our spouse.

Similarly, the Bible teaches that as we run from sexual temptations, we should cling to and delight in the spouse of our youth (Proverbs 5:15-20). Sex bonds us to another person  in a unique way (Genesis 2:24; 1 Corinthians 6:16). But in this fallen world, we have exchanged the truth for a lie, propping up images—such as lustful images of women—as idols that capture our imaginations (Romans 1:21-25). These are not idols of wood and stone, but pixels and pinups.

And like any idol, they are not just images we set in front of our faces. They are images that work their way into our hearts (Ezekiel 14:1-5).

In a simple scenario, the brains says, “I saw porn, I masturbated, it felt good. In the future, let’s do it again.” Mix in the anxiety of using the forbidden, the fear of being caught, and the secrecy of repetition, and the brain learns even more and gets powerful cocktails of signals and hormones that ensure future cravings. But with each experience, the brain decreases the neurochemical response so that more porn or more intense porn is required to reach the same level of arousal.

Put simply: sin is habit-forming. The motto of forbidden pleasures is the same today as it was in Solomon’s day: “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret is delicious!” (Proverbs 9:17). And it all starts in the mind. The apostle Paul says those who live according to the sinful nature “have their minds set on what that nature desires” (Romans 8:5).

Escape Routes: Swapping Desires

To escape porn habits, neurologists and therapists explain that people need to avoid bad behaviors in favor of new and positive behaviors. A popular neurological phrase is “use it or lose it.” Do anything repeatedly and it will become engrained in neural pathways. Stop doing something and it will become less engrained.

Overcoming porn is not so much about breaking bad habits as it is about creating something new. Each time a person says “no” to pornography, they actually strengthen the prefrontal cortex of their brain. Each time a person chooses another healthy and rewarding behavior it further solidifies a new neural pathway, while allowing the “grass to grow over” the old neural pathway for porn.

God told us about this too. Over and over, the Scriptures tell us that fleeing from sexual temptation is about fleeing toward something better.

  • “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Titus 2:11-12)
  • “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22)
  • “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—’Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’…If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 2:20-21, 3:1-2)
  • “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Pure Thoughts

Paul encourages us “to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Why must we take our thoughts captive? Because as a man thinks in his heart, so he is (Proverbs 23:7).

Paul and Solomon understood what modern neurologists tell us today. From the concept of “use it or lose it,” fantasizing about porn and sex equates to “using it” or practicing the very thing that a person hopes to avoid. Dr. Doidge writes, “When people close their eyes and visualize a simple object, such as the letter a, the primary visual cortex lights up, just as if it would if the subjects were actually looking at the letter a. Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated.”

Inappropriate thoughts can be combatted with positive thoughts, such as thinking of a new hobby, playing music, repeating an inspiring Scripture, praying, or some other positive activity. Mental and physical escape routes should be prepared in advance to ward off ungodly sexual thinking. Of course, each time temptation is resisted the person’s resolve grows stronger.

Paul promises that the God of peace will be with us as we transform our thoughts. “Think about these things,” he writes: whatever is true or honorable or just or pure or lovely or commendable or anything excellent or worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).

A Helping Hand

While creating a new thought life sounds simple, dopamine-driven habits that have been developed over years of repetition are extremely difficult to ignore in favor of new healthy alternatives. Men and women who have masturbated to pornography since adolescence have massive numbers of neural pathways and cues that lead them back again and again to pornography. The desire feels more like a survival need, similar to food, water and shelter. Avoiding acting out feels unhealthy, both physically and mentally. How will they cope with stress, boredom, painful memories, sexual impulses, and even their daily routine?

Several recovery strategies are suggested in The Porn Circuit, but a key one is having a friend or mentor help the person who is struggling. If a person could escape porn on their own, he or she would have done it by now.

James 5:16 instructs, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Many therapists agree that Internet Accountability software is an effective way for a person to protect themselves or their loved ones from sexual temptations online. Accountability software monitors how the Internet is used and delivers a report to trusted friend, spouse, or mentor. It encourages a person to think before they click and avoid temptations, which builds up the willpower and decision making of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. It also allows mentors to provide guidance and arms them with accurate information for in depth conversations with the person who is struggling.

In 2011, a Fuller Theological University study showed that using Covenant Eyes with Motivational Interviewing provided a 66% decrease in relapse episodes in the four weeks after receiving the interventions, compared with a control group.

The Bible is replete with “one another” statements: a call to express genuine love in Christian community in a way helps us set our mind on things above. Christians are called not to neglect meeting together, but instead encouraging one another daily, stirring up one another to practice love and good works (Hebrews 3:13; 10:24-25).

Join the Conversation

God provided instructions on how to avoid starting bad habits and how to build healthy ones. He has warned us of how bad habits sneak into our lives, and how we can can get rid of them.

Join the conversation and tell us how the Bible has provided you guidance for a healthy mind and a pure marital relationship.

Pure Minds Online | Issue 30 | March 2013 | More in this issue: Bringing Rape Culture to Light | Slut Shaming: Teens’ Sex Lives on Display | Snapped: An Innocent App Goes Wild |10 Steps to Finding a Great Accountability Partner

  • Comments on: The Bible and the Brain
    1. Steve on

      Amen! Porn get burned into your brain, especially in the formative years, with laser like efficiency. I cannot remember any of my school textbooks nor most of the books I’ve read for enjoyment. But at 62 years of age, unwanted images I saw as a youngster and a young man are forever imprinted. By the grace of God and His Word they are defeated but always remain as scars left over from some horrible disease. A disease that lies dormant waiting for your mental and spiritual immune system to weaken.

      Reply
    2. Fred Barnes on

      I like this sentence from the article, “Overcoming sinful practices is not so much about breaking bad habits as it is about creating something new.

      The Bible doesn’t ask us to change, it ask us to exchange! Exchange our sinful practices for new practices.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Profound, isn’t it? Setting our affections on things above overcomes sin by “the expulsive power of a new affection” (as Thomas Chalmers said).

    3. John Gordon on

      really significant!~!

      Reply
    4. Scott on

      Pls tell me if there’s any effect on an adult viewing cartoon sex. Tnx

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Following the basic premise that we teach our brains what we should find arousing through repetition, watching cartoon sex is teaching one’s brain to be turned on cartoon sexuality. This would effectively be the development of a fetish.

    5. Joshua Brooks on

      Helpful article. I forwarded this to a friend too. Since you welcomed comments, I will share.

      I’ve been doing well in this area in 2013. As a single male in his early 30’s pursuing sexual integrity can be difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that sexual purity is vital in order to have an intimate relationship with God (Matt 5:8; Heb 12:14). There’s nothing better than experiencing the continual, transforming presence of God’s in one’s life (Ps 42:1-2) .

      I read the Bible regularly and my church is a vital link to the larger body of Christ. Without the church, I would be a floating buoy on the sea of rampant pornography. Now, with the weight and power of the Holy Spirit holding me close to God, I’m anchored to the shore of God’s presence.
      I agree with Sam Black that the Bible uses “one another” statements to encourage believers to rely on and encourage one another. We can’t do this on our own. No soldier ever won a battle for his country singlehandedly.

      My prayer is that God will continue to empower us to walk in the Spirit and not gratify the sinful desires of the flesh (Rom 8:4-5; Gal 5:16). The psalmist said, “The rules you set down are completely reliable. Holiness aptly adorns your house, O LORD, forever” (Ps 93:5 NET). Oh Lord, you have been so faithful to us, help us to be faithful to you!

      Thanks Covenant Eyes for your encouraging and practical articles. Here’s to 2013, maintaining masculine momentum, and walking in sexual purity!

      Reply
    6. Robert on

      I keep my desktop near spiritual material. This works for me.

      Reply
    7. eric eshbach on

      AMEN!!!!

      Reply
    8. Stephen Channon on

      I have been a born again christian since 17th June 1997. my father introduced me to porn at the age of 10! my mother was in hospital at the time, he told me to get something from his bedside table in his bedroom which was covered with sex magazines. What was i meant to do at that age? Yes i looked time and again, and here i am today totally addicted. You talk about the word of God being able to set us free! but what if i hate reading the bible! Let me explain this to you. I can sit for hours reading sex stories even illegal ones, and i have no problems with the words at all, i can also read them quite fast to. Now when it comes to reading Gods word i can’t seem to do it! it seems very boring, i know this is not right, i even tell friends that its because i have server dyslexia. yes i do have dyslexia. but i don’t understand why i can spend hours reading these sometimes very perverted stories and yet can’t spend time reading about Jesus the saviour of my life. i tell my friends that i love God but don’t spend time with him. maybe after 45 years of reading and looking at this crap, to be continued! sorry.

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Hi Stephen,

        There are many things that can be going on here, but I have a few suggestions.

        1. Consider the idea that you may have grown callous to hearing from God. One of the marks of sexually perverted thoughts is a “darkened” mind, “hardness of heart,” and becoming “callous” (Ephesians 4:18-19). It is possible that in years entrenchment into sexual perversion, your heart has grown cold to God’s words. If this is true, then consider cutting yourself off from reading anything that isn’t the Bible or Christian literature. There is something to be said for “fasting” from things of the world for a season.

        2. If you acknowledge that reading sex stories is sinful, then find someone to help you quit. Get away from all the things that have enslaved you since you were 10.

        3. It isn’t sinful to find specific parts of the Bible uninteresting. Instead, fill your mind with Scripture in other ways. Get a good Bible on CD or MP3. Listen to sermons that explain various portions of Scripture. Spend time in Bible study with friends. Don’t just focus on the “reading” aspect. Listen to and discuss the Bible in community.

      • Leidy Mendez on

        When you are able to read anything else and not able to read the word of God, there is an operating antichrist spirit assigned to you, preventing you from reading the word of God so that you never get freedom. The one thing you can do, is come to God and ask Him for forgive you for part taking of the sin of pornography. Then rebuke in the name of Jesus the antichrist spirit. Then ask God to restore you to norma as defined by the Bible. And lastly take the Bible and try reading it again and you will see Gods power. I pray that God me manifest supernaturally in you life, in Jesus Name!

      • Janis Rough on

        I don’t know how I got to this site but I was looking for scriptures on the brain. Try reading a different translation of the bible. The mirror translation I have a copy of on google docs, you may be able to download it, https://drive.google.com/drive/#folders/0Bzw8PpdNiQ6EYnVjU0tkVnRtUjA. Also, I really like the Passion translation., http://www.5foldmedia.com . You just have to dial down to hear God. Also, it isn’t information you are looking for you want to hear Jesus. He is the living word. Just listen for his voice through what you are reading and if you will change the channel. His voice is the Holy Spirit speaking. He is there you just can’t hear him through the noise.

      • EVANG JOSEPH on

        The bible basically admonishes the believers to “… be transformed by the renewing of their mind…” (Romans 12:2) by the word of God the mind is being redeemed from polluted mentality and transformed into the mind of Christ. Study and pray having your mind set on CHANGE which can only come from God then their will be freedom from polluted mind leading to continuous errors. GOD help us all.

      • Curry on

        Looking for information on the Bible and the human mind and came across this website.
        You might it very useful to obtain an interlinear Bible; J.P. Green uses a good version of the ancient Greek called “Textus Receptus” to arrive at his literal English translation, seen directly beneath the Greek words.
        The point is this: with or without personal problems, and we all have them, if you cannot understand the Bible in English, you will become frustrated and the solutions to be found in God’s word will elude you because the English says things which seem contradictory and make no sense.
        This is because the English language is lacking in those grammatical qualities of the Greek language dialect known as “koine” – “koi-nay” – “common” – which makes the Greek so valuable for working out abstract thought. English is terrible for abstract thought. The Holy Spirit of God inspired men to write in the Koine Greek. A good interlinear Bible and a Lexicon – a dictionary of the Koine Greek words used in the NT – is an eye-opening experience. I use one from Zondervan. I am not a Greek scholar but I will never again trust any English version of the Bible, particularly and especially if the first word in the title of the Bible is the word “New”. The vast majority of them deliberately, for the sake of corrupting modern Bibles and corrupting our trust in the Bible as the inerrant and perfect Word of God, draw their Greek from the Alexandrian Text, known and agreed upon by reputable Greek Biblical scholars to be corrupt. J.P. Green uses the Textus Receptus, not the Alexandrian Greek text. And my distrust according to Acts 17:11 has been rewarded with significant gains of Biblical knowledge and spiritual growth.
        Also, if you are not in prayer, no matter how good the Bible, you will not grow spiritually and you will not overcome your personal challenges.
        Question: are you actually sitting for hours reading sex magazines? Why? Point is if you really want something you will find ways to get hold of it. If you do not want the trouble which comes with it, purge your life and lifestyle of these things – do not let them come into your house and do not let them come before your eyes. Turn off your TV, unplug it, cut the power cord in two and throw the cursed thing in the dumpster. This is as much today a haven for the sexually-distressed as any porn image on line or any book or magazine. Put a porn-block on your PC. Got modern music or do you regularly listen to modern music with all of the raunchy lyrics, suggestive double entendres, soft-porn covers, and outright sexual permissiveness? Change the station. Throw away the bad ones. Throw away the sex books, the “Bodice rippers”, and the other books which “innocently” include a dash into sexual intimacy outside of marriage.
        Most importantly, and the article makes this point, you cannot get rid of a bad habit if you do not have an alternate good habit to cultivate. The human heart abhors a moral vacuum and without something good to turn your attention to, you will return to what is familiar and what feels good even if it is utterly destructive to your spiritual well-being and your relationship with God.
        God is not about what you feel; God is about God and what He thinks, not what you think. This is where a good interlinear Bible will begin to make a difference. Prayer also is indispensable for seeking God’s assistance in dealing with the attacks of the enemy upon you regarding sexual indiscretions.
        Oh, yes. God’s enemies are right next to your shoulder, tempting, teasing, trying to bend your mind away from godly behavior. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you”.

    9. josh on

      i have been trying to find
      how much understanding doidge might have of repentance according to jesus and the bible
      as i posted in another comment just a bit ago

      i too was intrigued with doidge’s aligning his concepts with the concept of repentance and jesus…
      but it seems to me that he does not seek to fully align his ideas of repentance
      fully with what jesus and the bible have to say about the full benefits
      that jesus and the bible teachings give thru
      being convicted of one’s sins and repenting and accepting the holy spirit…

      such alluding to the correctness of jesus
      seems to me to be more for one’s own image of insights
      that aligning fully with the insights that would come with giving full considerations
      to the teachings of jesus and the bible….

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Good question, Josh. From what I remember in Dr. Doidge’s book, he does not present any information at all about repentance in a Biblical sense. He is just relating information about the neurology of learned behaviors and attitudes.

        I’m not exactly sure what your exact question is, however. What exactly about this article has you confused?

    10. EVANG JOSEPH on

      I admonish us all to talk to our brain and we will escape the deceitfulness of being lusted in the brain.

      Reply
    11. Chelsea on

      Hope all people stay away from the lusts of the world and stick to the Bible!

      Reply
    12. Chelsea on

      May all people stay away from the lusts of the world and build better relationships with their spouses.

      Reply
    13. Janice on

      This is such a good article. This topic needs to be addressed in our churches. I discovered my husband had a severe addiction many years ago . In addition, he was accused of molesting my granddaughter. Our marriage ended but as time has passed, I have been able to sympathize with his problem. Many churches are offering help through organization like Celebrate Recovery for alcohol and drugs but not pornography. Wives, in particular, need a support system and a place to freely express how devastating this is to their soul. I encourage everyone to bring this to the attention of their church leaders.

      Reply
      • Kim Rollins on

        I attend Celebrate Recovery. Actually, only one out of three participants struggle with addictions like drugs and alcohol. The other two thirds are in recovery from things like depression, guilt, anger, overeating, sexual problems including pornography, control issues, you name it. We deal with all kinds of hurts, hang ups and habits.

    14. Loretta Gallegos on

      I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Truly there is a battle going on in our brains every day. When I gave my life to Christ at 24 years old I had a very active thought life about spiritual things that were not always of the light. When we make a choice (Brain) to follow Christ and invite him into our (Heart) He comes in to us.
      We follow Christ because we Love him (Heart) and we give Him permission (Brain) to change us because we Love Him (Heart). It begins with Love for Him who Loved us first.

      Reply

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