3 minute read

How Science Helped Me Understand My Porn Use

Last Updated: July 29, 2021

Chris McKenna
Chris McKenna

Chris McKenna is a guy with never-ending energy when it comes to fighting for the safety and protection of children. He is the founder of Protect Young Eyes, a leading digital safety organization. Chris practices his internet safety tips on his four amazing children and is regularly featured on news, radio, podcasts, and most recently on Capitol Hill for his research. His 2019 US Senate Judiciary Committee testimony was the catalyst for draft legislation that could radically change online child protection laws. With expertise in social media usage, parental controls, and pornography use in young people, Chris is highly sought after as a speaker at schools and churches. Since 2016, Chris has worked with Covenant Eyes creating educational resources to help individuals and families overcome porn. Other loves include running, spreadsheets, and candy.

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.

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.

  • Comments on: How Science Helped Me Understand My Porn Use
    1. Steve on

      Thanks Chris, I totally get it! Being alone inside my head, alone with my thoughts was not a good place to be. I learned much about myself in my Christian and secular recovery groups, including that I enjoy the approval of women, even just a smile of approval. On the other hand I did not need the approval of men and often was angry or jealous of men who seemed confident or seemed to have it all together. Alone with my thoughts was not a good place to be. In my recovery groups I was able to talk about my thoughts inside my head and found I was not alone. I no longer felt like a freak. I was accepted and my thoughts were validated and I was sane. Stay with it, bro! Steve

      Reply
    2. Art on

      I understand. But, how do I stop and/or stop wanting it?

      Reply
      • Greg on

        Pray that God would make you sick of what you’re looking at, and that God would open your eyes to the truth of what porn really is. There is no true love, beauty, or commitment in it.

    3. Lori on

      As a wife of a porn addict who also experienced sexual abuse during his acting out years, I would like to know how one’s brain can be reprogrammed to stop the negative thought patterns toward your wife?? The behavior may have changed, but the attitude and lack of empathy and compassion and loyalty and love remains, especially the “Master of the Universe” attitude that makes him believe that rules don’t apply to him because he’s better than everyone else. He lies but can’t stand being called a liar, etc. so how and when do the negative thought patterns change? Because I’m still getting hurt often and I was just told that he sometimes hates me, that I’m a bad wife and that he avoids me because he can’t stand the way I talk to him (I’m now disabled due to dealing with the stress of all of this for more than 20 years!!)

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Hey Lori. This is SUCH an important issue. Thank you for bringing it up. In the 12-step recovery world, there’s a term called “dry drunk.” The person is “sober”–as in, they don’t drink anymore–but they haven’t managed to work on any of their underlying issues. I think you might be experiencing that kind of situation here. You’ve seen some behavioral changes, but there’s a lack of capacity in empathy and emotional trustworthiness. You might appreciate this article which includes a short video clip from Dr. John Gottman regarding emotional trust. You might also appreciate this article from Luke Gilkerson which examines how ongoing relationship difficulties like this may end in divorce. I hope you’re finding help with a counselor, and perhaps a support group. Whatever your husband chooses, I hope you will choose good boundaries and good health for you. Blessings, Kay

      • Brenda Lambert on

        I was the wife of a porn addict too. I divorced him. It may be that there is more to your situation than just porn addiction. There seems to be a strong connection between porn addiction and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Sounds like your husband has both. Mine did. I don’t think there is a cure for NPD, there is treatment…but no cure. And most people with personality disorders don’t know they have a disorder, and rarely seek treatment on their own. Ask God for help. God loves you.

    4. Dr. Harry Schaumburg on

      The heart ALWAYS influences the brain! Oh, I forgot, Christ was wrong, science got it right: it is a chemical. Our Lord, the creator didn’t understand modern science, after all, he was a carpenter. Now everything is chemically explained. Science also tells us that you pick a spouse through chemicals, so why not porn too? Give me a break!! Why not take it to the next level: try a Christ perspective: Sexual sin comes from the heart!

      Reply
      • Chris McKenna on

        Hello, Harry. Our approach at Covenant Eyes when it comes to our blog content is to engage all kinds of people in conversation, sometimes at their level. There are some who come at the issue of addiction from a biblical perspective, while others from a scientific perspective. The goal of my post was to create conversation with those who may not have a Biblical perspective. God is the God of science, logic, chemicals, and reason, too. I understand the source of sin and the power of Christ to overcome. Please read here before you judge too harshly: https://www.covenanteyes.com/2016/07/01/stop-looking-at-porn-you-sicko-part-2/

        Peace, Chris

    5. Dr. Harry Schaumburg on

      The porn brain connection is a small part of how the brain works sexually and relationally. Did you know that holding someone for 20 seconds the brain creates a bond between you and that person? It is high time that we see the whole picture of how the brain works relationally and sexually, not just in the use of porn. For a comprehensive understanding, read Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children,
      by Joe S. McIlhaney Jr.,MD,‎ Freda McKissic Bush, MD

      Reply

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