8 minute read

Porn and Your Three-in-One Brain

Last Updated: July 11, 2022

Jim Rose
Jim Rose

Rev. J.E. (Jim) Rose is an ordained minister, licensed professional counselor, and certified clinical supervisor. He is a staff counselor at Covenant Eyes and specializes in sexual addictions and the unique needs of clergy and other professional caregivers. He is also the Director of Nehemiah Ministries, a 160-acre retreat and counseling center in south-central Michigan for pastors and missionaries.

Brains are complicated. But some neuroscientists use “Triune Brain Theory” as a simple way of understanding the brain’s complexities. I call the three parts, the Gut Brain, the Heart Brain, and the Head Brain.

The three parts of our brain show us that pornography poses a triple threat. It damages our Gut Brains, teaching us to look to porn’s false promises of comfort and safety. Porn corrupts our Heart Brain, poisoning the way we look for sexual pleasure and flooding us with feelings of guilt and shame. And it confuses our Head Brains, so we either make excuses or else disconnect our beliefs completely from our actions.

Let’s look more closely at each of the three parts of the brain, how porn affects them, and what this means for overcoming porn.  

Your Gut Brain and Porn

In God’s plan for the brain, the first to develop is the “Gut Brain” (or “enteric nervous system”).1 The Gut Brain is centered in the gut—the lower gastrointestinal tract: stomach, intestines, kidneys. This really is a brain!

But, instead of brain waves or conscious thoughts, it generates tiny chemical “microbiomes.” Most of these are stored in the intestines. When released, they tell other parts of the brain what to do. For example, microbiomes make us hungry at mealtime. They activate digestion. These are good microbiota. But there can also be toxic ones also—like viruses and bacteria that cause illness. 

The Gut Brain and Stress

You know those “butterflies” in your stomach when you have to stand in front of an audience? Or that nagging “gut feeling” about trusting some salesman? These stressors are also examples of microbiotic messages in the Gut Brain.  

The Gut Brain and Self-protection

The Gut Brain wants everything to be safe. It measures when things are predictable and familiar. In fact, the more unpredictable and unfamiliar things are, the more dangerous they appear to the Gut Brain. It doesn’t matter whether it is a real threat or not. To distinguish real and imagined danger takes other parts of the brain.

God wired your Gut Brain to develop protection strategies. Even babies are developing them! When their little tummies are empty, their forming Gut Brain senses danger and they instinctively cry. The Gut Brain does the same thing throughout the rest of our lives. 

However, some of our natural self-protection strategies do not work. And when that happens, the alarm keeps blaring in the Gut Brain. We may not even be consciously aware that our body feels like it’s under threat. But the body knows. That’s what “your Gut Brain keeps the score” means.2

The Gut Brain and Porn

Some self-protection strategies are actually more dangerous than the perceived dangers. The Gut Brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad stress management. It only knows whether or not an alarm is going off. That’s how people develop an addiction to pornography: a self-protection strategy of the Gut Brain.

Porn can temporarily shut off the Gut Brain’s alarm system. When this happens, it trains people to associate watching porn with comfort and safety. Even if you know better, your Gut Brain feels that porn makes you safe.

Your Heart Brain and Porn

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “the heart has reasons reason knows nothing of.” It means we don’t always understand what is going on inside our hearts. We have motives, impulses, and desires deep within that are not always clear.

And, if the heart has reasons reason knows nothing of, it’s possible those deep motivations are drawing your heart to porn.

The Systems of the Heart Brain

The Heart Brain includes the autonomic nervous system and its two subsystems: sympathetic (stress system) and parasympathetic (peace system). These two subsystems extend the entire length of the body and are designed to balance each other.

Experts describe the sympathetic nervous system as the “accelerator” pedal of the brain. These systems are essential for motor activities (behaviors) but also involved in stress. When the Gut Brain alerts us to potential danger, the sympathetic nervous system is also activated and begins sending “go” signals to respond.

The Molecules of the Heart Brain

Even as the Gut Brain seems to focus on self-protection strategies, the Heart Brain is designed for self-gratification—pleasure and peace. In a stressful situation, it wants to feel better. How does it do this?  The Heart Brain uses the autonomic nervous system to release mixtures of neurochemicals. These “molecules of emotion” are interpreted as feelings.3 And since the Heart Brain wants to feel pleasure, it relies on past feel-good memories whenever possible.   

The Heart Brain’s Pain and Pleasure

Circumstances or events do not really make us happy or sad, anxious or peaceful. Those feelings come from inside the Heart Brain in response to circumstances. This is why some people handle pain better than others. A trained athlete has learned that “pain is weakness leaving the body” so it is able to keep pushing beyond the limits of comfort to feel better later. 

Like the Gut Brain, the Heart Brain can’t distinguish between good and bad pleasure. It only tells you something feels good. And just because something feels good doesn’t mean it is good for us. Many addiction experts believe that when an addict abuses a substance it is not actually the substance that is addicting but the release of a feel-good neurochemical like dopamine. This is why porn can be just as addicting as substances like drugs or alcohol.

See more in Brain Chemicals and Porn: How Porn Affects Your Brain.

Your Head Brain and Porn

Only now do we come to what most of us describe as “the brain:” the Head Brain or “neocortex.”  It consists of the higher regions of the human brain—including the corpus callosum, temporal lobes, and prefrontal cortex. If there is a computer in your head this is where to find it!

Though many mammals have a region of the brain that looks similar, God only made us with the highly developed functions of the Head Brain. The Bible says he made us in his image (Genesis 1:26-28). He never said that about any other creature. Could that be because of what takes place in the Head Brain?  

The Head Brain’s Self-Validation

If the Gut Brain is organized to develop self-protection strategies and the Heart Brain is focused on self-gratification, God made the Head Brain for self-validation. Self-validation means we need to have meaning and purpose in our lives. To be “valid” means we want to be successful. But, we don’t just need to be successful—we want others to value who we are and what we do.  

The Head Brain’s Moral Responsibility

Your Head Brain thinks about who you are. It’s the seat of self-identity, self-reflection (language), and self-direction (moral decisions).  God intended the Head Brain to know right and wrong and to distinguish good and bad for the lower brain. But something happened at the beginning of history that changed all that. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and the result was not just physical death but emotional and spiritual destruction as well.

We are living with its effects to this day.

With our Head Brain, we may try to rationalize our bad decisions, like the decision to look at porn. We might make excuses for why it’s not wrong, or why it’s less wrong than some other decision. Or, we may simply disconnect our Head Brains from our Heart and Gut Brains and live with the inconsistency. Many Christians do this with porn and can’t understand why they end up watching it even after reading their Bibles, praying, and going to church.

The Triple Threat and the Triple Cure

What does this mean for overcoming porn? Five hundred years ago, a theologian named Francis Turretin described the consequences  of Adam’s disobedience on the human race as the “triple threat.” 

  • Our Head Brains are ignorant of making excuses to avoid the Truth.
  • Our Heart Brains are plagued with guilt and shame. (See more in Understanding the Shame Cycle).
  • Our Gut Brains develop habits that cause us to act contrary to God’s law.

The Triple Threat of Porn

Porn poses a triple threat to the three parts of our brain. To overcome a deeply ingrained pornography habit, we need to understand the role each part of our brain plays. We also need to understand God’s plan to redeem the Gut Brain, the Heart Brain, and the Head Brain.

The Triple Cure for Porn

God did not leave us without hope. From the dawn of history, God promised He would one day send a deliverer to provide the “cure” for all these threats. Jesus himself is the “triple cure” for the triple threat!

How does Jesus’s triple cure apply to porn?

  • We learn the truth of our new identity in Jesus. The blood of Jesus washes us clean and gives us a new name. We know this, and it transforms the thinking of the Head Brain.
  • We feel the reality of being cleansed from guilt and shame. When we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from guilt and shame. This changes our experience of pleasure and pain in the Heart Brain.
  • We become conformed to the image of Jesus in our daily habits. It changes the patterns of our lives to find safety and comfort in obedience to His Word.

It’s easy to lose sight of the triple cure when facing the temptation to look at porn! Our attempts to overcome porn often focus only on one part of the triune brain. A deeper understanding of the triune brain equips us with powerful strategies on the road to victory.


1Jackie D. Wood, “Chapter 15 – Enteric Nervous System: Brain-in-the-Gut,” Editor Hamid M. Said, Physiology of the Gastrointestinal Tract (Sixth Edition), (Academic Press, 2018): 361-372. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-809954-4.00015-3

2 Bessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, (London: Penguin 2015).

3 Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind Body Medicine, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).

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