Your Brain on Porn

NICK THORPE examines emerging evidence of the havoc internet pornography can wreak in our brains, our relationships – and our children.

Your Brain on Porn

Your Brain On Porn-Gary WilsonNICK THORPE examines emerging evidence of the havoc internet pornography can wreak in our brains, our relationships – and our children.

WHAT attitude should we have to porn – not just as adults, but as parents?

In the wake of Safer Internet Day 2015 it seems a good question, not least because research shows that most boys seek explicit images by the age of 10, when they’re most sexually curious – and it’s never been easier to find them.

Try typing “naked” into Google, and you’ll get an eyeful of the kind of material that’s only a mouse-click away for kids with access to an unfiltered phone or tablet. Does it matter? Is internet porn really so different from the tatty magazines passed around behind the bike sheds a generation ago?

Well yes it is, if you believe Gary Wilson. His new book Your Brain on Porn – expanding on his viral TEDx talk on the subject – shows how the addictive quality of modern high-speed internet porn rewires our brains in ways that previous generations could never have conceived.


A long-standing teacher of anatomy and physiology based in Scotland, Wilson is not writing from a parental viewpoint, but his startling research has huge implications both for our own viewing habits and that of our children.

He first glimpsed the scale of the problem when his wife’s online relationships forum was deluged by men claiming to be addicted to porn – but he stresses that he has no religious or moral agenda: “I am not trying to start some kind of moral panic, or to say what is and isn’t ‘natural’ in human sexuality. If you don’t feel you have a problem, then I am not about to argue with you.”

But his experience is that increasing numbers of men do have a problem with the particular speed and endless variety of internet porn, hundreds of thousands of them turning to various help forums to address symptoms ranging from anxiety, obsessive behaviour and erectile dysfunction right through to chronic depression and suicidal thoughts.


It’s a very different picture from that presented in 2009 by a Canadian researcher, whose test subjects insisted watching pornography hadn’t changed their perception of women or their relationship: ‘Not one subject had a pathological sexuality,” said Simon Lajeunesse. “In fact, all of their sexual practices were quite conventional.” An obvious conclusion was that porn had negligible effects.

But Wilson points out that the kind of symptoms he hears about would not necessarily be linked by subjects to their porn habit – particularly as Lajeunesse famously failed to find even one twenty-something man who didn’t use porn, thereby denying the study any control group for comparison.

Arguably the only large group of males able to compare what life is like both with AND without internet porn are the growing numbers now abstaining completely after experiencing erectile dysfunction, desensitisation and the kind of obsessive behaviour linked to addiction. Wilson quotes many of them to demonstrate the recent effect of high-speed internet in 2006, which suddenly made it possible to access unending galleries of hardcore porn clips – often several at once.


Gary Wilson“It has made me continuously watch more and more and at higher resolution,” admits one addict. “It sometimes becomes a whole day affair looking for the perfect one to finish on. It never, ever satisfies. ‘Need more’ the brain always says…such a lie.”

The problem, explains Wilson, is that our brains are wired to release the “go-get-it” neurochemical dopamine for each novel “mate” we encounter, which helped our ancestors continue to widen their gene pool.

But faced with today’s internet deluge of endless sexual novelty, our hunter-gatherer brains struggle to adapt, producing a dopamine binge which overrides our natural reward circuitry, and in turn creates a build-up of DeltaFosB.

DeltaFosB is the brain chemical linked to the numbed pleasure response found in almost all addicts, when real life simply doesn’t cut it any more. For the porn addict, ever more extreme images are required for arousal, says Wilson – creating a sexual habit associated with “being alone, voyeurism, clicking, searching, multiple tabs, fast-forwarding, constant novelty, shock and surprise.”


Compare that with the elements of real flesh-and-blood sex – courtship, touching, smells, pheromones, emotional connection, actual human interaction – and it’s easy to see how porn addiction can become a lonely kind of hell. Particularly if, like our children’s generation, you risk getting hooked from an early age.

But the good news from what Wilson has called the “fastest-moving, most global experiment ever unconsciously conducted”, is that the effects of high-speed internet porn addiction are reversible.

Hundreds of thousands of men (and some women) are visiting a range of self-help forums set up to encourage abstinence (including Reboot Nation, and Wilson’s own popular site), where recovering addicts report that (after a sometimes disconcerting total loss of libido) the brain soon reboots the circuitry and restores normal sexual functioning.

Wilson quotes a man in his late 20s who was a hardcore porn addict since age 14: “I stopped it completely 2 months ago. It has been very difficult but so far incredibly worth it. I’ve since quit my remaining medication. My anxiety is nonexistent. My memory and focus are sharper than they’ve ever been. I feel like a huge “chick magnet” and my ED (erectile dysfunction) is gone too. I seriously think I had a rebirth, a second chance at life.”


This is doubly reassuring, given that the effects of porn addiction are worse the earlier you start. Our young teens are at their peak of dopamine production and neuroplasticity, which makes them most vulnerable – but thankfully the evidence is that although it takes longer, their brains too will revert to normal sensitivity, looking around “for the rewards it evolved to seek such as friendly interaction and, of course, real mates.”

Your Brain on Porn, and the longer-standing website of the same name, builds on a plethora of such anecdotes with an impressive array of scientific studies highlighting this relatively new problem, and the hope for recovery.

It’s a riveting, disturbing but ultimately empowering message for any of us who struggle with porn usage – and those of us who want to know how to help our children navigate the digital age.

Your Brain On Porn by Gary Wilson is published today by Commonwealth Publishing, priced £9.99, and as an ebook priced £3.48.