“Pornography satisfies every one of the prerequisites for neuroplastic change…”
psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in The Brain That Changes Itself (2006)
I’ve got this buddy, a counselor for a Christian organization. I got him really caffeinated one day – enough espressos will befuddle anyone save Juan Valdez – and starting prying. “Longest shower you ever took after a counseling session? Biggest loser you ever counseled? Hardest thing for people to grasp?”
“Oh, hardest thing to understand? That’s an easy one: Romans 12:1-2. Cognitive or mental transformation is a real thing. It happens on a spiritual level, of course, but there’s a cognitive and behavioral component as well. Whatever behavioral patterns we exhibit – gossip, drinking, porn, Bible reading, exercise, cooking – each has a corresponding cognitive pathway and process. While the mind controls our behavior, in some ways our behavior determines our mental approach. This means that while our mind may desire something that our bodies carry out, we can determine the things our minds want through the actions we choose to pursue.”
To summarize the rest of the conversation: as you identify behaviors and attitudes that you choose to pursue yet would eliminate, the Spirit can give you enough strength that you can stop behaving in those ways. Do this consistently enough, and you’ll literally transform or alter the way you see those situations. Do it long enough, and both your behavior and the mental processes behind the behavior stand to be altered forever.
Psychiatrists have taken this concept to the neural and chemical level: behaviors that produce pleasure correspond to the release of chemicals known as dopamine. Any physical action that results in a dopamine-bathed brain is one that will cause the brain to neurally associate the action with pleasure. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge says it like this: “Since neurons that fire together wire together, these men [porn users] got massive amounts of practice wiring these images into the pleasure centres of the brain.” Porn literally – not virtually – rewires the brain to associate pornography with both mental and physical pleasure. Read that again: both mental and physical pleasure. The body is not the only “beneficiary” of pornography’s pleasure; the mind gets something out of it, too.
Want some more? No problem.
Doidge goes on to assert that “because plasticity** is competitive, the brain maps for new, exciting images increased at the expense of what had previously attracted them.” In other words, a developing neural pathway that positively correlates dopamine release with pornographic viewing and behaviors will compete with and eventually replace previous pathways that correlated dopamine release with different actions.
**Cerebral plasticity refers to the flexibility of the brain to rewire and reprogram itself in order to accommodate new skills and patterns. Plasticity decreases with age, which explains in part why children are so much better at acquiring new language skills than their parents are.
Consider the implications:
1. Younger adults, teenagers, and boys are at greater risk for rewiring by porn viewing due to greater cerebral plasticity. This means prevention among our kids and teenagers should occupy a rather significant aspect of our fight against pornography. It also means many young men today have already been rewired for a number of years, bringing their mental pathways with them into the baptistry and the new Christians class.
2. While we cannot overlook the spiritual aspects of conviction, temptation, and the inner witness of the Spirit, there also exists a mind/body connection. Whatever the cause of the original porn viewing, eventually most habitual porn users struggle in breaking free because their brains simply seeks what brings it pleasure. Even as our consciences struggles with the shame of sin, our minds say, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
3. If habitual porn viewing has competed with and eliminated other pleasure-associated neural pathways, so also can healthier activities compete with and eliminate porn-associated neural pathways. As Doidge points out, the development of pleasure-associated neural pathways is a competitive process. We should not expect men to succeed in overcoming a porn habit simply by saying, “Don’t look at it.” Essentially, you’re commanding another man’s brain not to use all of its resources, whether they are healthy resources or damaging ones. A key step should be to pursue something that also brings pleasure in order to push aside the porn connections
4. In addition to spiritually-oriented strategies (prayer, counseling, accountability), attempts to overcome porn habits should include the deliberate development of new neural pathways as well as methods for starving the existing porn-associated connections. I’ve heard it said that porn-filtering programs should not be a tool in our kit because it does nothing to address the heart of the matter. After all, can we really say a man has changed if the only reason he doesn’t view porn is that he can’t? However, there’s something to be said for blocking access in order to prevent the porn-loving connections from being encouraged. In the gap left by no access, men can finally have the chance to pursue dopamine-producing activities that can in turn push aside previous unhealthy connections.