Pornography, Cerebral Plasticity, and Transformation

by Jeremy Parks on May 29, 2014 · 22 comments

“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.

Paul encouraged believers in Romans 12 to pursue actively mental transformation in order to break away from the patterns the world has.  Yes, as I’ve repeatedly stated, there is a spiritual, heart issue in the midst of all of this that we ignore at our peril.  However, the mental/physical connection exists.  Let’s help one another spiritually while also acknowledging there are other aspects to our humanity that are immersed in pornography and therefore also need assistance.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 SVMuschany May 29, 2014 at 10:20 pm

As someone who has struggled with pornography since I was 11 years old, I really appreciate this post. After coming to Christ when I was 15 years old, I regularly heard people saying “If you are Christian, just stop!” And indeed, through the sanctifying work of Christ Jesus I have “won” more times than I have “lost” this struggle. But the attitude of “just stop” is damaging. Just like any other addiction (alcohol, drugs, ect) it is sometimes not just as easy as that. As Christians, we need to be supportive of our brothers and sisters who are dealing with this. We need to treat them as people who need our help, not people with some kind of “plague” that they would only get rid of by “just stopping”. Just like with alcoholics, it may take time to break the physical addiction that develops due to pornography. It may take time and prayer.

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2 Jeremy Parks May 29, 2014 at 10:41 pm

I’m not certain the psychiatrist nor the counselor on whom I’ve leaned for understanding would go so far as to classify porn use as an addiction. I’ve heard folks speak of addiction in this matter, but I’ve heard others argue to the contrary. I certainly don’t know enough to take a stand on that part of things.

However, sufficient evidence exists to support the notion that after a while, the brain begins to take some of the choice in the matter away from the individual. The drive to go sit in front of the computer at 3:00 AM can be an unconscious one; the choice to click on that link, though, is fully voluntary.

I agree with you on the need to show concern, support, and sympathy in our efforts to love our brothers through this. So long as we don’t render toothless the aspect of sin, we’ll be proper and holy as we hold hands (or smack heads) along the way.

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3 SVMuschany May 29, 2014 at 11:39 pm

An addiction to porn is just like an addiction to alcohol. For many, the brain (and spirit) are screaming, “NO DONT DO IT!” And the person tries to resist the temptation, but the body, the addiction, is overpowering. Is a pornography addiction as strong as say, cocaine? No, of course not. But it is, in my opinion, very dangerous and short sighted to think there are no physical consequences, no physical reaction from this addiction.

If you will, let me liken it to caffeine. For anyone who is a regular consumer of coffee (or soda, tea, ect) when you don’t have it for a day or two, you know there is a strong kickback. For me it is headaches. This is a physical addiction. The body gets use to the caffein and begins to rely on it regularly. Is it the same quality of addiction as cocaine? No, but it is an addiction. Likewise is an addiction like pornography. The brain/body gets use to the chemicals that are released in the manner that they are released (which is why pornography addicts can’t “fix” themselves by “being with” their spouse, because it is a different “stimulant” and thus effects the body differently).

Again, pornography is sin AND it is also an addiction. Once we as Christians realize this, we can be better equipped to help our brothers (and sisters) who deal with this, and help them overcome it in Christ Jesus.

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4 Dave Miller May 29, 2014 at 11:45 pm

I have read about how porn use rewires the brain (I understand what that means without really understanding the processes itself!).

It scares me since we are now seeing the first pornocentric generation reach adulthood, parenthood, etc. What it will mean for families, churches and society in the years to come is scary.

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5 Mike Bergman May 30, 2014 at 1:46 am

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?

I get the core of that line of thinking: we aim for heart/mind transformation as you said… But, whoever says we shouldn’t use filtering and the likes–I say this as lovingly as I can: those people are idiots who either 1) have never had a personal porn problem, or 2) have never fought in the trenches on a regular basis to rescue someone out of a porn problem…

Jesus cares more about heart transformation than the rest of us, and he said if your hand causes you to sin then cut it off–that’s filtering, accountability software, whatever, to the extreme…

Heart transformation takes time…but in the process you lob as many grenades at the sin as you can…

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6 Jeff Johnson May 30, 2014 at 10:04 am

Yeah, I can’t imagine why someone would say you SHOULDN’T use internet filtering or monitoring to help combat pornography. That’s like saying an alcoholic shouldn’t get rid of the alcohol in his house because it doesn’t address the heart problem. True, it doesn’t change the heart, but you should cut off the supply as much as possible. That just makes common sense.

With any preventive measure, the monitoring and filtering programs are only as good as the resolve of the person using them. The software should be installed on every internet-capable device the person uses, including phones, iPods, and tablets . . . including those belonging to other members of the household. You need an accountability partner who will really scrutinize your report. The software only works with supported browsers, for example. Your partner should be able to see if you have downloaded unsupported browsers or apps. Also watch out for internet apps on your TV that aren’t compatible with monitoring software. Have your spouse set a password for those apps if possible. In other words, plug the dike everywhere you can. It won’t change your heart, but it can cut off the flow long enough to give you opportunity to do the “root work”, as Mike Leake calls it.

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7 Dale Pugh May 30, 2014 at 12:30 pm
8 Bob Browning May 30, 2014 at 5:12 pm

It seems like it would be really helpful to offer some thoughts on what kinds of activities should be pursued to help “rewire” the brain.

Specifically, what should the person who wakes up at 3:00 a.m. craving porn do? Is he supposed to go take a jog around the house? If he’s married does he simply wake his wife up instead? What do our brothers well-versed in counseling suggest for these situations?

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9 Ethan Moore May 31, 2014 at 8:19 pm

My two cents of a response to your excellent question….

It’s going to depend on the person. Whatever it is that porn use has edged out (mentally), that could be a key to fighting back.

If porn use has robbed you of the desire to sit and read without the computer lighting your way, then doggedly pursue reading again. Drag out your old most favorite novels and re-read them.

If cooking is something that occupies your full attention every time you do it, then get up at 3:00 and make a spinach and cheese quiche. Learn to bake yeast cinnamon rolls.

If you are a former runner who has lost interest over the years, get a pair of shoes and go for a jog.

Find the thing that brings (or at least used to bring) pleasure and contentment and chase them with all your heart.

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10 George Parks May 31, 2014 at 8:50 pm

One has to wonder how far this rewiring process can go, and here I think of the matter of homosexuality among Christians. Homosexuality among non-believers, I would guess, is irrelevant. But for the one who’s been brought up to believe intellectually that the practice is sin, and who may truly be a believer, but whose sexual impulses are overwhelming, perhaps this article by whatshisname could have some benefit. I am troubled that true homosexuality is presumably a congenital condition. Why would God allow such a situation if He’s going to condemn the practice? And today, even as a conservative Christian I am convinced that true homosexuals have no choice with this orientation of theirs. I reject the line I hear from many conservatives: oh, they’re that way because they want to be. So I do in fact sympathize with the plight of the Christian homosexual. At the same time we heterosexuals face a similar battle as we struggle with porn. Maybe the rewiring principle works the same either way: whether you are a bona fide homosexual or a healthy heterosexual, either way you have to find ways to overcome the passions which can take us away from God. After all, it’s not just sex that can do that. And I suspect that Paul would encourage us to think and act in ways that tend to lead us toward godliness. As in “think on these things.” And who knows? Maybe a born again homosexual or lesbian can in fact rewire himself / herself just as a heterosexual likewise strives to harness his / her sexual desires as well. But the rewiring cannot take place, I would think, unless the individual makes a willful choice, and that choice would result, I think, from spiritual convictions. So as the original article here suggests, it’s not a simple matter.

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11 Jeremy Parks May 31, 2014 at 9:29 pm

Mr. Moderator, could you please see that all of my father’s comments go through moderation? I’d like to check them for grammar and snide comments before they hit the net.

Excellent point about the application from pornography to other areas of life where pleasure is gained. I hadn’t thought of that one.

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12 Dave Miller June 1, 2014 at 1:37 am

Will do, sir.

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13 parsonsmike May 31, 2014 at 9:11 pm

great insight on Romans 12:1-2 as well.

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14 Jess June 1, 2014 at 9:51 pm

I know there has to be a fundamental change in one’s inward nature before anything can be overcome, actions, thoughts, hatred, prejudices, and etc.

I know that a young Christian may have more carnal tendencies than one that is on the meat of the word. Also a babe in Christ will sin more than someone on the meat of the word. Yet through it all, the Holy Spirit is still within us trying to lead and guide us in the sanctification process.

If a Christian finds himself or herself in sin, conviction, and repentance are the keys to overcoming the problem of sin, whatever the sin may be. Conviction by the Holy Spirit and repenting to God are the only things a Christian can count on to be an overcomer of whatever sin that is trying to enslave them. True repentance will reverse the effects of one’s previous state of mind, and inundate one’s entire being.

I think we have to lay aside the doctrine of men and allow God to speak to us. Not everyone that has the name of Christian, is truly saved.

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15 Jeremy Parks June 1, 2014 at 10:29 pm

And what “doctrine of men” do you see in all of this?

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16 Jess June 1, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Jeremy,

I’m just saying that we have to be careful when we bring in the mental health profession on certain issues when the problem is just plain sin. I do not believe in self reformation, I believe that only faith in what Christ has done on the cross can cause us to become better people.

In this country we have rapist claiming their problem is a mental health issue, and tries to avoid prosecution on that ground. The whole human race is wired to indulge in sin, but I know Jesus the Christ is the great deliverer. Thirty eight years ago I would rather drink alcohol than to eat. When I got saved I was able to lay it down and never pick it back up again.

A person with a genuine experience is never at the mercy of someone with an argument. We have to stick with the scripture even though man speaks differently.

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17 Jeremy Parks June 1, 2014 at 11:03 pm

No one is arguing that this is not a case of sin. It is sin at its inception. It is sin as it becomes a habit. It is sin when continued use has rewired neural pathways and reprogrammed dopamine release.

That said, we are tripartite beings, it would seem: body, mind, spirit. Just as each portion of our being plays a role in our loving God, so too (logically) each portion has a role in both the act of sin and its impact. And since each portion plays a part, logically each portion needs addressing when we labor to break free of the sin of pornography use.

Is porn a spiritual issue? Certainly! Is it also physical? On the average, I think it is. Does it effect our brains? Scientifically, it would seem proven to do so. Why then should we only treat it as a spiritual problem?

Again, acknowledging that our spiritual mindsets have led us down sinful pathways is not in doubt. And needing to address the matter spiritually is also a given. Even so, let’s make use of our brains and find every possible tool we could use in this battle. After all, that is a form of loving God with our mind.

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18 parsonsmike June 1, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Jeremy,
Righteous living isn’t just zapped to a true believer who is genuinely sorry for their sin[s]. Just as you explained and Romans 12 tells us, We have to RE-Learn how to act. It is not just the will, see Romans 7, Galatians 5. It is a battle that is won by going to the Lord in prayer and walking in obedience and getting up every time you stumble as to fall.

-mike

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19 George Parks June 1, 2014 at 11:49 pm

Jerm’s point is well taken here, I think. A problem we can get into if we’re not careful is, in the name of Christianity, to write off the contribution that medical science can make with the argument that “only Christ can heal” or “science cannot ultimately be trusted.” If we’re not careful in our spiritual fervor, we can call for healing through spiritual means—and it’s hard for a believer to refute such calls because who wants to say that healing can’t come through spiritual channels?—and ignore some really significant contributions from medical science. To look to medical science for answers is not necessarily to commit spiritual heresy. But having said that, I will admit that in my younger, more enthusiastic years I was quick to jump onto some of the evangelical bandwagons that were always ready to denounce anything that resembled intellectualism and science. And to be sure, Jess has said some really valid things, in my opinion, about how we should regard such problems as pornography. We should be ever prepared to look for spiritual solutions to problems such as we’ve been discussing in this forum. Yet some medical issues have such a nature that it’s hard to decide if the core of the problem is physical, psychological or spiritual. And we can’t revert back to the attitude, which I refer to here facetiously, of “no, I won’t vaccinate my kids because God’s going to protect them!” We are not wise to discount the contributions that science has given us through the use of God-given intelligence, even when a good many folks in medical science do not share our spiritual views.

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20 Tarheel June 2, 2014 at 2:15 am

Great ponts, Parks duo! ;-)

Knowledge (even scientific knowledge and understanding) comes from the Lord. Sure it’s affected by the fall, therefore it’s perverted and distorted – just as is everything else in earth – however to completely discount it is to ignore one of Gods good gifts he has granted for our good.

We have the benefit as believers who are guided in all things by the Spirit, to be able to tap into these gifts of God and use them as they’re intended.

While we have to be careful to not be worldly and fleshly – we do live in the world and in flesh- and thankfully our creator God has graciously granted us knowledge to somewhat understand the complex structures and innerworkings of our world, our brains and our psyche. We’d be wise to use these gifts especially as we seek to help and stregnthen those “overtaken in a fault”.

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