Pornography Damages the Brain – New Research

Dr Donald Hilton Jr. is one of America’s foremost neurosurgeons and is also an expert on the effects of pornography viewing on the human brain. Early this year, John Larkin, Director of The Oak Centre had the opportunity to meet Dr. Hilton in person to discuss the effects of pornography on the brain.

Dr. Hilton is a sought-after speaker within the United States and throughout the world. His scientific research and conclusions have supported the argument that pornography viewing is in fact a powerful drug that can not only have negative effects on the lives of individuals, couples and families, but as new research has shown, pornography viewing can also cause structural changes to the normal functioning of the brain.  

With the author’s permission, below is a selection of some of Dr Hilton’s writings on the subject of pornography and the brain. Dr Hilton also has a number of presentations available on YouTube. 

As a neurosurgeon I have operated on many people who have suffered traumatic brain injury from motor vehicle and other accidents such as falls and assaults. Tumors and other brain problems, such as aneurysms, can also cause similar damage.

Let us consider a motor vehicle accident. With the tremendous force of suddenly stopping, the brain inside the scull keeps travelling into the frontal bone (forehead). This produces a commonly seen finding on CT scans called a contusion, or “brain bruise”.

The frontal cortex part of the brain swells, and the orbitofrontal, mid-frontal and other frontal areas involved in mediation and judgement of pleasure responses are damaged by the trauma and frequently they become haemorrhagic (bleed). Sometimes this produces severe, life threatening pressure on the rest of the brain, and we must operate and remove some of the damaged frontal lobe to prevent coma and death. Upon recovery patients can manifest what we in neurosurgery call a “frontal lobe syndrome”, or “hypofrontality”. On follow-up CT scans of the person’s brain, the frontal lobes often show atrophy or shrinkage.

Family members may comment that the loved one “just isn’t the same”. A formerly dignified and sophisticated person may be silly and laugh or cry inappropriately and show other signs of impaired judgement. They usually manifest compulsivity, or repetition of certain behaviours they normally wouldn’t be fixated on.

The frontal cortex is like a “brake” in that it allows a person to use reason and judgement to reduce or stop certain behaviours. When the frontal cortex is damaged, the person is unable to stop certain behaviours, even if there are negative consequences.

Science and research have now shown that both chemical and process addictions (eg. sex, gambling, eating) produce a similar “hypofrontality syndrome”.

All addictions appear to cause physical changes (shrinkage) in control and pleasure centres of the brain and this has been demonstrated in both drug addictions such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and process addictions such as gambling and sex addiction. Importantly, recent studies show that when recovery and healing occurs for both drug and process addictions, the brain returns to a more normal state.

When we undertake to alter or damage the pleasure centres of our brains, to reset our thermostats for pleasure, we tread on very dangerous ground. Society has bought into the lie that the only constraint against purely recreational sex is physical disease. As long as there is no physical disease transmitted, any emotional, psychological or spiritual trauma is discounted with regard to sexual behaviour if the individual is comfortable with it.

Dr. Norman Doidge, in his international best-selling book titled, The Brain that Changes Itself, includes pornography in his definition of true addictions. He states “The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol …All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain ….Pornographers promise healthy pleasure and relief from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is an addiction, tolerance, and an eventual decrease in pleasure”. 

In describing how the endless variety of Internet pornography locks a person in, Dr. Doidge states “Hardcore porn unmasks some of the early neural networks that formed in the critical periods of sexual development and brings all these early, forgotten, or repressed elements together to form a new network, in which all the features are wired together. Porn sites generate catalogues of common kinks and mix them together in images. Sooner or later the surfer finds a killer combination that presses a number of his sexual buttons at once.”   

Dr. Eric J. Nestler is a prominent neuroscientist (amongst others) who has shown strong evidence that there is a common molecular pathway for all addiction. This means that all addictions affect the brain in the same way, whether induced by externally ingested drugs or by “drugs” produced internally by addictive behaviours (eg. sex, gambling, eating).

Fortunately with abstinence from viewing pornography, there is evidence that the brain can heal and that the adversely affected areas of the brain can regain their size and normal functioning. This provides hope for all addicts, including those struggling with pornography addiction.

Additional information provided by John Larkin:

On August 15, 2011 the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) issued a public statement defining all addiction (including sex addiction) in terms of brain changes.

“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.”

The following excerpts are taken from the FAQs:

“The new ASAM definition makes a departure from equating addiction with just substance dependence, by describing how addiction is also related to behaviors that are rewarding. This the first time that ASAM has taken an official position that addiction is not solely “substance dependence.”

“This definition says that addiction is about functioning and brain circuitry and how the structure and function of the brains of persons with addiction differ from the structure and function of the brains of persons who do not have addiction.

It talks about reward circuitry in the brain and related circuitry, but the emphasis is not on the external rewards that act on the reward system. Food, sexual behaviors and gambling behaviors can be associated with the pathological pursuit of rewards described in this new definition of addiction.”

We all have the brain reward circuitry that makes food and sex rewarding. In fact, this is a survival mechanism. In a healthy brain, these rewards have feedback mechanisms for satiety or ‘enough.’

In someone with addiction, the circuitry becomes dysfunctional such that the message to the individual becomes ‘more’, which leads to the pathological pursuit of rewards and/or relief through the use of substances and behaviors.”


Posted on May 8, 2013