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Part 2: A Link Between Biology and Technology

(September 15, 2010)

Technology and the Biology of
Excessive Pornography Use

When we talk about young girls and boys who, like 13-year-old Reina, are text messaging addicts, we tend not to condemn them. If anything, we feel sorry for them. We may even wink at their behavior and say, "Isn't that cute?", and laugh about it.

This is not the case when we think about grown men who use online pornography. And yet, the explanation as to why men use pornography is chillingly similar to why so many youngsters text message excessively. To see why this is the case, let me recall for a moment our discussion of how the nervous system develops.

As I explained earlier (Section 27), when the nervous system of a fetus begins to develop at about 8 weeks of age, it is exquisitely sensitive to the presence of male hormones. Under the influence of testosterone, the fetus will develop a male nervous system; without testosterone, the fetus will develop a female nervous system.[15]

By the time a male has grown to adulthood, the area in his brain devoted to sex is two and half times as large as the same area in the female brain.

In a male brain, the areas responsible for sex and aggression will become much larger than in the female brain. Conversely, the male brain will have significantly smaller areas for verbal skills, emotion, and processing gut feelings. By the time a male has grown to adulthood, the area in his brain devoted to sex is two and half times as large as the same area in the female brain.[19]

As a result, not only do men think about sex a lot more, they are much more sensitive to visual stimuli than are women. In particular, when viewing erotic images, men (but not women) show "significant activation of the thalamus and hypothalamus, a sexually dimorphic area of the brain known to play a pivotal role in physiological arousal and sexual behavior".[20] ("Sexually dimorphic" means there are clear differences between males and females.)

We can explain this at the biochemical level by observing that, when a man looks at an attractive woman — or a picture of an attractive woman — his brain reacts quickly. In fact, it was designed to react quickly. The instant a man sees something erotic, his pleasure center is stimulated by a shot of dopamine, which makes him feel good. At the same time his hypothalamus is activated, resulting in "physiological arousal". The overall effect is a brief feeling of pleasure and arousal, a feeling all men know well, but which often puzzles women. For example, many women honestly have trouble understanding why their husbands and boyfriends have such a strong urge to look at every attractive woman who passes nearby.

Our biochemical explanation explains why men, more than women, want to look at attractive members of the opposite sex. Each time a man looks at an attractive woman, he experiences a brief but pleasurable feeling of attraction and arousal. The same explanation also explains why men, more than woman, enjoy using pornography. Every time a man looks at erotic photo, he feels good — instantly.

From an evolutionary perspective, is this not what we would expect? After all, it is the nature of men to "want" to impregnate as many fertile females as possible, so of course men will be attracted to such women when they see them.

Nevertheless, although the male brain has evolved to enjoy erotic stimulation, the system breaks down when there is too much stimulation. Consider the following: in a single evening, a man using online pornography will expose himself to more erotic images than his primitive hunter- gatherer ancestors would experience in a lifetime. From the brain's point of view, even a half hour of porn is an overwhelming binge of stimulation.

The reason this is so important is that the male brain is highly sensitive to such artificial stimulation. In fact, modern suppliers of online pornography actually design their products so as to hijack men's thinking processes. In this way, modern pornography is actually what we might call a "visual drug", designed to be as addictive as possible by over-stimulating a vulnerable part of the male brain. Ironically, when a man uses pornography to masturbate, the experience is not nearly as satisfying as real sex.[21]

Moreover, the frequent ejaculations brought on by chronic porn use create a biochemical roller coaster involving dopamine and prolactin that exacerbates the problem significantly by causing anxiety and despair.[22] [23] In fact, within the brain, the ventral tegmental area — the prime mover of pleasure, which is activated during ejaculation — is the same area activated by using cocaine and heroin.[24] (Refer to the diagram in Section 25.)

Do you see the similarity to the mobile phone industry? Consider, for a moment, how they deliberately manipulate their products and services, so as to make their offerings as addictive as possible, especially when it comes to text messaging. Is it not apparent that the phone industry is — like the porn industry, and many other industries — doing its very best to stimulate a vulnerable part of their customers brains? It is no accident that so many people refer to the BlackBerry (a type of PDA) as a "CrackBerry". However, the analogy is not so cute when we think seriously about the shallow, unsatisfying pleasure of text messaging and email compared to real face-to-face communication. Compare this to the shallow, unsatisfying pleasure of masturbation compared to real sex.

Men who use pornography regularly have no idea what is actually happening to their thought processes and to their biochemistry. All they know is that they find themselves looking at more and more pictures, while enjoying it less and less. This is because too much stimulation of the pleasure center leads to the two consequences we discussed earlier (in Section 26):

• Increasing neurotransmitter insensitivity, creating tolerance.

• Chronic dopamine depletion, creating psychological distress along with the generalized feeling that "something is missing".

As I mentioned earlier, dopamine depletion also impairs the quality of emotion-based decision making. When dopamine is low, people find it difficult to resist short-term rewards, even when such behavior can lead to serious long-term consequences.[13]

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A Link Between

The Island Syndrome
1. What Is the Island Syndrome?
2. What's in the News?
3. Difficult Questions
4. Why the Nature of Communication...
5. No Man Is an Island
6. Putting a Name to the Malaise
7. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
Living in the Bubble
8. What's in the News?
9. The Three Mandatory Machines
10. Life in the Bubble
11. Why We Keep On Keeping On
12. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
The Importance of the Brain's Biochemical Environment
13. What's in the News?
14. The Story of Dave
15. Importance of Neurotransmitters
16. The Stuff of Moods, Feelings and...
17. What Does Dave Need?
18. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
19. Introduction to Part II
20. The Island Syndrome
21. Excessive Text Messaging
22. Excessive Pornography Use
23. Understanding the Biology
24. Hormones and Neurotransmitters
25. The Pleasure Center
26. Too Much, Too Fast: Craving and...
27. The Female and Male Brains
28. Biology of Excessive Text Messaging
29. Biology of Excessive Pornography...
30. Conclusion: The Island Syndrome...
31. References