Saturday, April 9, 2011

Pornography: Its History in Civilisation & How iIt Changes Your Brain [NSFW]

Back in 1999, Channel 4 (England) ran a 6-part series on the "secret history" of pornography in Western Civilization. If you have ever looked at some of the classic art in various cultures, it really was not so secret. But this is still a quite interesting series.

Below the video there is an article on how pornography in its current form rewires the brain of those who consume it regularly.

Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation

(TV mini-series 1999) (6 episodes- 50min/episode)

Pornography: The Secret History of CivilisationAfter taking in the fast-paced anthropology lesson of this engaging six-part series produced for British television in 1999, it would seem that for most of civilization, pornography hasn’t been such a secret after all.

The six lively episodes take playful account of that which is on more people’s minds than will easily admit, and which has been an important, if often vilified part of world culture since humans could think about such things. This documentary is a stylish and tidy chronological account of erotic imagery that the episodes categorize from earliest recorded history to the latest (as of the end of the 20th century) prospects afforded by the Internet and virtual technology.

An array of interview subjects from scholars to porn stars talk about everything from the graphic images discovered amongst the ruins of Pompeii and the one-of-a-kind erotica traded among high-class Europeans, to what it’s like for individuals to make and distribute their own adult encounters through the facility of their own bedroom camcorders.

Before it was demonized and censored when the printing press brought porn to the masses, it seems erotic drawings were a lot of jolly good fun that was not at all stigmatized. (One of the most amusing sequences is an interview with a prestigious, septuagenarian and erotic art historian who is interviewed about his specialty while reclining nude under the gaze of a woman sketching his portrait.)

Once the church became involved, deeming the depictions of man, woman, and beast doing what came naturally as obscene–a relatively modern classification – it moved into the shadows of sociological study. The episodes on photography, including still and moving pictures and the impact modern technology had in creating a porn industry are interesting, but not entirely enlightening for most people who have even a passing knowledge of the development of erotica from French postcards to adult home video.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist – 4 hours)

This article was posted by Donald Hilton at the Arts & Opinion blog - Dr. Hilton is a noted neurosurgeon at the University of Texas - and he is also a noted anti-pornography crusader who argues (quite well) that pornography is as addictive as any drug. He is the author of He Restoreth My Soul, a Christian approach to porn addiction.

He is not alone in this argument - there is ample research to support his position. In fact, more and more in-patient treatment facilities are recognizing porn addiction as one of the addictions with which patients present (notably, porn and sex addiction tend to also have chemical addiction partnerships in the patient).

He's on a lot more solid ground with me arguing from a neuroscience perspective than from a reproductive perspective or a Christian spiritual perspective.

This is a long article, so I am only presenting some relevant parts of it.


by Donald Hilton (2010)

While some have avoided using the term “addiction” in the context of natural compulsions such as uncontrolled sexuality, overeating, or gambling, let us consider current scientific evidence regarding the brain and addiction.

* * * * * *


Let’s review some of the important components of the reward system of the brain. On the outside is the cerebral cortex, a layer of nerve cells that carry conscious, volitional thought. In the front, over the eyes, are the frontal lobes. These areas are important in judgment, and, if the brain were a car, the frontal lobes would be the brakes. These lobes have important connections to the pleasure pathways, so pleasure can be controlled.

In the center of the brain is the nucleus accumbens. This almond-sized area is a key pleasure reward center, and when activated by dopamine and other neurotransmitters, it causes us to value and desire pleasure rewards. Dopamine is essential for humans to desire and value appropriate pleasure in life. Without it, we would not be as incentivized to eat, procreate, or even to try to win a game.

It’s the overuse of the dopamine reward system that causes addiction. When the pathways are used compulsively, a downgrading occurs that actually decreases the amount of dopamine in the pleasure areas available for use, and the dopamine cells themselves start to atrophy, or shrink. The reward cells in the nucleus accumbens are now starved for dopamine and exist in a state of dopamine craving, as a downgrading of dopamine receptors on the pleasure cells occurs as well. This resetting of the “pleasure thermostat” produces a “new normal.” In this addictive state, the person must act out in addiction to boost the dopamine to levels sufficient just to feel normal.

As the desensitization of the reward circuits continues, stronger and stronger stimuli are required to boost the dopamine. In the case of narcotic addiction, the addicted person must increase the amount of the drug to get the same high. In pornography addiction, progressively more shocking images are required to stimulate the person.


As a feedback of sorts, the frontal lobes also atrophy, or shrink. Think of it as a “wearing out of the brake pads.” This physical and functional decline in the judgment center of the brain causes the person to become impaired in his ability to process the consequences of acting out in addiction. Addiction scientists have called this condition hypofrontality, and have noted a similarity in the behavior of addicted persons to the behavior of patients with frontal brain damage.

Neurosurgeons frequently treat people with frontal lobe damage. In a car crash, for instance, the driver’s brain will often decelerate into the back of his forehead inside his skull, bruising the frontal lobes. Patients with frontal lobe damage exhibit a constellation of behaviors we call frontal lobe syndrome. First, these patients are impulsive, in that they thoughtlessly engage in activities with little regard to the consequences. Second, they are compulsive; they become fixated or focused on certain objects or behaviors, and have to have them, no matter what. Third, they become emotionally labile, and have sudden and unpredictable mood swings. Fourth, they exhibit impaired judgment.

So cortical hypofrontality, or shrinkage of the frontal lobes, causes these four behaviors, and they can result from a car wreck or from addiction.

A study on cocaine addiction published in 2002 shows volume loss, or shrinkage, in several areas of the brain, particularly the frontal control areas. A study from 2004 shows very similar results for methamphetamine. But we expect drugs to damage the brain, so these studies don’t really surprise us.

Consider, though, a natural addiction, such as overeating leading to obesity. You might be surprised to learn that a study published in 2006 showed shrinkage in the frontal lobes in obesity very similar to that found in the cocaine and methamphetamine studies. And a study published in 2007 of persons exhibiting severe sexual addiction produced almost identical results to the cocaine, methamphetamine, and obesity studies. (Encouragingly, two studies, one on drug addiction [methamphetamine] and one on natural addiction [obesity] also show a return to more normal frontal lobe volumes with time in recovery.)

So we have four studies, two drug and two natural addiction studies, all done in different academic institutions by different research teams, and published over a five-year period in four different peer-reviewed scientific journals. And all four studies show that addictions physically affect the frontal lobes of the brain.


I mentioned that the dopamine systems don’t work well in addiction, that they become damaged. This damage, as well as frontal lobe damage, can be shown with brain scans, such as functional MRI, PET, and SPECT scans. Recent brain scan studies have not only shown abnormalities in cases of cocaine addiction, but also in cases of pathologic gambling and overeating leading to obesity.

So non-biased science is telling us that addiction is present when there is continued destructive behavior in spite of adverse consequences. As stated in the journal Science, “as far as the brain is concerned, a reward’s a reward, regardless of whether it comes from a chemical or an experience.”

What about pornography and sexual addiction? Dr. Eric Nestler, head of neuroscience research at Mount Cedar Sinai in New York and one of the most respected addiction scientists in the world, published a paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience in 2005 titled “Is there a common pathway for addiction?” In this paper he said that the dopamine reward systems mediate not only drug addiction, but also “natural addictions (that is, compulsive consumption of natural rewards) such as pathological overeating, pathological gambling, and sexual addictions.”

The prestigious Royal Society of London, founded in the 1660s, publishes the longest-running scientific journal in the world, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. A recent issue devoted 17 articles to the current understanding of addiction. Interestingly, two of the articles were specifically concerned with natural addiction, pathologic gambling and overeating.


Drs. Robert Malenka and Julie Kauer, in a landmark paper in Nature in 2007 on mechanisms of the physical and chemical changes that occur in the brain cells of addicted individuals, said, “Addiction represents a pathological, yet powerful form of learning and memory.” We now call these changes in brain cells “long term potentiation” and “long term depression,” and speak of the brain as being plastic, or subject to change and re-wiring.

Dr. Norman Doidge, a neurologist at Columbia, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, describes how pornography causes re-wiring of the neural circuits. He notes that in a study of men viewing internet pornography, the men looked “uncannily” like rats pushing the lever to receive cocaine in the experimental Skinner boxes. Like the addicted rats, the men were desperately seeking the next fix, clicking the mouse just as the rats pushed the lever.

Pornography addiction is frantic learning, and perhaps this is why many who have struggled with multiple addictions report that it was the hardest for them to overcome. Drug addictions, while powerful, are more passive in a “thinking” kind of way, whereas pornography viewing, especially on the internet, is a much more active process neurologically. The constant searching for and evaluating of each image or video clip for its potency and effect is an exercise in neuronal learning, limited only by the progressively rewired brain. Curiosities are thus fused into compulsions, and the need for a larger dopamine fix can drive the person from soft-core to hard-core to child pornography—and worse. A paper published in the Journal of Family Violence in 2009 revealed that 85 percent of men arrested for child pornography had also physically abused children.


In addition to cortical hypofrontality and downgrading of the mesolimbic dopaminergic systems, a third element appears to be important in pornography and sexual addiction. Oxytocin and vasopressin are important hormones in the brain with regard to physically performing sexually. Studies show that oxytocin is also important in increasing trust in humans, in emotional bonding between sexual mates, and in parental bonding. We are wired to bond to the object of our sexuality.

It is a good thing when this bonding occurs in a committed marriage relationship, but there is a dark side. When sexual gratification occurs in the context of pornography use, it can result in the formation of a virtual mistress of sorts. Dr. Victor Cline, in his essay, “Pornography’s Effects on Adult and Child,” describes this process as follows:
In my experience as a sexual therapist, any individual who regularly masturbates to pornography is at risk of becoming, in time, a sexual addict, as well as conditioning himself into having a sexual deviancy and/or disturbing a bonded relationship with a spouse or girlfriend.

A frequent side effect is that it also dramatically reduces their capacity to love (e.g., it results in a marked dissociation of sex from friendship, affection, caring, and other normal healthy emotions and traits which help marital relationships). Their sexual side becomes in a sense dehumanized. Many of them develop an “alien ego state” (or dark side), whose core is antisocial lust devoid of most values.

In time, the “high” obtained from masturbating to pornography becomes more important than real life relationships. . . .
The process of masturbatory conditioning is inexorable and does not spontaneously remiss. The course of this illness may be slow and is nearly always hidden from view. It is usually a secret part of the man’s life, and like a cancer, it keeps growing and spreading. It rarely ever reverses itself, and it is also very difficult to treat and heal. Denial on the part of the male addict and refusal to confront the problem are typical and predictable, and this almost always leads to marital or couple disharmony, sometimes divorce and sometimes the breaking up of other intimate relationships.

Dr. Doidge notes,"Pornographers promise healthy pleasure and a release from sexual tension, but what they often deliver is addiction, and an eventual decrease in pleasure. Paradoxically, the male patients I worked with often craved pornography but didn’t like it." In the book Pornified, Pamela Paul gives numerous examples of this, and describes one person who decided to limit his pornography use, not from a moralist or guilt-based perspective, but out of a desire to again experience pleasure in actual physical relationships with women.

“Porn impotence,” where the man experiences sexuality preferentially with porn instead of a woman, is a real and growing phenomenon. When a man’s sex drive has been diverted away from his spouse in this way, writes Dr. Cline, the wife can “easily sense this, and often [feels] very lonely and rejected.”

An article in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy described a study showing that many women view the pornographic activities of their partners “as a form of infidelity”:
The theme that runs through their letters is that the man has taken the most intimate aspect of the relationship, sexuality, which is supposed to express the bond of love between the couple and be confined exclusively to the relationship, and shared it with countless fantasy women. The vast majority of women in this study used words such as “betrayal,” “cheating,” and “affair “ to describe the significance that their partner’s involvement in pornography had for them.

Let me use a fishing analogy to illustrate some of these concepts. Every August, if possible, I try to be on the Unalakleet River in Alaska fishing for silver salmon. We use a particular lure, a triple hook called the Blue Fox pixie. As fisherman know, it is important to keep the drag loose just after hooking the fish, when it still has a lot of fight. As the fish tires, though, we tighten the drag and increase the resistance. In this way the fish is reeled into the boat and netted.

Similarly, pornography is a triple hook, consisting of cortical hypofrontality, dopaminergic downgrading, and oxytocin/vasopressin bonding. Each of these hooks is powerful, and they are synergistic. Pornography sets its hooks very quickly and deeply, and as the addiction progresses, it progressively tightens the dopamine drag until there is no more play in the line. The person is drawn ever closer to the boat, and the waiting net.


Why is it essential to understand the addictive nature of pornography? Because if we view it as merely a bad habit, and do not afford those seeking healing the full support needed to overcome any true addiction, we will continue to be disappointed, as individuals and as a society. Pornography is the fabric used to weave a tapestry of sexual permissiveness that undermines the very foundation of society. Biologically, it destroys the ability of a population to sustain itself. It is a demographic disaster.

The author Tom Wolfe said, “The bigger pornography gets, the lower the birthrate becomes.” Does he have a point? In the 1950s every country now in the European Union had a fertility rate above the 2.1 needed to sustain a population. Now none of them do, and several are at or near the 1.3 rate called the “lowest low fertility,” from which it is virtually impossible to recover. It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that this decline began, which corresponds precisely with the dawning of the sexual revolution. There is a direct correlation between the growing cultural dominance of the sexual revolution and the diminishing birthrate, and while causation may not be proven, it is strongly supported by the pheromone effect of pornography.

Demographic decline is, of course, multi-factorial. Urbanization, women in the workplace, gender role adaptation, and even increased life expectancy are important factors in the inverted population pyramids. But the primordial, or biological factors of human sexuality and family stability are primary and, in my opinion, haven’t been appropriately weighted.

In 1934 Cambridge anthropologist Dr. J. D. Unwin published Sex and Culture. In it he examined 86 cultures spanning 5,000 years with regard to the effects of both sexual restraint and sexual abandon. His perspective was strictly secular, and his findings were not based in moralistic dogma. He found, without exception, that cultures that practiced strict monogamy in marital bonds exhibited what he called creative social energy, and reached the zenith of production. Cultures that had no restraint on sexuality, without exception, deteriorated into mediocrity and chaos. In Houposia, The Sexual and Economic Foundations of a New Society, published posthumously, he summarized:
In human records, there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence. . . . The evidence is that in the past a class has risen to a position of political dominance because of its great energy and that at the period of its rising, its sexual regulations have always been strict. It has retained its energy and dominated the society so long as its sexual regulations have demanded both pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence. . . .
I know of no exceptions to these rules.

Read more.

He may know of no exceptions to those rules, but there are many. In many pre-industrial societies there are no strictures against pre-marital sex - in fact, some cultures require as admission into adulthood (an older woman with a boy or an older man with a girl). In other cultures, promiscuity is not frowned upon at all.

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