Pornography, Sex, and the Pleasure Systems in the Brain


Dopamine.  That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in recovery circles for pornography /sex addiction.  Why is this tiny endocrinological, neurochemical compound such a big deal? It’s a big deal in recovery because it affects the part of the brain that pornography stimulates.  

Norman Droidge, M.D., author of The Brain that Changes Itself, writes the following about pornography and the pleasure centers of the brain:

“Pornography is more exciting than satisfying because we have two separate pleasure systems in our brains, one has to do with exciting pleasure and one with satisfying pleasure.  The exciting system relates to the ‘appetitive’ pleasure that we get imagining something we desire, such as sex or a good meal. Its neurochemistry is largely dopamine-related, and it raises our tension level.

“The second pleasure system has to do with the satisfaction, or consummatory pleasure, that attends actually having sex or having that meal, a calm, fulfilling pleasure.  Its neurochemistry is based on the release of endorphins, which are related to opiates and give a peaceful, euphoric bliss.

“Pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system.  Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated.  Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we’ve been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated.”

Basically, porn stimulates dopamine and causes the excitement and tension to build but never actually satisfies or gives the “consummatory” style of pleasure that real relationships can produce.  The porn addict is increasingly seeking pleasures that excite but don’t satisfy. Much like someone who is thirsty in the desert may have the illusion of an oasis in mirage and thinks he’s drinking but is really just guzzling sand, pornography gives the illusion of intimacy, validation, and connection when in reality it is isolating, hollow, and unfulfilling.  Porn can only excite – never satisfy.

In contrast, real relationships and attachment is satisfying.  When we connect with someone we love and have real, meaningful relationships, the other pleasure system is activated oxytocin.  That’s why in LifeStar we heavily emphasis attachment connections and meaningful relationships to partners, spouses, family, and friends.  

We also emphasize wholesome, recreational activities that are exciting to you and are healthy for you in your dailies.  The porn addict needs dopamine, but from a different source than pornography. Whether it is fishing, bike riding, sports, board games, reading, writing, cooking, or whatever else is really exciting – you need to get dopamine from some healthy activity that is exciting to you and is acceptable in your family relationships.  Having a preplanned “default response” as a “go to” when you are tempted is a key to recovery. If every time you feel tempted you can turn to some healthy excitement, you’ll be better off.

Let’s suppose you choose fishing as your wholesome, exciting activity.  Most people who love fishing can’t do that every day. But on the days you can’t fish, you could still plan your next fishing trip, organize your tackle box, or read fishing magazines.  So, if you are tempted at 2 in the morning and need your “dopamine fix,” instead of turning to pornography you could use fishing as a default response and go restring a fishing pole or tie another fly to add excitement into your life. Obviously, if you have multiple exciting hobbies and interests, that will help you get the dopamine you need in more diverse ways and lead to a more well-rounded, healthy brain (and life).  

Though it takes time, getting dopamine from healthy, wholesome activities will rewire your brain.  Just as pornography rewired your brain to crave excitement through feeding your addiction, these wholesome activities that are exciting and dopamine inducing will help heal your brain and rewire it to seek the dopamine through healthy recreations and activities.  So, remember that having wholesome fun is an important step in recovery. Who knew fun could be so healthy for your brain?


By: Kyle N. Weir, PhD, LMFT, Clinical Director, LifeSTAR of the Central Valley

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This entry was posted in Addiction, Attachment, Female Sexual Addiction, Inspiration, Recovery, Science, Self-care, Self-Compassion, Sexual Addiction, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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