Highlights from the book "Your Brain on Porn" by Gary Wilson

Your Brain on Porn, written by the late Gary Wilson, is the most  comprehensive book on Internet Pornography addiction .

If you're curious about the effects of internet pornography (referred to as I.P. from now on), whether or not it is addictive, and how to stop watching it, this book is essential reading. 

Additionally, if you are experiencing issues, such as sexual dysfunction or undesired fetishes discovered through I.P., this book can potentially help you reverse those issues or at least ease your anxiety.

Finally, if you find that you're not able to quit I.P, this book can help you achieve that goal.

Here's why I found this book to be a critical part of the addiction recovery process:

  • Learn about the problems caused by I.P., which is often compelling enough to help people quit.
  • Understand addiction and why you're stuck in an endless cycle of trying and failing to quit.
  • Get actionable advice for quitting, accumulated from research and thousands of success stories.
  • Discover encouragement that might provide the push you need.

Consider watching Gary Wilson's famous TedX Talk " The great porn experiment ", which also provides a high-level view of concepts discussed in this book.

Discovering a serious modern problem

In 2008, internet users discovered compelling anecdotal evidence that sexual dysfunction issues (ED, low libido) in their own lives correlated with their internet use.

They noticed that dysfunction issues occurred in real-life encounters that were previously successful. Conversely, there were no issues when watching content on the internet. 

This motivated many online users to completely abstain from watching explicit content on the internet. After periods of abstinence, many reported a complete reversal of the real-life dysfunction issues they were having previously.

At the same time, those who were able to quit noticed they no longer suffered from depression and social anxiety and also had increased confidence and feelings of fulfillment.

These self-reports spawned numerous research studies and further anecdotal testing that continued to re-enforce these discoveries.

A year before I quit I.P. I’d even gone to see psychiatrists and psychologists, who diagnosed me with severe social anxiety disorder and depression, and wanted to put me on antidepressants, which I never agreed to... When I went on my first NoFap streak (80 days) I started noticing similar superpowers as reported by others. The central thing destroying my confidence and making me feel alone on the planet of 7 billion was being reversed, and it turned out to be very common. Today, on my 109th day of a streak, I feel happy, confident, social, smart, capable of meeting any challenge, etc.
- Anonymous person quoted in the book

Despite the cause and effect that seemed pretty clear from self-reports, many also noted that they were unable to quit. As a result, they were never able to abstain long enough to notice any changes. This motivated researchers to look into whether or not these people had formed an addiction.

Early exposure

In 2008, 14.4% of boys were exposed to adult content before the age of 13. By 2017, this number increased to 69% of males and 23% of females. 39% of males and 4% of females view adult content daily - frequently via smartphone.

In 2023, high-speed internet access is even more readily available than it was in 2017. It's fair to assume that early exposure is even more prevalent now. 

Explicit content has become normalized and easily accessible to children during a critical stage in life. 

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Addiction or Compulsion?

Does I.P. lead to addiction or is it just a compulsive behavior?

Addiction is about what happens in the person's brain, not the substance or behavior. - YBOP
- Gary Wilson

Characteristics of addiction

The book discusses the characteristics of addiction that were observed in internet porn users:

Inability to quit despite negative consequences

online communities like NoFap are massive due to the large amount of people who are unable to quit I.P. despite observing serious negative consequences from continued use.

Tolerance

I.P. users become tolerant (numbed) to material they've been watching, so they escalate into more extreme genres

Withdrawal

Similarly to smoking, I.P. users experience withdrawal symptoms, which frequently keeps them coming back to their addictive behavior.

Brain changes

I.P. users experience observable brain changes that are consistent with the addiction model. These are the observable brain changes:

  • Sensitization - unconscious memories of pleasure. Leads to powerful cravings when triggered.
  • Desensitization - numbed response to pleasure. Greater stimulation is required to achieve the same level of pleasure response, which is why I.P. leads subjects to seek out more extreme or novel I.P. Also, everyday activities become less enjoyable because of desensitization caused by I.P. use, leading to mental health issues.
  • Dysfunctional prefrontal circuitry (hypofrontality) - leads to weakened willpower for all activities that require willpower. This reduces the ability to solve problems, make good decisions, and regulate goal-directed behavior. Basically, this leads to poor self-control and prioritizing short-term pleasure over long-term reward.
  • A malfunctioning stress system - also leads to weakened willpower, amplifies cravings, and leads to withdrawal symptoms. Absence of the addiction triggers the malfunction stress system, which triggers anxiety, depression, irritability, and mood swings.

Addiction Assessment Test

As of 2016, around 1 in 3 men self-reported that they thought they were addicted to I.P. (based on this assessment test).

Addiction assessment test (3 C's):

  1. Craving and preoccupation
  2. Loss of control in moderating the extent of the behavior
  3. Negative consequences resulting from the behavior

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The Perfect Storm for Addiction

I.P. leads to addiction because of how easy it is to access and the endless content provided by the internet. Addiction is not related to time spent watching, but to variety and degree of arousal. High-speed I.P. makes it easy to switch between videos and find new and exciting content.  

When I entered the murky world of I.P, my brain had found something it just wanted more and more of. I was out of control in less than 6 months. Years of mags: no problems. A few months of I.P: hooked.

I.P. is addictive due to endless novelty, seeking behavior, and overconsumption.

The brain loses interest in familiar content (it's desensitized) and traditional methods (circa 2006) didn't provide easy alternatives to jump to. I.P. leads to addiction because the user can discover new and unique content with little effort.

The act of discovering unique (novel) content fires a strong response from the brain. The "seeking and searching" behavior is part of what keeps users hooked.

Interactions in the brain

Various interactions in the brain are hijacked to drive the addiction cycle.

  • Dopamine - motivates you to do things that further your survival so that you can pass on your genes. Dopamine ultimately drives motivation and the absence of dopamine results in apathy. In the context of sex, dopamine explains the craving you get. This craving goes away once you've satisfied the urge and dopamine levels decrease.
  • CREB - dampens pleasure response by inhibiting dopamine. This numbed pleasure response is also known as desensitization, which leads to tolerance, meaning you need a higher dose to achieve the same effect. CREP is designed to prevent you from continuous binging.
  • DeltaFosB rewires the brain to remember and repeat an activity. This is what causes cravings. It connects associations (triggers) with the addiction. This is similar to how Pavlovs dog was conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell. I.P. users are "triggered" by non-sexual cues, such as seeing a smartphone or the name of a I.P. site.

Coolidge effect & novelty

I.P. overrides CREB, which is supposed to prevent binging behavior, by providing easy access to novelty and even more extreme material.

Researchers discovered that a male rat would lose interest in a female right after mating. This is due to the brain not producing the same dopamine response when exposed to the familiar female rat. However, when a new female was introduced in the cage the rat would have sex with the new female. The rat experienced a surge in dopamine due to novelty. This is known as the  coolidge effect .

I.P. addiction started in 2006 with the launch of the first "tube" site. Tube sites were "Youtube for I.P." and provided endless novelty and short clips of the best parts of videos -  facilitating the coolidge effect . It's no coincidence that thousands of users started reporting I.P-related issues less than 2 years later.

I can totally relate to ‘wanting to watch 10 videos all at once, streaming at the same time...’ It’s like this sensory overload, or hoarding, or just overstuffing yourself with your favourite junk food.
Tube sites, especially the big ones, are the crack cocaine of internet pornography. There is so much of it, and so much new content every day, every hour, every 10 minutes that I was always able to find constant new stimulation.

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I.P. addiction can lead to a variety of issues.

Sexual Dysfunction

I.P. can cause  sexual dysfunction  as confirmed by urologists who have experienced a surge in young patients seeking help with dysfunction issues that usually affect older men.

A shockingly high rate of dysfunction was discovered in a 2 year observation of adolescent males (age 16-21). 78.6% reported a sexual problem during partnered sexual activity over the period.

Specifically:

Research reinforces the correlation between I.P. use and sexual dysfunction.

Furthermore, thousands of anecdotal reports show that quitting I.P. reverses sexual dysfunction. As a result, urologists might prescribe complete I.P. abstinence as a treatment option for patients who do not have a problem "below the belt."

Examples of sexual dysfunction include:

  • Difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection during sex
  • Delayed ejaculation (and sometimes inability to orgasm during sex)
  • Premature ejaculation
  • Lack of libido for real-life partners, but seemingly high libido for I.P.

Warning signs of ED

Often porn users report that delayed ejaculation (DE) or inability to orgasm (anorgasmia) was a precursor to full-blown erectile dysfunction.

Any of the following may precede or accompany delayed ejaculation and erectile dysfunction:

  • Earlier genres of porn are no longer exciting.
  • Uncharacteristic fetishes develop.
  • Porn use is more sexually exciting than a partner.
  • Sensitivity of penis decreases.
  • Sexual arousal with sexual partners declines.

Mental health issues

I.P. users are  frequently diagnosed with mental health issues  like social anxiety, low self-esteem, concentration problems, lack of motivation, depression, and performance anxiety.

Causes of mental health issues:

  • Accumulation of CREB in the brain reduces dopamine produced from every day activities. This can cause depression.
  • Malfunctioning stress system in the brain leads to withdrawal symptoms when away from the addiction.
  • Escalating into more extreme content can cause panic due to the belief that their sexual orientations have changed, or that they must be closet perverts.
  • Fear that they will never be able to have intimacy due to sexual dysfunctions.
I never looked forward to much of anything: dreaded going to work, and never saw socializing with friends and family as all that great, especially in comparison to my porn rituals, which gave me more pleasure and stimulation than anything else. With the addiction gone, little things make me really happy. I find myself laughing often, smiling for no real reason, and just being in good spirits all around.
...Staying off porn really makes a difference! I thought it was impossible to quit porn to the point of contemplating castration and suicide. Here’s one thing I actually didn’t know that helped me out: People who view ‘transsexual’ porn do it because of all the stimulation, and even the producers admit that they make this fetish for a straight audience. My thoughts that I might have been bi/ gay were more of an optical/ psychological illusion.

Content Escalation

Because continued I.P. leads to desensitization, I.P. users inevitably escalate into more extreme genres. The brain  seeks more dopamine via novelty, shock, forbidden content, kink, etc .

Some men even escalate into content that doesn't align with their sexuality.

Society attempts to write this off as if these people are discovering their true sexuality, but really these preferences are I.P.-induced.

I’m tired of hearing, ‘You like what you like’ from people. A lot of the things I look at I don’t like. I just can’t get off to the normal stuff anymore. I never thought I’d wank to girls p*ssing on each other – and now it doesn’t do it for me anymore.

Sexual interests can be conditioned. I.P. users find that unwanted sexual tastes go away when they quit I.P.

Just like Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate to the bell, today’s porn users can learn to wire unexpected stimuli to their erections.

As my porn use progressed throughout college, I slowly fell prey to more and more hardcore shit, like really weird shit, that is now no longer turning me on when I think about it. ^^This is one of the greatest feelings of all – to know that my fantasies are returning to those of a normal, earth-born and bred, human being.
When I stayed away from porn for 5 months all those fantasies and urges were gone

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Treatment

Most I.P. users don't know that they are addicted until they try to quit. Many discover that they are unable to completely quit I.P. Quitting I.P. is the only way to reverse I.P.-induced dysfunctions.

There are two phases to treatment:

Phase 1: Reboot

Completely eliminate I.P., I.P. substitutes, and recalling the I.P. you used to watch. This means no surfing for "soft-core" content or even mentally fantasizing. Note: Avoid any kind of artificial sexual stimulation: browsing Facebook, dating apps or erotic services sites for images will trigger similar addiction pathways in the brain and slow your reboot progress.

Most people aim for 3 months for a "complete reboot."

Timeline:

  • 2-3 weeks for some
  • 2-6 months (or longer) for most

Phase 2: Rewire

Re-sensitize yourself to physical connection (if you have the opportunity). Prioritize interactions with real people in real life.

Understand Withdrawal

For some people, quitting I.P. triggers withdrawal symptoms, which causes them to run back to I.P. It's important to anticipate and plan for these symptoms.

Common self-reports include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Inability to focus
  • Complete loss of libido (the flatline)

These withdrawal symptoms have been confirmed because returning to I.P. eliminated the symptoms. This is consistent with addiction.

I’ve battled a few addictions in my life, from nicotine to alcohol and other substances. I’ve overcome all of them, and this was by far the most difficult. Urges, crazy thoughts, sleeplessness, feelings of hopelessness, despair, worthlessness, and many more negative things were all part of what I went through with this porn thing.
One of the most dreaded aspects of quitting I.P. is the "flatline" - a **temporary** period of complete loss of libido and lifeless genitals. This is one of the most shocking side effects that is widely reported and it causes many men to return to I.P. in an effort to "salvage" their libido.

The Flatline

The flatline is a temporary period of low-libido that occurs in response to I.P.-abstinence. It’s a standard withdrawal symptom in guys with porn-induced erectile dysfunction, but it also happens to some who don’t have ED at the time they quit.

After a few days of brain tantrums (cravings), I went into a flatline for weeks. Basically I felt totally indifferent about girls, sex, everything. A little voice from the porn beast nagged at me in the back of my mind, but mostly, I just didn’t care. And my penis was very lifeless and small. It was like somebody just pulled the plug on whatever machine provides my sex drive. No libido at all.
I have absolutely no sex drive. No spontaneous erections. It’s a very strange feeling when you look at a beautiful woman and in your head you have your normal thoughts like ‘Wow, she’s beautiful. I would like to get to know her!’ and yet you have no sexual thoughts or intentions. It’s a very strange and for me quite a scary experience. It’s like you’ve been castrated.

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Lifestyle changes

You can’t expect to live the exact same lifestyle you’ve been living and expect anything to change.

  • Consider using your online devices only in less private locations. For example, build a habit of going to a coffee shop when you want to browse specific content. If you work from home, consider renting a dedicated office space.

Focus on building other sources of dopamine:

  • Friendly interaction. "The opposite of addiction is connection". You can start simply: hang out and read in a library or bookstore, or take a magazine to a coffee shop or park bench. Attend group events with a set structure (meetups, church, toastmasters)
  • Time in nature
  • Exercise
  • Accomplishment
  • Creativity

Habits to break

It's critical that you  break smaller bad habits  that are counter-productive.

  • Limit activities that cause ‘empty’ dopamine highs, such as frequent, intense videogaming, junk food, gambling, trolling Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Tinder, meaningless TV, and so forth.
  • Avoid listening, watching, or reading negative, stressful, and anxiety-producing content (especially social media and the news).

Habits to build

  • Track your progress using a day counter app and journal about your progress on a daily basis. This is helpful to keep you focused on your goal and to use reflection to determine what caused a "relapse."
  • Build a habit of regularly exercising. This could be as simple as going for a walk, but this can be a powerful mood regulator.
  • Change what you listen, watch, or read to focus on positive, uplifting, and motivating content.
  • Regular cold showers can increase willpower and help regulate emotions

Alternative approaches

  • Exposure Response Prevention Therapy (risky). Pavlov didn’t just teach his dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. He later taught it to stop salivating to the bell by ringing the bell and then withholding meat (repeatedly). This is risky, but some users reported success using exposure/willpower-building techniques: Every time I was on my PC I would open a porn website. Once the site opened I would turn it off so I could test my willpower. Those first 2 weeks were the hardest by far and I still don’t know how I was able to do it.
  • Acceptance and mindfulness therapy

Common Triggers

The desire to watch I.P. is not always triggered by obvious sexual cues.

One day I am browsing when my parents decide to go out. I didn’t want to go, so I keep doing my stuff. When they close the door, something clicks in my head. Suddenly, a big desire for porn pops into my mind. I was turned on by the closing of a door! That was the first time I realized that ‘parents leaving home’ is a trigger for me. Obvious, but I hadn’t noticed it. Now, every time my parents leave the house, I go out for a walk, call a friend or just stop using my computer and do something useful.

Common non-sexual triggers:

  • smartphones (especially when used in bed at night)
  • too much sugar or too many carbohydrates
  • too much caffeine
  • hot showers
  • videogames
  • endless content websites (YouTube, Imgur, Reddit)
  • stalking old romantic interests on social media
  • using the computer for a long time without hourly 15-minute breaks

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