Pornography has never been more accessible.
The sheer volume of pornographic content now available online is staggering, 40 million US adults regularly visited porn websites in 2022.
As the prevalence of pornographic content and the numbers of those who view pornography have grown, there has been a significant amount of research conducted by the scientific and medical communities to better understand pornography’s impact.
Thanks to advances in neuroscience over the past decade, scientists are now able to articulate exactly how viewing pornography impacts the brain and the body (there clearly are social and psychological impacts as well, but we will unpack those another day).
What these studies have revealed is troubling. Exposure to pornography is formative, lasting, and unhealthy. In this post, we will provide a high-level overview of what porn does to your brain.
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1. Viewing pornography tricks your brain
There is an area in your brain known as the “reward center” that helps form habits. It releases chemicals, including dopamine, which establish connections between actions and the perceived desirability of that action.
How porn affects dopamine
Dopamine is known as a “pleasure” chemical; it creates a link between certain habits and a “reward.” Activities like exercise, eating, and sex all trigger reactions in this part of the brain.
With pornography, however, the brain responds differently than it does with run-of-the-mill stimulation, like a sugary snack or a simple game. For most daily behaviors, the brain has an “off” switch that stops the release of dopamine once a craving has been satisfied.
In contrast, pornography impacts the brain much like an addictive drug by triggering ever-increasing amounts of dopamine. Over time, the brain builds up a tolerance to the excess dopamine and requires either more access or more extreme content (or sometimes both) to achieve that same level of perceived pleasure.
Research from a Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction report indicates that extended exposure to pornography correlates with less activity in the brain’s reward circuit.
Furthermore, once the reward center is altered by “free” dopamine triggers like porn, it can lead to a person compulsively seeking out the activity that triggered the dopamine discharge.
“As well, dopamine is secreted at moments of sexual excitement and novelty. Porn scenes, filled with novel sexual "partners", fire the reward center. The images get reinforced, altering the user's sexual tastes.
Many abused substances directly trigger dopamine secretion – without us having to work to accomplish a goal. This can damage the dopamine reward system. In porn, we get “sex” without the work of courtship. Now, scans show that porn can alter the reward center too.”—Guardian, 2013.
In short, when viewing pornography, your brain gets less pleasure while wanting more, often causing desensitization and an escalation in behavior.
2. Viewing pornography rewires your brain
When your brain’s reward center triggers the release of dopamine and related chemicals, it also releases a protein (DeltaFosB) that serves as a “reinforcer.”
In effect, it creates neural pathways to connect what someone is doing to how they feel—in this case, strongly connecting pleasure to the act of watching pornography.
This connection in turn results in greater demand for the activity, making it more and more likely that one returns to porn, according to the Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction report. If enough of this reinforcing protein builds up, it can cause lasting changes to your brain that leaves you even more vulnerable to addiction.
“Regarding Internet addiction, neuroscientific research supports the assumption that underlying neural processes are similar to substance addiction”—Neuroscience of Internet Porn Addiction, 2015
When neural pathways connect your brain’s reward center with something harmful, it can overwhelm previously held beliefs about what’s unethical or inappropriate and make you think those things are normal. One study found that people exposed to significant amounts of porn thought that things like violent sex were twice as common as those not exposed to porn thought. 
3. Viewing pornography influences your relationships
Watching violent and/or non-consensual porn has toxic effects that can cause lasting damage to teens’ ability to have healthy relationships.
For example, studies indicate that viewing hard-core porn can change attitudes about women; men who watch porn regularly are more likely to objectify women and have hardened misogynistic attitudes.
Because porn is the source for some teens of information about sex, these dynamics can create especially warped ideas.
Sexual aggressiveness is a major message presented in modern pornography, and one review of popular porn videos found that in 9 out of 10, a woman was being beaten, yelled at, or otherwise harmed.
Here are three further research studies that indicate how porn affects relationships:
- There is “no evidence that porn viewing led to decreases in how happy people are with their partners, nor did they seem to be using porn as a way of making up for deficiencies in their relationships”—Rosen & Bergeron, 2020
- “Currently, the only meta-analysis on pornography consumption as it relates to interpersonal satisfaction. The overall association was negative for men but not significant for women.”—Wright & Kraus et al, 2017
- “Greater exposure to pornography are more likely to engage in sexually dominant behaviors, distancing them from their partners, and reducing their sense of sexual satisfaction.”—Wright et al, 2021
Viewing pornography at a young age can be damaging.
The risk of becoming addicted to pornography is higher for teenagers as the reward centers in their brains respond 2-4 times more strongly than those of adult brains. According to Psychology Today, teenagers who are exposed to sexual content are more likely to have sex at a younger age, and “early exposure to pornography is a risk factor for sex addictions and other intimacy disorders.”
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Canopy can help you protect those you love most.
Canopy blocks porn and removes pornographic images in real time. It—literally—prevents such content from appearing on the screen of your child’s device. You can also be proactive in talking with your child about how to respond in case they are exposed to pornography.
Effects of Porn – FAQs
Does porn cause brain damage?
Brain damage is an injury that causes the destruction or deterioration of brain cells. It’s caused by external force or pressure on the brain tissue.
Porn does not cause this type of brain damage, however, research suggests porn can lead to negative effects on the way the brain functions.
Review this full article for insight into the latest research on how porn affects the brain negatively.
How does porn affect your body?
As this article shows, porn has adverse effects on the brain in several ways. Those include rewiring your dopamine center leaving the brain vulnerable to addiction, as well changing beliefs around what’s normal in a healthy sexual relationship.
Porn can also lead to desensitization, a numbed pleasure response due to overstimulation of the dopamine receptors. This can change your behavior, encouraging the porn consumer to seek more novel sexual material.
What are the effects of quitting porn?
Quitting porn can have dramatic effects. Or none at all.
It depends on your level of porn addiction. In our article on quitting porn, we discuss the timeline you can expect to go through when quitting porn.
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