There are 5 main brain chemicals associated with pornography addiction and each has their own function within pornography addiction. They are Dopamine, Adrenaline, Serotonin, Prolactin and Oxytocin.
Dopamine is the main chemical pushing porn addiction; is a “neurotransmitter” (which simply means “a chemical in the body that carries a signal or impulse from one nerve cell to another”) and plays a huge role in all our lives whether we are addicts or not. Dopamine is, amongst many other things (such as being involved in everything from regulating movement to the control of attention) the chemical that gives us “expectation buzzes”. This buzz could be for the cake we fancy on the sweet trolley in a restaurant when we are still eating our main meal; the chase in sexual encounters; what can drive people to buy lottery tickets; the thrill we feel when we know we are going on our holidays soon or, in addiction, is (in part) the desire for the next fix of the wet, dry or behavioral drug we are addicted to. It is also the brain chemical behind the thrill when gossiping; the rush we feel when we hear a celebrity scandal or when we want to buy a tabloid to read what is on the front cover. Bottom line, dopamine is all about expectation and wanting (as opposed to necessarily liking) which is what can make it an incredibly destructive chemical when it comes to addiction. Dopamine is not about levels of pleasure per se. It’s about expectation and what, for instance, drives lust.
Dopamine loves novelty anything new and interesting… The newest car, game, sexual conquest, movie… A person could have a spike in dopamine just thinking of watching the next movie whilst still watching the current movie. Dopamine is behind the drive for more and more scenes when in a pornography binge and why a pornography addict will keep on clicking to see more and more images or videos as they get a surge of dopamine with anything novel and new. In response, the Pornography Industry has to keep upping the ante with its content to keep addict’s interest and money and why studios like Evil Angel – who specialize in the more extreme and taboo end of the market – are so profitable. Dopamine is also the chemical responsible for the motivating feeling behind the thought that you will be paid handsomely at the end of a rough pornography scene if you are a pornography performer…
We are all hooked on dopamine to a certain degree. Dopamine can give life some of its loveliest and memorable moments (low dopamine levels are also associated with depression)… but can also create hell for us when we become addicted to a wet, dry or behavioral drug.
Addicts have damaged the reward circuitry in their brains and will feel less of a hit with their drug fixes over time as it now becomes harder and harder to stimulate their reward systems and will therefore need more and more of the drug to get the same effect. Feeling less of a hit results in craving more of what will give the addict the same amount of “pleasure” as they had before it decreased… (remember dopamine is all about expectation and wanting – as opposed to necessarily liking – most addicts despise the lives they live when in active addiction yet still go back time and time again for more).
In addiction, new neural pathways are created in the addict’s brain which become, over time, about taking the path of least resistance. The rational side of the brain that understands about consequences subsequently becomes weaker over time too as the neural pathways that once ran the show are weakened as the addiction escalates and a tug of war will end up ensuing between the higher self and lower self. Levels of dopamine always decline over the course of an addict’s addiction career and the ante is always upped to get more as a result.
When you think that the definition of pornography is “Material whose primary purpose is to create sexual arousal” then it is easy to understand how the role of dopamine fits into that as dopamine is also released during genital orgasm as well as in the prelude to the orgasm. The more pornography a person does the more dopamine gets released which in turn reinforces the behavior and means the person not only desires it at some point in the future but requires it. The more porn a person does, the more they masturbate to orgasm and the more dopamine is released which further deepens the addictive cycle. It’s a feedback loop which becomes more and more difficult to escape from. The person then needs more extreme material to get sexually aroused which is when reality becomes the turn off and “boring”.
With dopamine in the driving seat of porn addiction, the need for more and more of it will take a person through some traumatising viewing material. With each new brutal or shocking image, the body releases the fight or flight hormone adrenaline to help the person cope with the trauma of what they have just witnessed on the screen.
You’ve heard of the term “adrenaline junkie”? Well that term applies just as much in porn addiction as it does for dangerous outdoor pursuits. Porn addicts – over time – also become addicted to adrenaline and will have to seek out ever more perverse, grotesque, violent, disturbing and illegal pornography to keep getting the same effect – just as adventurers have to do ever more dangerous acts to get their hits of adrenaline.
During this process the profoundly shocking pornography they are now forced to view by their addiction which many addicts would never have believed that they would have ever viewed once porn that assaults their souls can seem exciting pre-ejaculation/ orgasm. Once they have orgasmed though, addicts can now see what is on their screens and are often horrified and retraumatised by it.
And the whole sorry cycle just keeps getting worse and worse to the point that the only taboo pornography left to look in the end – which will give the adrenaline trauma hit addicts need – will be child pornography. When you have reward circuitry that is numb – which is what all active addicts have – the person will do anything to jack up the chemicals they need to feel less numb.
Whenever adrenaline is released in the body, whatever a person or animal is doing or looking at during those moments are burnt into the psyche. This is the reason why porn addicts can be haunted by porn images they have seen long after they stop viewing pornography. This is also the reason, on the positive side, why some beautiful sexual (or other) memories are remembered too. If the heart was beating faster at that time due to the release of adrenaline in the body, those memories too, will be burnt into the psyche.
Oxytocin is the chemical that is released when a Mother and her new born baby are bonding after birth. Psychology Professor Ruth Feldman from Bar-Ilan University in Israel is at the forefront of oxytocin research. She has spent years studying oxytocin’s role in the mother-child bond as well as the role oxytocin plays in romantic bonds. Prof Feldman says “The increase in oxytocin during the period of falling in love was the highest that we ever found.” Prof Feldman concluded that “Romantic relationships can have a profound effect on adult’s health and well being whereas the inability to maintain intimate bonds has been associated with physical and emotional distress. Studies in monogamous mammals underscore the central role of oxytocin in pair bonding and human imaging studies implicate oxytocin in early romantic love… Oxytocin is known to promote trust, bonding and attachment between adults and between parents and their offspring… ”
Oxytocin is also known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “bonding chemical”. When two people are healthily bonding, masses of oxytocin is released and this is what will lay the foundations of a lifetime bond between the two people whether that person is a partner or a friend. It is necessary to keep doing the things which laid those foundations though for the bonds to endure as less oxytocin is released when there are problems in our relationships and it stops altogether when relationships end and this is part of the reason we feel so much agony within ourselves at the endings of those close relationships.
The trouble with pornography is that viewers become bonded – through oxytocin – with porn performers; particular photos or scenes and especially bonded with their porn stash as oxytocin is released during porn viewing. This is the reason porn addicts struggle to get rid of their stash once they make the decision to quit porn. Because of the oxytocin bond, it can feel like a death.
People can become bonded to anything that makes them feel good – from DJs on the radio to the local shop-keeper who makes them feel good by smiling at them. Where good feelings and pleasure are involved, bonding is always possible. And nowhere is that more ironically relevant than in pornography use.
Serotonin is often called “natural Prozac” and is released after sexual climax and what makes a person feel satisfied. This is the chemical responsible for men falling asleep after ejaculating and what many porn addicts use (without them realising that this is what they are doing) to help them fall asleep after a porn bender as it relaxes them. The hormone releases a person from stress for a while and why a calmness is felt after genital orgasm. Serotonin is also an inhibitor to dopamine which basically means it stops its release.
Prolactin is also an inhibitor to dopamine stopping its production in the body – and is released into the body post genital orgasm and what brings an end to traditional sexual intercourse. Prolactin is the chemical responsible for people who have just had sex desperately wanting to get away from each other.
If couples do not genitally orgasm, prolactin is not released.
Prolactin is also the chemical responsible for what is often called “post coital blues” which is the depression that comes for a few days post genital orgasm in both males and females. When in the “honeymoon mating frenzy” period of a relationship, we remain strongly bonded by high oxytocin levels and quickly overcome our “hormonal blues” (prolactin releases) by having more sex (therefore dopamine rushes).
Often in porn addiction – to counter that depression – porn addicts will begin another binging cycle to get the dopamine flowing in their bodies again and the whole cycle begins again. Depression at this point will come to be seen as a normal state and often not even recognised as even being depression especially if the addict starts taking anti-depressants.
The same is the case with couples in the early stages of their relationships. They will have frequent sex because of the novelty involved with the new relationship (the dopamine factor). If each sex session then has a genital orgasm, the whole dopamine-prolactin cycle will be going on there too and why as the relationship settles in, many people often start losing interest in sex with their partner as the novelty has worn off and begin to drift apart and/ or the two people start to look for someone else someone novel – so dopamine can start flowing in their bodies again because it is at this point that the lows of prolactin are now felt. That is prolactin in action and usually has nothing to do with how compatible the two people are with each other or their core relationship. This behavior is the same in humans, primates, mammals and reptiles because as Kruger et al explain, it originates in the primitive part of our brain.