U.Va. student speaks on the science behind pornography

At TEDxUVA’s Student Speaker Competition, Matthew Houff lectures about risks associated with pornography and effects on the brain

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Houff focused on two ways in which pornography causes a hijacking of the brain — sensitization of the “wanting system” and desensitization of the “liking system.”

Ashley Ewing | Cavalier Daily

Second-year College student Matthew Houff spoke about internet pornography and its effects on the brain at the TEDxUVA’s Student Speaker Competition held Nov. 14 at Boylan Heights. 

Houff began his talk with a discussion on “supernormal stimuli,” which he described as stimuli that hijacks people’s natural instincts. For instance, he explained that the brain’s normal drive to eat food can be hijacked by the supernormal stimuli of junk food. The extra drive for food of high caloric content can lead to health problems, such as obesity and food addiction. 

“Even if an obese person realizes the problem with their food consumption, it can be still be very hard to quit,” Houff said. “The junk food, a powerful superstimuli, has already rewired their brain, effectively hijacking the natural reward system.”

Houff paralleled the way junk food can hijack the brain’s instincts to how pornography can affect the brain’s sexual drive and reproductive instincts. He focused on two ways in which pornography causes this hijacking of the brain — sensitization of the “wanting system” and desensitization of the “liking system.”

Sensitization of the “wanting system,” Houff said, occurs through the build up of a protein called DeltaFosB. Research from the National Academy of Sciences shows that DeltaFosB accumulates in regions of the brain related to addiction in response to many drugs and compulsive behaviors. This protein causes increased sensitivity to the stimulant and “increased drug seeking behavior,” according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Houff said that a similar effect occurs in response to pornography, as the build up of DeltaFosB results in increased sensitivity and the formation of new brain connections that allow you to remember the actions associated with a pleasurable experience. This results in being drawn to repeat these actions later to obtain the same response.   

The effect of building these new brain connections that link together actions associated with pleasure is that parts of a person’s daily experience can become cues. Houff said that just as the smell of smoke may be a cue that reminds and motivates a smoker to smoke again, a place or time of day in which a pornography user is alone with the internet may be a cue to watch explicit content.

The second way in which pornography affects the brain, as Houff described, is the desensitization of the “liking system,” or the brain’s natural reward system. This process occurs through a build up of a protein called CREB in the brain, which suppresses the pleasure responses from the reward system. Research from “Behavioral Sciences” shows that with an increased amount of CREB, a greater amount of a stimulant is needed to achieve the same effect with continued use.  

Not only is there a desensitization to pornography, but there is also a dampened response to other parts of an individual’s life. 

“In fact, too much CREB floating around in your brain can dull the enjoyment of anything, even simple things like a sunset or your favorite song,” Houff said.

Despite the dulling effects of pornography, according to Houff, around half of college-aged males today were exposed to pornography before the age of 13. 

Some audience members were surprised to hear about how accessible pornography is to children. 

“Matthew’s talk about pornography opened my eyes to … how kids have access to it around the age of 11 or even younger,” second-year Nursing student Jordyn Hamlett said.

Since pornography can be a child or teen’s first exposure to sexual interactions, it can teach them “this is what normal sex is like. This is how I’ll do it,” Houff said. 

Houff presented how this perspective affects an individual’s sexual behaviors and thoughts by citing a meta-analysis that studied how porn usage is “associated with more permissive attitudes about sex, a lower view of monogamous relationships and more gender-stereotypical beliefs.” This analysis also found an association between heavy porn usage and engaging in risky sexual behaviors that put individuals at risk for sexually transmitted infections. 

Additionally, pornography not only affects an individual’s brain and sexual behaviors, but also affects relationships that the individual is involved in. 

Houff reported on another meta-analysis including 50 studies and 50,000 participants that “unanimously showed that for men, pornography consumption was associated with lower interpersonal satisfaction.” For instance, some experiments found that men rated their partner as less attractive after watching 20 minutes of porn in contrast to a group of men who watched a nature documentary. 

“Being a psychology major, I really enjoyed hearing about the negative effects pornography has on the brain,” said Alexa Connelly, a graduate student in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Psychology Department. “Pornography is something that everyone comes in contact with, but no one talks about.”

Likewise, second-year Engineering student Daniel Keith said that pornography is a “taboo topic” that people are often afraid to talk about. 

“I appreciated that Matthew took a very scientific approach to his argument,” Keith said. “Keeping it scientific helped appeal to many people.”

Although pornography is not discussed in public often, Houff said he wasn’t any more nervous talking about pornography in front of his peers than he would have been if he had talked about anything else — because he spoke about it strictly from a scientific perspective.

After being presented with all of the research that indicates how pornography affects the brain, Houff came to the conclusion that his goal is simply to raise awareness of these effects, “so that every person can consider the cost before they consume.”

During his talk, he said that shame is not how he wants people to respond to his talk because “porn users aren’t bad people.” He also said that legislation is also not an ideal solution to mitigate the negative effects of pornography usage because censorship can lead to underground markets.  

“What I’m really about is raising awareness of the risks associated with pornography and how that can affect people, particularly young people,” Houff said. “Awareness is my main goal.”

While pornography can rewire the brain, it can also be unwired, according to Houff. He said that since many people have been watching pornography for most of their lives, “it’s hard to even know if what they are feeling is normal.” 

Therefore, he suggests that if an individual is wondering if pornography has had negative effects on them, the only way to know is to take a break from pornography and reflect on what changes. 

“We can leave behind fake imitations of sex and super-stimuli that hijack our brains and instead embrace freedom,” Houff said. “After all, freedom is not the ability to do whatever we desire, but rather the ability to do the thing we desire most.”

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