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Of Rats, Voles and Online Porn

Rats in a Skinner Box

Rats wired up to electrodes, housed in an experimental Skinner box, continually press a button to give themselves powerful, pleasurable sensations. The rats go into a veritable lever-pushing frenzy, even when it means depriving themselves of food. Put the rat in a different box, where a tap of the lever releases a hit of cocaine, and the same thing happens. They have to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, Dr Norman Doidge describes a study of men viewing pornography. The men, he writes, looked “uncannily” like the rats pushing their levers: “Like the addicted rats the men were desperately seeking their next fix, clicking the mouse just as the rats pushed the lever.”

The majority of people who watch porn online do so recreationally, with little ill effect. Only a small group of people will become addicted and suffer serious consequences as a result. But, for that subset of users, online pornography use has been described as the crack cocaine of online addictions. Is such a comparison fair? Why does Doidge reference men only? Are men more addicted to pornography than women, and, if so, why? Why only some men?

To answer these questions, I look at similarities between drug use and porn addiction, using what’s known as the dopamine hypothesis model—making links between neurobiology and theories from evolutionary biology—in what might be termed a hard deterministic perspective. Other models of pornography addiction take into account social and environmental factors, and I consider these elsewhere. To use a computer analogy, if social and environmental models constitute the software, in this article I focus on the hardware: the human brain, genes, and neurochemistry.

Are men more addicted than women?

There are two factors to consider here: first, the number of men versus women who watch pornography; second, the percentage of men versus women whose porn consumption is considered problematic. The studies I cite below refer to video pornography, not other types of online pornography, such as erotic literature. There are differences in how men and women consume pornography: on average more men watch online porn, more women read it. The visual component is addictive for men.

Numerous studies have tracked the number of men and women who watch porn. One study, which tracked porn use over several decades, found that twice as many men as women had watched an X-rated movie in any given year. The same study also found that the percentage increase in viewing by men was almost double that of women over a forty-year period.  Other studies have found men watch three times more pornography than women on a weekly or daily basis. Men are also more likely to be heavy users of porn.

Studies comparing rates of problematic porn use between men and women are rarer, but those that do exist show that rates of addiction are higher among men. One 2017 study found that 19% of male college students met the criteria for pornography addiction—only 4% of women met the same criteria. A separate 2017 study saw four times as many men as women self-identify as addicted. A 2011 study from Sweden found almost three times more men than women report issues with online porn use. Not only do men watch more porn, but rates of addiction for men are also higher; by between three to five times. But why?

A Tale of Two Voles

The prairie vole, a native of the American plains, is a pair-bonder, choosing one partner and remaining with her for life. He is also pro-social and—thanks to his penchant for hanging around—a good father. Compare him to his cousin, the meadow vole, with whom he shares the plains. The meadow vole is in many ways his opposite: notoriously promiscuous, more given to a nest-hopping lifestyle, less social, not a great father, and so on.

Researchers set out to discover what causes such different behavior and found a genetic variance: a difference in the allele RS3 334, related to the neurochemical vasopressin, a crucial ingredient in pair-bonding. For the prairie vole, the difference means that he is neurochemically rewarded for engaging in pro-social behavior. When he bonds, the vasopressin encourages continued loyalty, which releases more vasopressin ad infinitum. The opposite is true for the meadow vole. Lacking vasopressin receptors, he is more inclined to promiscuity, is more anti-social, etc.

Following this discovery, studies were conducted to see whether the same genetic variant had any influence on male sexual behavior in humans. The same variant was discovered to exist and a link to promiscuity was found. Men have either zero, one or two copies of the allele RS3 334. Men with zero copies are more likely to remain monogamous, while males with one copy have less likelihood of forming a strong bond with their partners. Males who have inherited two copies are more likely to stray and more at risk of divorce than other men. Meanwhile, women are not affected by variants of the allele at all. This is not to say that women never stray. Not only might genes play a role when they cheat, but when women are promiscuous they are promiscuous in a different way.

If RS3 334 is implicated in cheating, is it related to pornography addiction? This is a relatively new area of research and to date no pornography studies have been done controlling for the genetic variant. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest a link exists. One 2015 study linked a lack of vasopressin receptors not just to cheating, but to a higher risk of displaying other symptoms of hypersexual disorder, including excessive use of pornography. The authors of that study also noted the link between decreased vasopressin activity and an increase in dopamine activity in hypersexuality. This contrast is important because it marks another difference between the prairie and meadow voles. Whereas the neurocircuitry of the prairie vole contains more vasopressin receptors, the promiscuous meadow vole has more dopamine receptors.

What would happen if the opposite were true? Would regulation by a different neurochemical have an effect on either vole?

Curious to see if a difference in neurochemical regulation would produce a difference in behavior, researchers conducted two experiments. A team from the Emory University School of Medicine isolated the vasopressin gene and injected it into the meadow vole. The meadow voles gave up their amorous ways and turned instead to steadfast monogamy. To see what might happen to the prairie vole, a team from Florida State University triggered certain dopamine receptors in their brains, focusing on the D1 receptor. Tinkering with D1 caused the previously monogamous prairie vole to play the field. Researchers had discovered a switch to turn cheating on or off.  Intrigued at these results, they began to focus their attention on the role of dopamine in male sexuality.

Regulation by dopamine marks a difference between male and female neurobiology.  On average, males are more left-brain dominant, more regulated by dopamine. Women tend to be more right-brain dominant, more regulated by serotonin. Dopamine is also implicated, not just in promiscuity, but in a range of risk-taking activities—among them gambling, financial investment and drug addiction— traditionally male-centric enterprises. This crude male-female divide should not lead us to ignore similarities between the genders, deny the effects of dopamine on women or downplay the delicate interplay of serotonin, oxytocin and vasopressin in determining  male and female behavior. Rather, for those of us who are left-brain dominant, the role of dopamine at the extreme end of the neurochemical bell curve has implications for pornography addiction.

A Trip Through the Pleasure Centre

The mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway, more commonly known as the reward center, is located deep inside your brain. It comes as standard hardware in the brains of vertebrates. The reward center releases dopamine, a pleasure chemical, into your brain whenever you do something healthy, such as eat tasty food or exercise. The high you get from a dopamine rush makes you want to repeat that behavior again and again: this is so-called Pavlovian learning. The reward center’s job is to motivate you to repeatedly do those things that improve your health, thus improving your chances of survival. It’s termed Pavlovian because the brain learns to follow the same path: a neural pathway forms when the brain learns to associate a behavior with feelings of pleasure.

The problem is that the brain can be given a false signal, such as when taking addictive drugs—the brain can’t tell the difference between drug use and a real, healthy reward, and so it goes ahead and activates the reward center. In this case, the brain learns to follow the same path because the reward center has been tricked into thinking it is doing something healthy for the user. The presence of dopamine then activates cravings, which keep getting stronger until the user feels extremely motivated to keep pursuing more of the drug.

Addictive drugs release up to ten times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards do, and they do it faster and more reliably. Over time, the brain responds by producing less dopamine (or by eliminating dopamine receptors), resulting in a lessened impact on the reward center. When this happens, the user has to take in more of the substance to obtain the same dopamine release. In other words, they’ve built up a tolerance, and in continuing to seek out the behavior—in following the same neural pathway— addiction develops. An interesting correlate in terms of male/female differences is that the ratio for substance abuse is similar to the ratio for pornography addiction: about four to one.

Sexual behavior is also influenced by the reward center, sex being, for the most part, healthy. The same mechanisms are used to reinforce behavior, not just for sexual pleasure but in order to fulfill the genetic imperative: to spread our genes as far as possible. To ensure as diverse a gene pool as possible, sex adds another ingredient to the mix: novelty. Scientists have long known that sexual interest and performance can be increased simply by introducing something new—such as a different sexual position, a toy, or a change of partner. Research by Heather Morton on partner familiarity showed that sexual arousal and desire decrease in response to partner familiarity and increase in response to partner novelty. The longer you’re with the same partner, doing the same thing, the greater the likelihood attraction will fade. However, by introducing something novel to the sexual aspect of the relationship, desire can be reignited. When dopaminergic tolerance builds up between partners, novelty can give a flagging sexual relationship a welcome boost because the brain responds to novel sexual stimuli by pumping out more of the good stuff.

According to Morton’s familiarity research, this effect of novelty is greater on men. She believes that the cause of the gender novelty gap lies in the differing sexual strategies of men and women. The different costs of child birth and child-rearing for men and women caused us to evolve different sexual strategies: promiscuity for men, pair-bonding for women. While the Pill and abortion may prove evolutionary game changers longer-term, fifty years of their wide availability have not seen much change across a range of evolutionary measures, including promiscuity.

The Coolidge Effect

In her paper, Morton refers to a phenomenon underpinning the promiscuous strategy: the Coolidge effect. The Coolidge effect is a biological phenomenon whereby the males of most species renew their sexual interest whenever a new female is introduced, even after having had sex with previous (but still available) sexual partners. The Coolidge effect could be said to be a measure of the effect of novelty on the promiscuity of males of (almost) all species. Pair-bonders like the prairie vole score low in Coolidge effect studies, while promiscuous species like the meadow vole score highly. The persistent seeking of a novel partner gives the meadow vole his high score—his lack of interest in sex toys and new positions notwithstanding. The benefit of the Coolidge effect from an evolutionary perspective is that the male is energized to fertilize multiple females. Spreading genes is nature’s number one priority and the promiscuous strategy maximizes reproduction. The more women a male sleeps with, the better chance his DNA will be carried forward into the future. This is a variant on evolutionary game theory.

Have there been Coolidge effect studies on men? Kind of. Most Coolidge effect studies have been done on non-human species. A typical experiment involves putting a male rat in a cage with four or five females in heat. . The scientists leave the male rat until he’s exhausted, his dopamine levels depleted, then measure the effects when a new female is introduced. Conducting this form of research with human subjects could present some difficulties for ethics committees, so, instead, Coolidge effect studies on men have been done using pornographic images.

In these studies, men are divided into two groups: one group is presented with the same sexual images continually, the other with a variety of different sexual images. The men shown the constant sexual images showed less arousal over time, just like the men in Morton’s familiarity study. Meanwhile, those exposed to novel images maintained significantly higher levels of arousal. In the second group, researchers also noted faster ejaculations, and more sperm and erection activity compared with the men who had been shown familiar material. A separate study found that men exposed to novel images not only produce higher volumes of sperm but sperm that is more motile, more likely to reach its target. The evolutionary advantage of such a mechanism is obvious. More sexual activity and more sperm hitting home means a more diverse gene pool. Less obvious is the effect modern technology can have on a reptilian brain process through the Coolidge effect.

The effect on dopamine levels developed over millions of years, at a time in our evolution when sightings of females were much rarer. In evolutionary terms, a novelty trip switch is useful when you are making a lonely trek across the African savannah and opportunities to be turned on are rare, but what happens if you plug the modern male brain into a pornified matrix and suddenly new partners appear everywhere?

Novelty and Online Porn

The way we encounter pornography has radically changed. Previously, all pornography had to be paid for, but these days unlimited, high-definition streams are free and widely available. The advent of aggregate sites like Pornhub has allowed users to upload and categorize videos. These sites provide a constant stream of erotic images delivered at high speed, in Technicolor, fresh to your optic cables, twenty-four hours a day. Before a user starts to get bored, he can click on an even more stimulating, hard-core link than before. As online pornography has developed, it has become easier to seek out new material. Not only has video pornography proven significantly more arousing than other forms of pornography, or even fantasy, but the ability to self-select material makes online pornography even more arousing than pre-selected collections.

What’s true of the real-life relationships in Morton’s study is also true of the pornography addict. When his dopamine levels are flagging, novelty will get him going again. And, with online pornography, it’s almost impossible to settle for habituation. A user can search not only for a different partner, but for a completely different genre of pornography. The dopamine depleted individual can progress to more explicit and graphic pornography in order to maintain a high level of excitement. In an online world of infinite fantasy, novelty is only ever a click away.

Pornography provides an opportunity to seek out a novel partner when our fertilization job appears to be done. As soon as someone has fertilized an apparently willing partner—or even just the image of one—there is a neurochemical deflation. In order to get a fresh hit of dopamine, the user can hunt around for a novel fertilization opportunity and the cycle continues. For the casual user, the dopamine download can be invigorating, but for the addict it soon becomes debilitating. For these users, online pornography provides a superstimulus, an exaggerated simulation of an evolutionarily advantageous mechanism. It is the Coolidge effect on steroids. Like Doidge’s rats, wired up to their Skinner boxes, they end up clicking incessantly, in search of a jolt of pleasure.

Is the addict forever doomed by his neurobiology? Not necessarily. For the voles, the genetic differences aren’t absolute. Not all prairie voles remain faithful—some stray—and not all meadow voles are promiscuous. Similarly, not all men with extra copies of the RS3 334 allele cheat, nor do all men with zero copies remain loyal. Environmental factors—both nurture and epigenetics—matter in whether or not genetic variants are acted upon. This raises wider question as to how much of our environment and culture is informed by genetics and to what extent our culture causes genes to switch on or off—but that’s a question beyond the scope of this article.

I researched this article to inform myself, as a therapist, as to how to treat pornography addiction. While social, environmental and cultural factors are always concerns in psychotherapy, it is useful to know, beyond the software issues, what issues are affecting the hardware. Neural pathways can be changed, dopamine homeostasis strategies can be adopted and environmental cues can be removed. A 2015 neuroimaging study found that pornography addicts experience a dopamine surge as a response to erotic cues: that is the place, setting and associated rituals of their pornography viewing habits neurologically prime them for action. Such knowledge is useful, and these and other results have obvious treatment implications. Both in terms of understanding this issue and how best to treat it, dopamine and the ‘realpolitik’ of neurochemistry matter.

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7 comments

  1. An interesting issue in the maturation of children’s sexuality is the extent to which the first exposure to sexual stimuli lead to persistent orientation toward that stimulus. If this is the case, then one would expect more problems with porn addiction in those whose initial experiences were with porn.

    In the case of addiction to opioid drugs, recreational experience creates problems for pain management, because the associations stamped in from previous experience are reactivated by the pain medication. The person who has never experiemented with drugs associates pain relief with the drug effects and is at low risk for addiction . The one fentanyl OD that I knew personally blamed his addiction on medical treatment of pain, but he had had extensive experience with all classes of abused drugs since his adolescence. Many ‘medical addicts’ are like him, and blaming the doctor is much more socially acceptable than having abused drugs in the past.

  2. It is my understanding that right brain / left brain is a myth. That leads me to question the rigor of your analysis. Perhaps I am wrong.

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    1. It depends which myth you’r referring to. If you mean the left brain-right brain/rational thinking-creative thinking paradigm, yes, as far as I’m aware, it’s been shown to be a myth.

      When I said left-brain dominant I was referring to the lateralisation of dopamine in the left hemishpere and serotonin in the right.

      https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306987712002150

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29230808

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2965297/ (Examination of correlations of changes in Stroop interference with regional DA release in ROIs revealed that male subjects had a significant negative correlation between Stroop score and left medial thalamic DA release (r = −0.81, p=0.05) which was not seen in female subjects (r = 0)

      https://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/Abstract/1997/04140/Sex_differences_in_dopamine_receptor.34.aspx

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  3. Maybe one source of novelty could be videos of hot vole-on-vole action. A shame to hear that meadow voles have no interest in sex toys, though.

  4. Fascinating article. I read a book a few years ago, written in 2012, that contained studies of porn habits. Not about addiction per-se but a lot of stuff about what turns men & women on differently. “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” by Ogi Ogas & Sai Gaddam. Worth a read if you wanna’ know more about this topic.

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