Study: Problematic pornography use resembles pathological gambling in the brain

New neuroimaging research provides evidence that pornography use may be problematic for some people and resemble an addictive behavior. The findings were published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

“Before I dedicated myself to science I was working as a cognitive-behavioral therapist and I had patients seeking treatment for problematic pornography use and masturbation,” said study author Mateusz Gola of the University of California, San Diego.

“Looking for some well-established scientific knowledge about this problem, I figured out there is nothing but an unsolved (for 20 years) dispute about how to conceptualize compulsive sexual behaviors (as high libido, form of OCD, or addiction). As there was no knowledge on it and no guidelines for effective treatment, I decided to study this topic to provide such knowledge one day. And I moved to full time science. ”

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of 31 men seeking treatment for problematic pornography use to 26 control subjects.

Surprisingly, the two groups of men did not differ in their responses to erotic pictures.

“Interestingly and contradictory to previous speculations, problematic porn users are not more sensitive to porn itself than regular users,” Gola told PsyPost. “They are also not less sensitive (some people claimed that due frequent use they became habituated), but their reward system reacts in a similar way for porn as the reward system of regular people.”

“So where is the difference?” he continued. “The difference is in much stronger reaction for cues associated to the erotic (but not other) rewards. These cues evoke strong motivation to obtain porn – so called craving. It is important to mention that we do not know if such differences between regular and problematic porn user are the effect or cause of porn use.”

Specifically, when problematic porn users were presented with visual cues predicting erotic pictures they showed increased activation of the ventral striatum, an area of the brain involved in reward processes and motivation.

A previous study that employed a similar methodology found that gambling addicts showed increased activation of the ventral striatum after seeing a visual cue predicting monetary gain.

“The most important take-home message is that problematic pornography use resembles pathological gambling in the brain,” Gola said.

However, the researchers only examined men. It is unclear whether the findings also apply to women.

“I’d like to say that porn use is a very common and popular source of entertainment,” Gola added. “About 75% of men ages 18 to 30 watch on a weekly basis in Denmark and Norway; and about 11% of 12-year-old kids watch regularly in the United Kingdom. Only for some of the users it is a problematic behavior, but taking in account the scale, even 1-3% would make it millions.

“So it is a topic worth attention of the scientific community and worth attention of funding agencies, as problematic porn use has a serious impact on work performance, family life and correlates with risky sexual behaviors and comorbid disorders (i.e. depression and substance abuse).”

The study, “Can Pornography be Addictive? An fMRI Study of Men Seeking Treatment for Problematic Pornography Use“, was also co-authored by Małgorzata Wordecha, Guillaume Sescousse, Michał Lew-Starowicz, Bartosz Kossowski, Marek Wypych, Scott Makeig, Marc N Potenza, and Artur Marchewka.