A Man’s Brain on Porn: A Neuroscientist’s View

by | Feb 5, 2010 | Charisma Archive

Have
you ever wondered why pornography seems to hypnotize the male brain, or
why it can override all logic, sometimes to the point of ruining a
guy’s life? William Struthers has the answers. A neuroscientist and
professor at Wheaton College, Struthers has researched what goes on in
the mind of a man when he looks at pornography. His findings are
enlightening. Our conversation with him hit on a variety of topics,
such as why porn seems to be worse for Christians than non-Christians
and how single men can find hope. Don’t miss this interview from New Man E-magazine.

New Man: What goes on in a man’s brain when he’s looking at pornography?

Struthers: I
think even before you answer that question you have to know a little
bit about how a man’s brain is built. Obviously it starts developing in
the womb. The critical part in making a masculine brain is
testosterone. It causes the brain to develop along a certain pathway.
That’s what makes little boys different from little girls. You’ll
notice that a baby boy likes to look at things, but a baby girl likes
to look at faces more.

The next big chemical changes
take place during puberty, when the brain becomes cued in to sexual
maturity. Every brain has certain parts that are more masculine or
feminine. What you find during this time is that the masculine parts of
the brain are really triggered by visual stimuli. This goes back even
to the example of babies—the boys are more interested in looking at
things. This visual preference shows up very clearly with pornography.

In
tests, when men are placed in brain scanning devices and look at stills
of naked women or video of couples engaged in intercourse, the visual
parts of  a man’s brain light up more than a woman’s. The example I use
in the book is that, to a man, pornography is like a high definition
television. For whatever reason, it tends to draw in men reflexively
and maintain hold over them. Just like when you’re looking at TVs in
Best Buy, the HDTV is going to grab your attention more than the
standard definition. To a woman’s brain, it’s all standard definition.
So pornography lends itself to a man’s brain.

Another
critical thing for a man’s brain when looking at pornography is that
many men will use pornography to masturbate. Once again, when you look
at what goes on in the brain around an orgasm, it is the parts of the
brain that are involved in reinforcement. They are the same parts that
activate when a person eats or drinks or takes addictive drugs.

So
when you start pairing the visual image of pornography, which men see
incredibly well and are almost hypnotized by, and if you combine that
with the reinforcement of masturbating or acting out sexually, you’re
laying down a powerful neurological habit where the orgasm reinforces
the response to pornography.

Within our larger
Christian worldview, the purpose of the brain reinforcing the response
to an orgasm is to bind a man to his wife. This response ties you to
whatever is sanctioned with it. In the context of marriage between a
husband and a wife, this binding is a good thing. If, however, this
sexual response is bound to something else, like a pornographic image,
you are bound to it and you develop an attachment to it. This is a
neurological process as much as a spiritual one.

New Man: Does
this process only happen when looking at extreme pornographic
images—such as naked pictures or video—or does it apply to anything we
are sexually drawn to?

Struthers: A
lot of that is culturally defined. All men are drawn to look for nudity
and the female form, but how much depends on the culture you grow up
in. If you are in a conservative culture where the female form is
taboo, a little female skin may get you sexually aroused. If you are in
a culture where there is a lot of sexual imagery, you may need even
more than a naked body in order to elicit a sexual response. To
continue the metaphor, if you’ve been watching HDTV for a while, you
want a bigger screen. You’ve gotten used to it.

In
our culture, which is hypersexual, many men will need to escalate their
pornography usage. Some men will develop fetishes and go to specific
Web sites or look at particular types of women. They are training their
brains to only respond to that one thing. Other men will view multiple
Web sites with multiple different models and types of pornography,
training themselves to only be aroused by lots of women doing lots of
different things. Then, when they go to their one wife whose appearance
doesn’t change and generally keeps to the same sexual script, it
doesn’t arouse the man anymore.

New Man: That’s
fascinating. Why does it seem sometimes like Christian men can have a
greater struggle with pornography than non-Christians?

Struthers: If
you don’t see sexually acting out as a spiritual matter, then you don’t
have the same issues as a Christian, who sees it as sin or a moral
failing. Christians will have emotions like guilt and shame related to
their pornographic use, and that can make it worse. They feel a
self-loathing because of their issue, and they try to soothe that
loathing by acting out sexually. That momentary orgasm response of
relief and pleasure gets rid of the shame for a moment. It’s a cycle
that gets worse over time, even more so for men of faith.

Another
important thing to understand is that viewing pornography and sexually
acting out is not just done because it causes pleasure. It can be done
as a way of relieving stress, dealing with depression, or done just out
of a compulsion. Some men see it as a reward. They’ve been good all
week and they deserve it.

Some men are narcissists.
Actually, that’s a personality type that attracts a lot of pastors. We
have to be careful when dealing with pastors in recovery because
sometimes they’ll talk too openly about it so that they can be admired,
but they will draw others unnecessarily into the issue.

The
point is that you wouldn’t treat a heroin addict the same way you would
someone who is depressed or someone who has a compulsive disorder. So
when we rightly understand the particular reason why men are viewing
pornography, we have a better chance of helping them. Rather than just
saying, “It’s an addiction,” we have to find the reason why men are
acting out and develop behavioral patterns to deal with the issue.

New Man: Is there hope for men who are stuck in this habit to rewire their brains?

Struthers: Just
as you are creating neurological habits out of your sexual immorality,
so too can you also create neurological habits out of sexual purity.
The same rules that govern how you got to this point can also be used
to get you out.

Imagine that you were addicted to
purity and compassion. You would feel the same lack of freedom to
control yourself, but you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from doing
good things. That process of being neurologically unable to fall prey
to temptation is called sanctification. As I make small decisions, they
have long-lasting neurological consequences for me. That can be good or
bad.

The other important part is having a right
understanding of what our sexuality is for. It is not primarily about
reproducing. If that were the case, every man should get married, no
man should have sex with his wife after menopause, and there would be
no place for single men and women.

Also, you hear all
kinds of crazy things about men being wired to spread our seed [or our]
being biologically promiscuous and women being more selective. That’s
just rubbish. When you look at the statistics, women are just as
promiscuous as men. It’s just that men tend to over-report their
experiences and women tend to under-report them.

The
other thing is, it’s not just about pleasure. If that were the case,
men should just sit around masturbating all day. Neither reproducing
nor pleasure is the primary purpose for sexuality.

The
primary nature of our sexuality is tied to the fact that we are made in
the relational nature of the image of God and that sex is about knowing
and being known. It is about speaking goodness into someone else and
having them speak goodness to you. That takes place in a unique way in
the context of marriage between a man and a woman, and it models God’s
exclusive love for His people or Jesus’ exclusive love for His church.

But
we also need to move away from understanding sexuality as solely
between mates. Sexuality affects every relationship we have. I can be a
father figure to many young men on my college campus, but I’m a father
to my son in a different way. I’m a son to my parents, but I can be a
spiritual son to older men and women. I can be a spiritual brother to
women who aren’t my wife, but I have a unique relationship with my wife
that is exclusive. All these relationships are affected by our
sexuality. It’s about intimacy that is being made into a relational
image of God.

New Man: Single guys have a unique situation. Any advice for them?

Struthers: In
our culture, and this is exacerbated in the church, single men feel
trapped because they don’t have an outlet for their sexuality. This is
because they only see their sexuality as genital. When they can see
their sexuality in a relational context, like I was talking about a
minute ago, then they can be freed up of feeling the weight of having a
sexual outlet. They need to understand that sexuality isn’t just about
pleasure and that they can channel that energy into their relationships
and service. Combine that with the fact that the sexual drive will die
down with age, and there’s hope for them.

That’s also
important for the rest of the church. When we understand they can be
ministers for good in a way that a married man can’t be, then we give
them greater esteem and a higher place in the church. Just because
married is the norm, it doesn’t mean it is the ideal. The church
doesn’t value chastity as a lifelong decision anymore, it only sees it
as a holding pattern until marriage. That’s not biblical. The church
desperately needs the service that single men can give. Without it, the
church cannot become what it is supposed to be. 

To learn more about William Struthers’ book, or to place an order, click here.

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