Naomi Wolf, porn and the misuse of dopamine
July 11th, 2011
02:22 PM ET

Naomi Wolf, porn and the misuse of dopamine

Editor's Note: Vaughan Bell is a research psychologist working for Médecins sans Frontières as mental health coordinator. This piece is republished from Mindhacks.com with the permission of the author.

By Vaughan Bell

‘Is pornography driving men crazy?’ asks campaigner Naomi Wolf in an article that contains a spectacular misunderstanding of neuroscience applied to a shaky moral conclusion.

Wolf asks suggests that the widespread availability and consumption of pornography is “rewiring the male brain” and “causing them to have more difficulty controlling their impulses”.

According to her article, pornography causes “rapid desensitization” to sexual stimulation which is “desensitizing healthy young men to the erotic appeal of their own partners” and means “ordinary sexual images eventually lose their power, leading consumers to need images that break other taboos in other kinds of ways, in order to feel as good.”

Moreover, she says “some men (and women) have a “dopamine hole” – their brains’ reward systems are less efficient – making them more likely to become addicted to more extreme porn more easily.”

Wolf cites the function of dopamine to back up her argument and says this provides “an increasing body of scientific evidence” to support her ideas.

It does not, and unfortunately, Wolf clearly does not understand either the function or the relevance of the dopamine system to this process, but we’ll get onto that in the moment.

Purely on the premise of the article, I was troubled by the fact that “breaking taboos” is considered to be a form of pathology and it lumps any sort of progression in sexual interest as a move toward the “extreme”.

‘Taboo’ and ‘extreme’ are really not the issue here as both are a matter of perception and taste. What is important is ‘consensual’ and ‘non-consensual’ and when the evidence is examined as a whole there is no conclusive evidence that pornography increases sexual violence or the approval of it (cross-sectional studies tend to find a link; experimental and crime data studies do not).

To the contrary, wanting new and different sexual experiences is for the majority a healthy form of sexual exploration, whether that be through porn or other forms of sexual behaviour.

One part of the motivation for this is probably that people do indeed become densensitised to specific sexual images or activities, so seeing the same thing or doing the same thing over and over is likely to lead to boredom – as any women’s magazine will make abundantly clear on their advice pages.

But this is no different to densensitisation to any form of emotional experience. I contacted Jim Pfaus, the researcher mentioned in the article, who has conducted several unpublished studies showing that physiological arousal reduces on repeat viewing of sexual images, but he agrees that this is in line with standard habituation of arousal to most type of emotional images, not just sexual, that happens equally with men and with women.

It’s important to point out that this densensitisation research is almost always on the repetition of exactly the same images. We would clearly be in trouble if any sexual experience caused us to densensitise to sex as we’d likely lose all interest by our early twenties.

However, it is Wolf’s description of the dopamine system where things get really weird:

Since then, a great deal of data on the brain’s reward system has accumulated to explain this rewiring more concretely. We now know that porn delivers rewards to the male brain in the form of a short-term dopamine boost, which, for an hour or two afterwards, lifts men’s mood and makes them feel good in general. The neural circuitry is identical to that for other addictive triggers, such as gambling or cocaine.

The addictive potential is also identical: just as gamblers and cocaine users can become compulsive, needing to gamble or snort more and more to get the same dopamine boost, so can men consuming pornography become hooked. As with these other reward triggers, after the dopamine burst wears off, the consumer feels a letdown – irritable, anxious, and longing for the next fix.

Wolf is accidentally right when she says that porn ‘rewires the brain’ but as everything rewires the brain, this tells us nothing.

With regard to dopamine, it is indeed involved in sexual response, but this is not identical to the systems involved with gambling or cocaine as different rewards rely on different circuits in the brain – although doesn’t it sound great to lump those vices together?

Porn is portrayed as a dangerous addictive drug that hooks naive users and leads them into sexual depravity and dysfunction. The trouble is, if this is true (which by the way, it isn’t, research suggests both males and females find porn generally enhances their sex lives, it does not effect emotional closeness and it is not linked to risky sexual behaviours) it would also be true for sex itself which relies on, unsurprisingly, a remarkably similar dopamine reward system.

Furthermore, Wolf relies on a cartoon character version of the reward system where dopamine squirts are represented as the brain’s pleasurable pats on the back.

But the reward is not the dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical used for various types of signalling, none of which match the over-simplified version described in the article, that allow us to predict and detect rewards better in the future.

One of its most important functions is reward prediction where midbrain dopamine neurons fire when a big reward is expected even when it doesn’t occur – such as in a near-miss money-loss when gambling – a very unpleasant experience.

But what counts as a reward in Wolf’s dopamine system stereotype? Whatever makes the dopamine system fire. This is a hugely circular explanation and it doesn’t account for the huge variation in what we find rewarding and what turns us on.

This is especially important in sex because people are turned on by different things. Blondes, brunettes, men, women, transsexuals, feet, being spanked by women dressed as nuns (that list is just off the top of my head you understand).

Not all sex is rewarding to all people and people have their likes, dislikes and limits.

In other words, there is more to reward than the dopamine system and in many ways it is a slave to the rest of the brain which interprets and seeks out the things we most like. It is impossible to explain sexual motivation or sexual pathology purely or, indeed, mainly as a ‘dopamine problem’.

Wolf finishes by saying that “understanding how pornography affects the brain and wreaks havoc on male virility permits people to make better-informed choices” despite clearly not understanding how pornography could affect the brain and providing nothing but anecdotes about the effect on male sexual function.

This does not mean all porn is helpful or healthy, either to individuals or society, but we should be criticising it on established effects, not on misunderstood and poorly applied neuroscience deployed in the service of bolstering shaky conclusions about its personal impact.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Vaughan Bell.

Post by:
Topics: Culture • Science • Sex

soundoff (64 Responses)
  1. COle

    First!

    July 12, 2011 at 5:13 am | Reply
    • First? Seriously?

      Fail! Share an idea if you want to be first! at something, ...

      July 16, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
      • calm down..

        nuff said.

        July 16, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  2. betterlivingthroughscience

    Completely agree – This reliance on pseudo-neuroscience by Wolf to make her point is extremely dangerous as for the average layperson it seems to lend a force to the argument that in fact is not supported by the science. Wolf is not necessarily wrong of course, it's just that she presented the evidence in a manner which suggested these were established facts rather than matters of open debate. Always a problem when non-scientists try and engage with technical matters... I do have to kind-of applaud her for at least trying though – most commentators seem to be somewhat scared of serious research.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:13 am | Reply
    • studdmuffins

      The fact it appears in the "GLOBAL Public Square" page does lend itself to opinion, no?

      July 24, 2011 at 9:43 am | Reply
  3. Misaki

    The most likely explanation is that pr0n was just the most obvious explanation for the observations of that article's author.

    "If someone imagines you to be happy, are you?"

    >(that list is just off the top of my head you understand)

    Of course

    At the risk of comment spam, another cause of the problems described in the original article is stress which is common when things are not going the way one wants to them to. Accordingly, increasing the degree of choice and expression in one's life is likely to be one of the things that could contribute to a lessening of the described problems. Since stress from work is one of the major sources of stress, reducing the amount of work done is one possibility that could have additional benefits for both society and the individual:
    http://pastebin.com/QrmDEymL
    http://pastebin.com/Q86Zhgs9

    July 12, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Reply
  4. Chuck

    After 44 years of marriage and seeing the same thing, has certainly desensitized me !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Reply
    • drome

      smear feces on your wife, then you'll want her again

      July 15, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Reply
      • SlapNsnap

        That was completely un-called for...and just...no.....

        July 17, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
      • Nonstick Cookware

        That's just crazy talk. Everyone knows that isn't enough. If you don't also glue bacon to her side, it's no use.

        July 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • adam

      awww SNAP!!!

      July 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Reply
    • sjml

      Just remember Chuck – she is probably not thrilled with you either...what is good for the goose and good for the gander!!!

      July 22, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Reply
    • Ooh Moded

      Pass her over here, if you're desensitized, maybe we'll let you watch. Drome and Adam Kudos for both of you... =]

      July 22, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Reply
    • Chuck

      @"The Other" Chuck: I am utterly amazed that CNN hasn't deleted your pointless and stupid comment. Grow up. And pick a different screen name PLEASE.

      July 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
      • Chuck

        WAIT!!!
        I got the screen name wrong. My comment was directed @drome.

        Sorry other Chuck.

        July 30, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  5. Jeremy

    What a load of horse Sh!t!!!

    July 15, 2011 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • DirtyHorse

      SOrry, did Ileave it somewhere?

      July 22, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  6. Andrew

    That's total bull. Try looking up hypo and hyper s3}{ua|. We are programmed at birth regarding frequent or lack of drive and control of impulses.

    July 16, 2011 at 2:52 am | Reply
    • Syndrome Zed

      No one is preprogrammed at birth – the whole "preprogrammed" idea is about 30 years past its expiration date. We know now that new neurons are being born even through adulthood, and the brain makes all kinds of changes constantly. The only way you can learn anything is through your brain "re-connecting" itself constantly. If it stayed preprogrammed, you couldn't adapt or learn. We lose our instinctual abilities that other mammals have, but we gain the ability to adapt and be flexible as we age.

      You may have a baseline desire level at puberty (definitely not at birth though), but that is just a starting point, it can and will change over the years as your brain changes.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  7. Aaron

    You need to do more research on dopamine or go to a basic biology class because you have no idea what you talking about Vaughan Bell.

    July 16, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • John

      I assure you dopamine is not covered in a basic biology, only touched upon in physiology and maybe a bit in biochem. You're looking at some specialized neuroscience courses before you are really talking about it at a serious level.

      This leaves me thinkine you are probably the one who doesn't know what he's talking about.

      July 22, 2011 at 11:29 am | Reply
      • DirtyHorse

        you can't thinkine doctor

        July 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
      • SAWolf

        What? Its a biogenic amine , one benzene ring with 2 hydroxyls and then 3 carbons away(forget is it meta position?) a methyl, methyl, amine chain. Produced in the Substantia nigra para compacta region. From my A&P I class. Produced after vigorous exercise or Delta 9 activation of the G protein coupled receptors among other pathways.

        July 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Syndrome Zed

      As an actual neuroscience researcher whose focus is the midbrain, Dr. Bell is dead-on with his description of dopamine and its effects. In fact, the only thing he didn't make comlpetely clear is that pretty much ANYTHING you enjoy will engage the so-called "reward circuits" of the brain. Wolf's argument about dirty movies (take THAT, language filter!) is true, but only in the sense that the movies do the same thing that eating, drinking (including water, not just booze or sugary stuff), seeing the face of someone you care about, etc. does. The circuits are slightly different, but the midbrain dopamine system activates any time there's a positive feeling (reward). In essence, it provides motivation. When you kill those neurons and destroy that system, the result is basically apathetic depression. That's the real misuse that Wolf makes – to assume motivation=addiction=aberration.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Reply
      • SAWolf

        Would that Zed, be the character from Zardoz, read the book, then saw the film, very intense!

        July 29, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Felix

    This was a superficial article. For a deeply insightful understanding and respect for the dignity of the human body, read messages from John Paul II's "Theology of the Body." Fully available online. The human body should never be dehumanized into a commodity for self centered utilization. Beyond the science, there is no mention of virtue or respect for persons and the inherent dignity of the human body made in the image of God. The article seems to lack a core belief system, a spine, a solid foundation upon which to build...

    July 16, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Reply
    • well..

      it shouldn't. Yet it is. That's a market economy, as long as there is demand there will be a supply no matter what God gets in the mix.

      July 16, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Reply
    • Connj

      Except we came here for facts, not fantasy. This is an article about the science of arousal, not the ill-informed musings of a celibate man in a dress.

      July 18, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Reply
      • DirtyHorse

        Pics or it didnt happen

        July 22, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • James

      The article was anything but superficial. Your reply is, though, because it is based on moral judgements and prejudices, not facts or science. One could see that as soon as the word "dignity" showed up. That has no basis in science or objectivity.

      July 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Nonstick Cookware

      Playing the god card is a sure sign of a disturbed mind. Perhaps you should be shot.

      July 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm | Reply
    • Chuck

      @Felix: That was a joke, right? Seriously? **head slap**

      July 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  9. Earnest T Bass

    Yep, feels good to me!

    July 16, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • DirtyHorse

      u lick dees ? (. ) ( .)

      July 22, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  10. observer

    Huh?

    July 16, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  11. observer

    The true argument here is whether someone has the individual "right" to consume those images at the risk of society being victimized by that individual's behavior. The very definition of a society is a group of people that has agreed to live together within a set of limitations on individual freedoms for the greater, common good. As a member of the American society, I contend that these particular individual rights are NOT worth the risk to the broader society of the outcomes. If individuals want to exercise that freedom, let them separate themselves from the society that exercises its common sense in limiting unhealthy expression.

    July 16, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Reply
    • Jake

      But what if the majority of society agrees that this type of behavior "is within a set of limitations on individual freedoms" that they wish for themselves? Perhaps it is you who should pack up and leave. So small minded and intolerant of other people's freedoms.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • ToadInAustin

      Observer: A very lucid argument against freedom.

      July 31, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  12. pn

    The point with this article is mainly to trash the quasi science piece by Naomi Wolf published in this very forum not long ago.

    It seems pretty clear that the original piece (by Wolf) is about as scientific as Michele Bachmann. It isn't the first time. Why is it that Fareed and CNN allows this forum to be used by charlatans?

    July 16, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  13. NTHK 1234

    So long those in field of science reject the fact that human beings are not animals, and that there is more to us human beings then meets the eye, their findings, and presumptions, especially in the field of human psychology, and will ALLWAYS be amiss!

    July 16, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • NTHK 1234

      Oops!
      Correction:
      " ....their findings, and their presumptions, especially in the field of human psychology, will ALLWAYS be amiss"

      July 16, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Reply
      • James

        Even with the correction, your replies are ALWAYS amiss. Perhaps you could have used a more secular education.

        July 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  14. J.Anderson


    Simple!

    July 19, 2011 at 12:44 am | Reply
  15. blf83

    If a person becomes desensitized, doesn't it follow that it has the opposite effect of suppressing libido over time?

    July 21, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  16. Chang

    Sasha Grey Ruled....

    July 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • Jake

      Correction: Rules

      July 24, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • Syndrome Zed

      I'm old school....Ginger Lynn rocked even at 40. :)

      July 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  17. EB

    Thank you. Naomi Wolf's article was pure opinion masked by a childish understanding of neuroscience.

    July 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • DirtyHorse

      Or H0rny

      July 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  18. DirtyHorse

    I had to look at this article cause i thought it would have pics. Thats sad :(

    July 22, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  19. sam

    yep, just keep going to explain away why you are addicted.... I mean... watching it for benefit... it is beneficial, beneficial, beneficial, I am not doing anything wrong by looking at other woman/man, not at all, not at all not at all, I am not greedy and want more more more, no, this is good for me, good for her, good for everybody, keep it going going going~

    July 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • DirtyHorse

      sam i am, could not look at p0rn on the bus, in the car, or while looking at a bust. I could not look at p0rn sam I am.

      July 22, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  20. DirtyHorse

    sometimes you just have a wayward dolphin and you have to sp@nk him.

    July 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  21. SS

    How come you can't write the word p0rn without having to use some code to get past the filter on an article about p0rn?

    July 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  22. Nonstick Cookware

    I don't wear pants. Why bother? If you've got to drop the kiddies off at the pool, it's quicker to just sit down and release without having to drop trou. Cuts down on laundry costs too.

    July 24, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  23. Jake

    Isn't it weird how Naomi's article is based on men when everyone knows that men and women have basically the same dopamine response. If one wanted to highlight to absurdity, one could write the very same article about women and designer shoes or handbags and come to the conclusion that this is why they do whatever negative thing pops into your head. Pseudo-scientific man bashing does nothing to advance a misandric agenda for any reader that posses an ounce of critical thought.

    July 25, 2011 at 11:29 am | Reply
  24. John

    The first time I read Naomi Wolf, which must have been 20 years ago, I thought she was an idiot who was bewitching the media establishment because she was "hot," and not because of her ideas, which were moronic. Twenty years have done nothing but strengthen that initial impression. If her name were Norman Wolf and she were 250 pounds and had acne scars, you'd never hear a word he wrote.

    July 25, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  25. Roger Krueger

    First rule of reading science writing: If they love their agenda more than they love science they'll be trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Every time.

    July 29, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  26. balto paul

    About all I got out of this article is that if someone looks at the same pr0n over and over, they'll get bored with it. I wonder if I could get a $500k grant to study that and write a bullschmidt paper about it?

    July 31, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  27. Robert

    I reminded of the old saw that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. When Naomi Wolf discovers and takes pleasure in that part of female body that starts with a "cli", she will find herself on the other side of the moral/scientific debate.

    August 7, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Reply
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