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Experts Say Heavy Doses of Porn Can Change Brain Structure

By Matt Andazola
Journal Staff Writer
          When ABC News broke the story of 31 Securities and Exchange Commission employees' Internet habits, it wasn't pretty: One man spent eight hours a day downloading porn, and another attempted to access 16,000 such sites in a single month.
        For late-night comedians and political bloggers, the story made an easy target.
        But a number of experts say people who consume porn at those levels are likely subject to an addiction, one that rewrites their brain circuitry and urges them to seek more — often increasingly disturbing — online photos and videos.
        Many mental health professionals like Sage Kimble, an Albuquerque therapist, approach these types of clients as they would other addicts. That means 12-step programs, group therapy and individual counseling using plans similar to those for drug addiction.
        The approach "gives me and my clients a context for understanding it," Kimble says, and is more effective than other therapies.
        "Most of the time, what we're dealing with is not the addiction, it's all the things that drive an addiction," she says.
        Tom Hymes, senior editor of online entertainment for AVN Media Network, a porn industry trade outlet, while acknowledging that some people develop problems with porn, says calling it an addiction is going too far.
        "There is no such thing," he says in a phone interview from company headquarters in Los Angeles. "People are addicted to things, but to be addicted to pornography? I don't buy it."
        In his opinion, people who have a porn problem need to bolster their self-control and address the issues underlying what he sees as a need for escape.
        "It's not a drug. It's expression. People have to create a depiction of something and then people watch it and react to it," Hymes says.
        Few studies explicitly connect viewing porn and a rewiring of the brain. But emerging research about neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to create new pathways and circuits, points to such a link.
        A 2008 study from the Mayo Clinic used naltrexone — a drug usually given to alcoholics and designed to regulate dopamine levels — to help successfully treat one patient's Internet porn addiction.
        Another study, published in 2005 in the journal Biological Psychology, shows that the brain's reward system is involved in processing erotic images. In other words, porn interacts with the same primitive appetites and pathways as satiating thirst or hunger, and making sexual contact with another person.
        In his 2007 book "The Brain That Changes Itself," psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge argues that "pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system. Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see."
        Internet porn
        All porn isn't the same, says Matie Fricker, co-owner of Albuquerque's Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center. Good porn values both partners, doesn't objectify the actors and can be helpful to couples' sex lives.
        "Most porn treats sex like a really juvenile exchange of body parts," she says, adding that much of online porn traffics in the latter. "There are so many things out there that I can't stomach."
        By contrast, the most popular porn DVDs have big budgets, absorbing stories and real-life couples, she says.
        Yet online porn is a huge presence: Alexa Internet Inc., which monitors Web traffic, reports that the most popular porn site receives 2.55 percent of monthly worldwide Internet traffic. Retailer Amazon.com receives 3.38 percent.
        Individuals usually start small with online porn, says Jason Holley, a therapist in Santa Fe, but a few minutes can grow to hours. "People basically get sucked into the vortex of the computer."
        The "vortex" occurs because the Internet offers a near endless supply of porn, says writer Marnia Robinson, operator of reuniting.info, a relationship website that has become a haven for those struggling with porn. Before the Internet, she says, a person had access to a finite amount of porn. Now, she says, "you can just click and click and click."
        With increased stimulation to the brain, Doidge writes in his book, some porn viewers will seek more extreme images and videos to achieve the same jolt for their reward pathways.
        "I eventually developed a taste for things I thought of as taboo or controversial," writes one man in a forum on Robinson's site. " 'Normal' fantasy became less fun."
        Holley says his clients find themselves aroused by only the images the men themselves identified as the most violent or disgusting.
        "It chisels their sexuality into something very narrow," he says.
        Not everyone who views porn has a problem, Fricker says.
        "Escaping from reality is never truly healthy if you don't give the time and place to the things in your life that matter," she says. "Porn here and there? That's all right."
        Someone who can't quit alone should seek help to do so, Holley says.
        The best way, he says, is cold turkey. No porn, period.
        But going full-stop can be difficult, Kimble says, and may not work for everyone. She says sometimes the behavior has to be stepped down gradually.
        For 90 days after giving up porn, Kimble says people will find themselves on an emotional roller coaster as the brain struggles to reregulate itself. It isn't the same as the physical withdrawals that come from quitting drugs like narcotics, but she says it is a very difficult time for her clients.
        "Yesterday (day 12) I was all shaky and anxious and feeling fidgety like a crack addict for an hour," writes a young man on Robinson's forum. "For the most part, though, my life feels totally different. I treat people differently. Things are MUCH, MUCH, MUCH better socially for me now."

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