#374 – Exploring The Impact of Internet Pornography on The Brain with Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


Gary Wilson is the host of www.yourbrainonporn.com. His website arose about 3 years ago in response to a growing demand for solid scientific information by heavy Internet erotica users experiencing perplexing, unexpected effects: escalation to more extreme material, concentration difficulties, sexual performance problems, radical changes in sexual tastes, social anxiety, depression, lack of motivation, inability to stop, and loss of attraction to real partners.

As an anatomy & physiology teacher with a particular interest in addiction neuroscience, Gary was aware that such symptoms might be the result of neuroplastic changes. Applying the website’s concepts of brain plasticity, many former users have braved withdrawal, reversed their symptoms and restored normal sexual responsiveness. In 2012, Gary delivered a popular TEDx talk entitled, “The Great Porn Experiment.” He also blogs for “Psychology Today.”

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  1. Belinda
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dr Dave and Gary Wilson

    I just wanted to say what an illuminating Podcast this is. I found this so interesting and think it\’s essential listening for any parents with young sons and daughters.

    It must be quite confusing for young people when they discover they are having problems.

    I think it\’s great that Gary has a website to help people. For me personally, I have found since I first listened to it, I am starting to understand men on a much deeper level. I\’ve always associated Porn watchers with \"creepy psycho people\" but now I realise how common it is. (Okay maybe I have been living under a rock for too long!).

    I like to listen to anything about the brain, so even though this was a \’unique topic\’ it is one of the most interesting subjects relating to brain function. Keep up the wonderful work and thank you.

    PS I am a good friend of Gloria\’s. I love to interpret my dreams and am a big fan of Carl Jung.

  2. Posted November 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dr. Dave,

    I heard that you didn’t receive a lot of comments on Gary Wilson’s excellent interview on the effects of pornography on the brain. I actually thought that the interview was fascinating so I thought I better write to let you know! One thing that I found particularly interesting was the observation that young children are now exposed to pornography in a way that was impossible just a few years ago and that the effect of this on their brain during these important developmental years is not yet known. In addition, the challenge of finding control groups for scientific research was also interesting, the idea being that few innocents exist anymore. Wilson’s findings left me with a strong curiosity as to how these brain changes may affect North American marriage, culture, individual psychology and the future of intimate relationships. In the short run, the finding that the over-exposed brain is so similar to the drug addicted brain and that this over-exposure harms normal psycho-sexual functioning is a piece of information that definitely needs to go public. Our medical, educational and even cultural institutions should be helping to influence policies and public awareness to help support healthy brain development. Though I have no idea how this would look, I do feel that addressing the issue would be in the best interests of all of us and particularly our families and children.

    Thanks as usual for your wonderful show Dr. Dave!

  3. John Knight
    Posted November 26, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    A highly informative podcast: this was one of those episodes where I actually found myself pausing to take notes. Of particular interest were the detailed mechanisms of addiction in this area; if all of what was stated is clinically verifiable, I feel it would be a model that would be extremely beneficial for psychology students to be taught during psych 101.

    What interests me is how the language and underlying assumptions regarding internet porn are almost exclusively focused toward heterosexual males. I’d be interested in the same kind of net porn studies being proposed focused on heterosexual women, gay men, and lesbians. Perhaps cross analyses of studies around different orientations may reveal new underlying neural differences between gender groups?

    Although briefly mentioned, I think portable computing has ushered in a completely different paradigm in the way we think of internet porn usage. It used to be that someone would have to skulk around on a computer somewhere after-hours, hoping not to be caught if there were others living under the same roof! However, nowadays with smart-phones and wifi, whether or not someone has access to internet pornography isn’t really a factor any more. Now it’s more of a case of whether or not someone chooses to resist the temptation sitting in their pocket, or accessed by the tablet lying on the couch, or pretty much any other form of computing you can think of.

    Whereas someone used to need to purchase equipment as part of a larger infrastructure, nowadays issues relating to pornography have shifted onto a much more personal level: with easy internet available to just about anyone, anywhere, the struggle now is really with ourselves.

    No longer can we blame the big boogey-man of computers and the internet, when it’s right there in our pocket….

  4. Oskar
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I too enjoyed your porn interview! It was quite a synchronicity as I have contemplated precisely that question, but in a broader sense, pretty intensely lately (inspired somewhat by the ’Paleo’ movement). That is, the fact that humans are probably wired for a ’low-reward’ life with few exceptionally exciting events, but find themselves bombarded by extremely palatable food, images of unbelievably hot and seemingly sexually available girls, smartphones that offers something new and exciting each and every minute … in short, modern society seems to condition us for such fast and readily available stimulation so that the joy of working hard for a goal (like mating with one of the, say, five attractive girls in the village, or finding some fruit after a long period of scarcity) and achieving it gets somewhat forgotten. Perhaps in a sense we are all dope abusers, even if this ’dope’ resides in our own brains. The relationship between effort and reward has been skewed and so people, some more than others, get bored and spoiled by the excess of interesting stimuli, perhaps especially those who are prone to difficulties with focusing and attention. I doubt one would find many ADD kids in, say, native tribes of Amazonas or rural central Africa.

    So, I resonate with Wilson’s work and I even buy into most of the neuroscience lingo—thinking of dopamine ’pools’ is indeed a helpful image, whether they exist or not—but, sincerely, isn’t his talk about brain wiring and rewiring just a new fancy way of talking about good old conditioning? 🙂

  5. Julie
    Posted December 14, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dr. Dave,

    I really appreciate your show. I listen to it regularly and get a lot from it. I especially enjoy your Jungian speakers, but most of what I listen to I get great value from.

    I want to offer some feedback on #374 – Exploring The Impact of Internet Pornography on The Brain with Gary Wilson. I am very interested in this subject, but it does bring up some sore spots for me that I think are worth noting. My concern is mostly over gender filtering inquiry and outcomes.

    Really interesting talk. It confirms some of my suspicions about the effects of pornography on a person’s real (as opposed to voyeuristic) sex life. One concern I have about the talk is the nearly unexamined assumption that women are not as stimulated by sexual novelty as men. Dr. Dave, you ask whether research is being done on women late in the talk, which I appreciated, but the question seemed focused in a different way, upon women’s awareness as sex objects, which is apt in a sense because women are quite aware of themselves as sex objects, but they are also subjects. As the discussion goes on, we learn that women experience similar problems as men, which I found interesting, and again, I appreciated this part of the discussion. But then… I’m going to be a bit hard on you. Why are the questions different for men and women before they are the same?

    Men and women are different in some important ways, I believe, but we need to be careful what we assume about those differences. Many of our assumptions are cultural stereotypes. Women do like sexual novelty, but it is impossible to know reliably how this compares to men because women are still culturally programmed to value relationships over sexual novelty, and women who openly value sexual novelty in ways comparable to men are disparaged (thought and/or called sluts) and are usually dismissed as aberrant. Men and women report sexual behaviour and values with different biases: men over report and women under report their sexual exploits and interests, for example.

    To be honest, from what I can see, real, inherent gender differences are still largely open questions. My exposure to evolutionary psychology, which is modest, to be fair, shows me that it does not consider the influences of culture, which other branches of psychology prove are substantial. This is a huge oversight. I think it’s important to keep in mind the lack of real legs we have to stand on when making claims about true gender differences on this issue. Even defining “true” is a difficult task. Culture is true in significant ways, too. Anyway…

    One of my main concerns is that saying men like sexual novelty (via porn, gawking, and/or promiscuity) more than women suggests that it is, to some degree, natural and that they can’t help themselves or things to that effect. My hunch, from personal experience and access to real men and women, is that because women are expected to control themselves and have “more class” – and because porn targets men as audiences more than men – this pressure makes women become better at controlling their impulses, if not from a very young age, once they mature as adults, say, in their mid to late twenties. On the other hand, men are expected to like porn and promiscuity, so rather than cultivating self-regulation, we culturally foster men’s love of sexual novelty and all its associated behaviours. Entire industries are based on this. Funny enough, the economic world has yet to really catch on to the viability of media and other experiences geared specifically toward the titillation of women. Women like looking at attractive naked men, too. One reason I have encountered among women for not using more pornography is that most pornography is made for a male audience, which makes sense because most producers in the industry are men. Burgeoning female-audience focused and female produced media (bonafide pornography and others), would create similar problems for women as there are for men, as described by Gary Wilson, and it would create similar problems for men as now exist for women, we can assume. Women are harmed by being stereotyped as sex objects. Men would likely be harmed by gender equalization of that status.

    The motivation for my response is that it honestly frustrates me to see women’s sexual subjectivity continually overlooked. Female sexual subjectivity is a vastly under-explored topic. As sex objects, women have been fashioned, captured, and viewed in probably every imaginable form. As sex subjects, there is very little going on culturally. Men as sex object is also somewhat under-explored. Men are not allowed to be sexy to the extent that women are, which is interesting. Women are complicit in this dynamic too. We all inherit the gender dynamics of our culture. The problem I am bothered by is that we may be confusing cultural norms for psychological realities. To the point, I would love to hear more talk and see more research focused on female sexual subjectivity (which takes into account cultural influences). I think it would also be interesting to study why we still seem to shy away from this. Moreover, what cultural values and messages encourage promiscuity and the use of pornography – in both sexes – and what values and messages encourage real-life sex and maturing beyond, what seems to me, an adolescent promiscuous sexuality? There may, in fact, be differences between the sexes on these issues, but unless we start actually asking the right questions and paying attention to women, we will simply continue to perpetuate the old wives’ – or should I say husbands’ – tales of the past. If there are people in psychology already doing work on these questions, I would love to hear about them.

    I really like your show, Dr. Dave. I appreciate your interest in bringing to light valuable new research, thought-provoking speakers, new perspectives and accepted and off-beat approaches alike. None of this is meant to be blaming or scolding. I hope it hasn’t come across that way. I hope people can become more critical of our entrenched gender stereotypes.

  6. Posted December 14, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi Julie. No offense taken. Just the opposite. I really appreciate the very valid and carefully reasoned points you make. I agree that we have yet to fully tease out the impact of culture, social norms, gender role expectations and so on. I have to believe that there is some relevant research out there but have not, as of yet, taken time to dig it up. Thanks for taking the time to speak up here!

  7. Posted November 30, 2014 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    I saw a movie today and it reminded me of this show. I was amazed that it had been over a year ago that it aired when I scrolled through trying to find it! The movie was ‘Men, Women and Children’ and the mundane title belies its brilliance. The main theme is the impact of modern technology in general on human relationships but the subject of internet pornography and its effects on normal human sexual functioning was a strong topic.

    I recommend seeing it on the big screen as there are some awesome shots of deep outer space, accompany some readings from Carl Sagan. These were rather poignant given the fact that he died before the explosion of technology that we have now.

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