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The Neuroscience of Pornography

Neurosurgeon Donald Hilton Discusses Pornography’s Profound Effect on Adolescent Brains

Adolescence is one of the most active and critical times of brain development — the adolescent brain is highly impressionable and vulnerable to forming patterns of behavior. During this time, the brain is establishing the foundations of neural pathways that contribute to long-term brain development. Bottom line: When you learn something at this age, it leaves an impression that sticks.

Young people’s minds are developing rapidly and are more easily influenced. Today, the average age of first exposure to pornography is 12 years old. It should be no surprise that research shows pornography can significantly influence long-term brain development when consumed from a young age. “Because pornography exposure occurs at younger ages,” said Dr. Donald Hilton, “it is influential in developing arousal templates and programming sexual scripts.”

Dr. Hilton has practiced adult neurosurgery for more than three decades. He has also dedicated much of his career to exploring the effects of pornography on the brain, with a specific focus on how it impacts developing minds. Pornography’s inaccurate and harmful portrayals of sexual relationships have negative effects on young people. “As the primary mode of sexual education today, pornography teaches boys to coerce girls, and girls to permit this coercion and exploitation,” he said.

In this interview with Culture Reframed, Dr. Hilton shares his motivation to study the effect of pornography on the brain and discusses the neurological changes associated with exposure to pornography, as well as its potential impact on behavior, attitudes, and relationships in adolescents.

Following the interview, watch Dr. Hilton’s presentation “Protecting the Vulnerable: How Pornography Affects the Developing Brain” from Culture Reframed’s recent virtual event.

What motivated you to study the effect of pornography on the brain?

In 1993, ironically the same year that the internet became available to the public, Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson at the University of Michigan published their landmark paper on the incentive-sensitization theory of addiction. The model is based on disordered wanting and liking being the basis for addictive behaviors. The American Society of Addiction Medicine uses a definition of addiction consistent with this model. This definition includes not only substances like alcohol and cocaine but also behaviors like food, gambling, and sex, as each of these can become a compulsive focus to the exclusion of other rewards and to the detriment of the user. In the early 2000s, there wasn’t much written about pornography in the context of this model, and I began to study how a powerful sexual reward like pornography might be relevant.

What initial findings in your research led you to continue studying this topic?

My initial research into the motivational systems of the brain pointed to a common pathway for both drug and behavior addictions at the molecular level. I was honored to participate in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) demonstrating that the same genes subserving addiction craving are also associated with salt craving, a natural instinct. In other words, addiction is disordered wanting at a very basic, cellular level in the brain. As two neuroscientists stated, “Addiction represents a powerful form of learning and memory.” These words describe compulsive pornography use precisely, accentuated by the internet today.

What are some of the key neurological changes that occur in the brain when individuals are exposed to pornography during their formative years?

Compulsive, addictive substances and behaviors change the brain in predictable ways. For instance, gray and white matter changes seen in MRI scans occur in drug addiction, and these same changes are associated with compulsive pornography use. In drug addiction, functional MRI studies show that the reward system of the brain behaves differently metabolically, and studies have shown that compulsive sexual addiction demonstrates similar findings to drug addiction in this regard as well as structural studies. Given that these experiences would be novel in young, developing brains, we would expect these findings to be accentuated in children exposed to the powerful medium that is pornography.

How do these neurological changes potentially influence behavior, attitudes, and relationships in adolescents?

There is no effective filter for children exposed to the internet today, a reality that ensures that they will see the most virulent pornography when they are exposed. Despite denials from pornography apologists, the internet seamlessly delivers explicit sexual acts to children and teens. As the primary mode of sexual education today, pornography teaches boys to coerce girls, and girls to permit this coercion and exploitation. These youth thus “resonate with the motivational state” of pornography performers, which includes an education in sexual aggression and eroticized rage.

How does early exposure to pornography potentially shape long-term brain development and functioning?

Because pornography exposure occurs at younger ages, it is influential in developing arousal templates and programming sexual scripts. Early and repeated pornography exposure, combined with masturbatory conditioning, changes and establishes lifelong sexual tastes and preferences. This is a powerful example of perceptual learning, a learned behavior that is subsequently perceived as intuitive and inherent. An example of perceptual learning is acquired food tastes. Sexual tastes and arousal templates can also be acquired through perceptual learning. This sexual learning is then perceived as foundational, intuitive, and inherent, particularly when taught early as an index experience through the powerful medium of pornographic scripting.

Can you explain neuroplasticity and how it affects the brain’s response to repeated exposure to pornography?

Neuroplasticity is a remodeling of the brain’s learning and reward pathways. Pornography is a powerful instrument in this neuroplastic process. Children are programmed by pornography to perceive the exploitation, coercion, and abuse inherent in today’s internet pornography as normal.

What are some directions for future research in this field, and what unanswered questions do you believe warrant further exploration?

More attention should be paid to an inherent bias in research by pornography apologists today who are aligned philosophically — and in some cases financially — with pornography industry interests that sexualize children. Alfred Kinsey, with his co-workers Wardell Pomeroy, Paul Gebhard, and others, first promoted the falsehood that children are sexual beings. Many sexologists today parrot Kinsey’s lie about sexuality in children, thus perpetuating this abuse by supporting policies that effectively groom children prematurely for sexuality instead of providing age-appropriate sex education. Unfortunately, many editorial boards perpetuate Kinsean stereotypes of human sexuality, including the premature sexualization of children.

What advice would you offer to parents, educators, and policymakers based on your expertise in this area?

Realize that the pornography industry is supported by apologists, including many therapists and institutional academics. Some fight the addiction label for pornography, just as the tobacco industry does for its products.

Parents and educators must understand the effect that pornography’s toxic sexual scripts and expectations can have on youth. Unprecedented efforts are needed to protect children from the pornography industry, which has proven itself unwilling to take any action in this regard. Rather, organizations and individuals sympathetic to its aims fight any legislation attempting to protect children from online access to pornography.

Parents can take responsibility for protecting their children with open communication and accountability software. Educating children about the harmful sexuality portrayed in pornography is essential. Confronting educators and institutions that use pornography to groom children can help change the narrative. Legislation enhancing the ability of parents to litigate against companies, schools, and other institutions that facilitate pornography exposure to children can help hold these organizations accountable.

Watch Dr. Hilton’s presentation, “Protecting the Vulnerable: How Pornography Affects the Developing Brain,” from Culture Reframed’s recent virtual event.



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graphic featuring photo of Dr. Donald Hilton