Changing Your Mind
Pornography and the brain
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”(Matt. 6:22, 23).
The shaky voice on the other end of the phone line was that of a young woman who had been married only two months. She and her husband had met and dated in the traditional Adventist fashion, at college. They had gone through pre-marital counseling and had waited to consummate their relationship until after marriage.
But in the weeks and months after getting married, her husband had become more distant, critical of his bride’s body. “He says I’m too fat,” she whimpered. “We should still be having a lot of sex, but he’s not interested in me anymore.”
The story came tumbling out about how within days of saying their vows he began staying up late at night in spite of her best efforts to invite him to bed. There were a few signs along the way when they were dating: he sometimes commented on women’s bodies and clothing, and occasionally he would say something suggestive in mixed company. She chalked them up to “boys will be boys,” nothing she considered “serious” enough to worry about. After all, he was class pastor and led out in various spiritual activities on campus. But now it seemed ruined. How had it all gone so terribly wrong?
A Problem that Knows No Strangers
Sadly, what this young woman described is not new or unique. The results of recent research of Christians across a broad denominational spectrum help us understand the power and scope that pornography has on the lives of Christians.
About a quarter of teenagers (26 percent) ages 13 to 17 view pornography at least once a week.
Seventy percent of Christian youth pastors have had at least one teen come to them for help in dealing with pornography in the past 12 months.
Twenty-one percent of youth pastors and 14 percent of pastors admit they currently struggle with pornography.
Sixty-four percent of self-identified Christian men and 15 percent of self-identified Christian women view pornography at least once a month (compared to 65 percent of non-Christian men and 30 percent of non-Christian women).
Twenty-eight percent of Christian men and 11 percent of Christian women say they were first exposed to pornography before the age of 12 (compared to 23 percent of non-Christian men and 24 percent of non-Christian women).
Thirty-three percent of clergy say they have visited a sexually explicit Web site. Of those who have visited sexually explicit websites, 53 percent say they have visited the sites a few times in the past year, and 18 percent said they visited explicit Web sites between “a couple times a month” and “more than once a week.” 1
A Pervasive Problem
For anyone who has spent anytime searching the Internet, chances are you have “accidentally” misspelled a word or typed something innocuous and innocently ended up on a site you wished you hadn’t. The ever-increasing amount of freely available graphic sexual content always lurks in the background of smartphones, tablets, and computers,available to anyone looking for it, as well as to those who are unsuspecting. 2
A chilling statement from the U.S. Department of Justice puts the problem into perspective: “Never before in the history of telecommunications media in the United States has so much indecent and obscene material been so easily accessible by so many minors in so many American homes with so few restrictions.” 3 Not surprisingly, 70 percent of 15- to 17-year-old Internet users “accidentally” view pornography “very” or “somewhat” often.4 With young children being exposed to hardcore pornography at alarming rates, nearly 20 states have declared pornography a public health crisis.5
So what does this mean for people in the church? A whole generation of Christian young people is at risk of regularly being exposed to inappropriate sexual material through explicit social media and virtual erotic experiences that normalize deviant sexuality. What effect does exposure to pornography have on the mind and real-life relationships, and how does one break free from its grip?
The brain is where we experience life: positive thrills of intimacy, pleasure, love, and satisfaction; or negative feelings, bad habits, destructive compulsions, and addictions. 6The brain is designed by God to change based on our experiences and choices. One of God’s design laws—the law of exertion—states that for something to get stronger, we must exercise it. If we want strong musical ability we must practice our instruments; for strong math skills, we must work to solve problems. If we want to be strong in Christlike character, we must love other people. Why? Because if we don’t use it, we lose it.
When we choose what we watch, read, worship, or think about, we determine which brain circuits become active. This activity stimulates the brain to create new components (neurons) and establish new interconnections in the brain that make those networks expand and grow larger. Conversely, if we stop firing those circuits, then over time the brain prunes those components back.
A plethora of scientific studies documents how consuming pornographic material changes brain structure and function. For example, research has documented that the connections between the higher-functioning frontal cortex and other brain regions are diminished in those who watch pornography, indicating that loss of self-governance, reason-based decision-making and other-centered decisions is likely a result of viewing porn. 7 As the brain changes, viewers of pornography come to believe the material is not as bad as it is made out to be. Subtle shifts in thinking and behaving occur until the mind is transformed so that the substitute nonreality becomes real.
Designed for Pleasure
God designed us to experience pleasure. But in His design we are to experience pleasure as a result of living in harmony with His design for life, not as an end in itself. When we choose activities in harmony with God’s intentions, the higher cortex activates our brain’s lower pleasure circuits. There is pleasure in a love relationship as God designed, there is pleasure in discovery, there is pleasure in accomplishment, there is pleasure in helping one another.
Counterfeit pleasure, on the other hand, involves direct activation of pleasure circuits. Pornography is a prime example of this short-circuiting of God’s design for human pleasure. Direct pleasure seeking is a characteristic of all addictions and damages the brain’s pleasure circuits, ultimately destroying the true ability to experience pleasure.
Designed for Real Love and Relationships
Establishing a love relationship means that prior to sexual consummation, time is spent getting to know the other person, seeking to understand and value them, and anticipating their concerns. This creates compassion, understanding, empathy, and, ultimately, selfless love for and commitment to the other person. Within the brain these experiences activate the higher cortex, where we reason, anticipate, comprehend, and love others. Thus, healthy relationships strengthen the brain.
In pornography, people are not experienced as real people whom we get to know, value, and appreciate, and for whom we are concerned. Pornography turns people into objects for self-gratification. This shuts down the higher-functioning cortex and activates the lower brain circuits—the pleasure and arousal circuits—dulling concern for the person being viewed. In this way, porn increases selfishness, diminishes the capacity for altruism, and leads to treating other people as objects of pleasure rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ.
As God designed it, sexual intimacy is the culmination of a love relationship. However, prolonged consumption of pornography hijacks our thinking and distorts the design principles we were created to live by. Viewing pornography leads to a weakened attraction to marriage, family, and child rearing. Trust is eroded between marriage partners. Cynicism about love emerges, and the belief that marriage is sexually confining becomes normalized. 8
The young husband who found his wife unattractive had unwittingly allowed his brain to become rewired so that he could feel rewarded only by looking at pornography. What he didn’t know was that by looking at this material his brain was reducing his wife to the status of an inferior sexual object.
Change Your Mind
We’ve seen how habitually viewing pornography results in destructive short-circuiting of the brain, causing the mind to function outside of God’s design for pleasure and a healthy, intimate relationship. The good news is that healing can happen.
With positive habits, new networks of healthy brain function can be developed, diminishing the mind’s existing harmful pathways. There are no shortcuts or easy fixes, but the process of change can create hope and positive desires, new competence and stronger willpower. Each person’s path to recovery will be unique, but here are some ideas for anyone beginning the journey of “changing your mind.”
First, individuals who struggle with pornography must acknowledge that they have a problem and that they are powerless to change that on their own. This is the beginning step for addressing all the critical issues we face in our human, sinful condition. Pornography is a type of enslavement, and each one under its power needs help to break free.
We can never overcome sin alone, in our own strength. Many know this but haven’t experienced the victory possible when partnering with the true power that lies outside oneself. Here is the simple reality: the choice is ours, the power is God’s. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, who brings truth to our minds in ways we are able to comprehend and brings conviction so that we know the right action to take.
Then the Holy Spirit leaves us completely free to choose the truth or reject it. Accepting the truth of pornography’s destructiveness, and making healthy choices in harmony with God’s design—again and again—is the path to victory.
That leads us to an important second strategy: don’t go it alone; others can help. Trusted friends and family members, as well as professional helpers, can be enlisted as part of a support team. Though you may be embarrassed to discuss the situation with another person, in the long run having people who care about you and your recovery can make you feel less alone.
Third, plan ahead. Create a strategy for complete abstinence from pornography. Healthy choice means saying no to the porn, but also to all the triggers, friends, places, and habits that lead right back to the porn. Clean digital devices that can view porn, put on Internet filters, 9 get an accountability partner, join a 12-step group, see a professional counselor, and avoid television programming with any sexual references.
Finally, replace the pornography habit with good things. Exercise; find a new hobby; fill your mind with healthy, uplifting, material and your brain will heal. Seek to see other people as real people, choose to consider their struggles, their heartaches, their needs; consider how you can help others. Such choices activate the brain’s higher cortex, which strengthens the mature circuits, while simultaneously elevating how we see people—as members of God’s family.
The Bible speaks of the hope for a “changed mind.” Make every thought “obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5); “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2); nourish God’s delight for truth in your innermost being (Ps. 51:6); these are a few of the many reminders in Scripture of our heavenly Father’s commitment to bringing freedom to our minds through His truth and love. That includes freedom from pornography’s devastation. Today can be the start of a new life—the day you decide to change your mind.
- Barna Group, The Porn Phenomenon (2015), www.barna.com/the-porn-phenomenon/.
- XBIZ Research, The 2012 XBIZ Research Report: Attitudes, Views, and Trends Impacting the Adult Entertainment Industry, p. 33.
- U.S. Department of Justice, “Post-Hearing Memorandum of Points and Authorities,” at l, ACLU v. Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824, 1996.
- PEW Research Center, “Internet Pornography Is Harmful,” July 21, 2007, www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/say-internet-pornography-is-harmful/.
- J. Gottesman, “PA House Poised to Declare Pornography a Public Health Crisis,” Nov. 21, 2017, retrieved from www.cityandstatepa.com/.
- J. Reisman, J. Sanitover, M. Layden, and J. Weaver, “Hearing on the Brain Science Behind Pornography Addiction and the Effects of Addiction on Families and Communities,” hearing to U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Nov. 18, 2004.
- S. Kühn, J. Gallinat, “Brain Structure and Functional Connectivity Associated with Pornography Consumption: The Brain on Porn,” Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry 71, no.7 (2014): 827-834.
- Dolf Zillmann, “Influence of Unrestrained Access to Erotica on Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Dispositions Toward Sexuality,” Journal of Adolescent Health 27 (August 2000): 41-44.
- www.covenanteyes.com; pornguard.org.
Stanley Stevenson, M.S.W., is an adjunct instructor and life coach at the Tulane University School of Continuing Studies.
Timothy R. Jennings,M.D., is past president of the Tennessee and Southern Psychiatric Association.