Porn 'Addiction' Isn't Really Addiction, Neuroscientists Say

06/30/2015 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
Getty Images

Porn "addiction" has been a subject of considerable debate among psychologists and in pop culture.

Some argue that porn encourages sexual violence and harms relationships. Others say it may have a place in a healthy sex life.

New research suggests that there's one thing porn isn't, and that's addictive.

A large study from neuroscientists at UCLA found that when people are shown erotic images, the brain's normal addiction reactions are reversed.

In the brain, porn "addiction" looks the opposite of addictions like cocaine, smoking cigarettes and gambling -- and therefore should be treated with different therapies.

Your brain on porn.

Typically, addicts show increased brain reactions to the object of addiction. However, the new findings, which were published this week in the journal Biological Psychology, showed that people who struggled with excessive pornography consumption had decreased brain reactions when viewing porn.

For the study, researchers recruited 122 men and women. Some of them struggled to control their pornography use, while others watched porn but said they did not have any problems with their viewing habits. The participants viewed a variety of images -- some sexual, some non-sexual -- while their brain waves were monitored using electroencephalography technology.

Using EEG, the researchers measured late positive potential (LPP) in the brain, which reflects "the intensity of an emotional response," study co-author Dr. Dean Sabatinelli explained.

"This means that their brain was not sensitized to sexual images, which is important because every other substance and behavioral addiction show sensitization in the LPP," Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email.

In a previous study, Prause and her colleagues showed that cocaine addicts have increased LPP reactions to images of cocaine.

"The LPP is thought to show increased motivation for the cue of a person's addiction," Prause explained. "This occurs with images of cigarettes in smokers and images of gaming in gamblers, amongst others. The fact that this looks the opposite in those who report problems managing their porn viewing habits makes it different from every other claimed addiction."

Addiction by any other name.

So what are we to make of the fact that many people do struggle with uncontrollable desires to watch porn?

While these behaviors may be severe enough to warrant treatment, the study's authors argue that labeling porn as addictive has led to expensive and ineffective treatments.

"Some treatment providers claim to treat sex or porn addiction, but do not actually have any evidence that their treatments are effective," Prause said. "I believe that many patients are paying for very expensive treatments that are unlikely to be helpful -- and may be harmful."

So if porn functions differently from other addictions, as the findings suggest, it would be logical for them to be treated differently.

"Some people clearly struggle to regulate their porn viewing habits, but it is important to know why," Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Calling it an 'addiction' may be harming patients, so we should require healthcare workers to provide treatments supported by research."

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mindfulness-based approach to psychological disorders which has shown significant potential in early clinical trials, is one treatment option that holds promise, she said. Prause is also investigating deep brain stimulation to permanently reduce sex drive.

"This issue is important so that therapists can be held accountable to their patients for providing treatments that have been shown by science to help," Prause said.

Also on HuffPost:

Brain Fitness Tips

CONVERSATIONS