Culture

Masturbation And Pornography Can Undermine Healthy Sexual Interactions And Communication Due To "An Open Loop Of Neurochemicals"

By Gina Florio
·  5 min read
woman bed laptop

Our society has taught us that there's nothing wrong with watching pornography; in fact, it can be an empowering act that teaches you about sex. But neurobiology professor Dr. Andrew Huberman explains how porn can actually be detrimental not only to sexual interaction but to communication and relationships in general.

It's estimated that about 40 million American adults watch pornography regularly and 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography. A 2018 study found that roughly 92% of men and 60% of women watch porn on a routine basis. In 2019, Pornhub received more than 115 million site visits per day. Couple that with a culture that praises sexual promiscuity and encourages women to show their naked bodies online, and it's a recipe for disaster. But the industry of pornography doesn't seem to be slowing anytime soon; if anything, teenagers are discovering porn at younger ages than ever before.

Renowned psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson hosted neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, a tenured associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, on his podcast. The two discussed a variety of topics including the function of dopamine in our brain, where anxiety comes from, and the way to successfully avoid addiction. At one point in the episode, the two spoke about the dangers of pornography from a neurological standpoint. While many people can explain why pornography is morally wrong, Dr. Huberman explained why it can be detrimental to our brains and relationships.

Masturbation and Pornography Can Undermine Healthy Sexual Interactions and Communication Due to "an Open Loop Of Neurochemicals"

We know the porn industry is intricately tied to sex trafficking and the exploitation of women and children, but even further than that, how does pornography and the isolated consumption of other people having sex have an effect on our day-to-day lives? Dr. Huberman explains how dopamine functions during a sexual encounter, as well as how it crashes and leaves people feeling even worse when they watch porn rather than have sex with a partner.

"Masturbation and pornography are potently tapping into the dopamine system and can undermine the very processes of—which I consider healthy processes—of finding a mate, you know, dating, communication, eventually, if it's appropriate, sexual interaction, etc," he says.

"It also sounds like it's undermining pair bonding," Dr. Peterson responds. "Okay, so here's a question: if you're seeking sexual release through pornography and you go through the whole cycle and you get a prolactin release, do you bond with yourself?"

"The biology explains it as what's left there is a kind of an open loop, a kind of an emptiness, right? Because bonding with the self is a complicated notion," Dr. Huberman explains. "There's a healthy version of that, of course—loving oneself and self referencing. But in the absence of a real partner there, of a real sexual partner, there's an open loop of neurochemicals, including oxytocin and prolactin. The dopamine goes up during pursuit—anticipation—then peaks and then crashes below baseline after orgasm and ejaculation. So this kind of low that people fear is putting them into an amotivated state."

In other words, the crash of the dopamine after the completion of an orgasm makes people feel complacent and unmotivated if they don't have a partner with whom to experience the pair bonding hormones. This "open loop of neurochemicals" leaves people feeling empty, alone, and perhaps even depressed. But they keep returning to masturbation and pornography over and over again because of the intense high they experience during the pursuit and anticipation that comes along with the chase.

It's no wonder so many men who are addicted to porn struggle to talk to women in real life, care for women, and have healthy sexual encounters. Although we live in a culture that is oversaturated with sex, more men than ever before simply aren't having sex at all. This makes sense when you understand the neurology and hormonal functions that happen when you consume porn on a regular basis.

Dr. Huberman also explained that the "dopamine system is about anticipation," so much so that dopamine is more about the pursuit than the actual outcome. It's exciting and holds great possibility, so people keep returning to it. "Dopamine system is the major currency of reward," Dr. Huberman says, so if your brain understands that you keep getting a reward from something—whether it's masturbating or watching two random people have sex online—you will keep returning to it, especially if you feel depressed after and you need a pick-me-up.

But it's possible to rewire your brain in a way. Dr. Huberman referenced a study from a colleague in which they found that attaching a reward to a healthy, nutritious food rather than to junk food helps the dopamine respond accordingly. In other words, if you tell yourself that eating a steak is more nutritious and will result in a better physique, your dopamine will eventually catch up and give you a sense of reward when you eat steak instead of fast food.

Dr. Peterson adds that positive emotion isn't necessarily always a good thing. It needs to be judicious, targeted, and specific—or else it will enter the territory of pathological, which makes people impulsive and fragmented in their speech. That's why it's important to feel positive about certain actions, such as having sex with your spouse rather than watching random people have sex online. There is still a lot to be discovered about the neurological processes that come with watching pornography, but what we know so far is that it's quite damaging to the way we think and interact with others—and our society would be better off in general if we abolished it for good.