I think a lot about porn. It’s fascinating to stop and consider that we’re living in a time where within seconds you can search for and see a naked stranger engage in sexual acts tailored to your preferences.
As much as we all like to believe we’re not primitive chemically driven animals, our brains are not much different to that of cavemen and women who lived tens of thousands of years ago. Sure, we’re great at adapting to the latest smart phone, and achieving our high scores in Candy Crush, but our brains are not used to nor have they evolved for the onslaught of information that comes from watching porn. For all of humanity, the acquisition of sex has been our number one goal. Our entire evolutionary journey is based on who can adapt to their environment well enough to stay alive and do the horizontal tango with a fertile partner. This involved effort; primping, preening, strength, intelligence, a bit of Machiavellianism, and bravery. I’m not suggesting that humans don’t do this anymore. Go to any club on a Friday night and you’ll see this in action (usually sans ‘intelligence’). Our brains were made for this. I also believe that there is a part of our brains that was made for porn.
The concept of mirror neurons seems like pseudoscientific rubbish. They are neurons that fire only when you see another human or animal perform an action, eg scratching their arm. Your brain recognises that this other being is engaging in this behaviour and fires the same somatosensory cortex neurons associated with that behaviour. The only reason you don’t act out these actions is because your visual system kicks in and tells you that your eyes/occipital lobe have not reported that same sensation on your arm. Therefore, your brain receives no message from the skin on your arm telling you that it’s being scratched.
Essentially, mirror neurons are empathetic neurons, helping you connect with other humans and animals by inadvertently feeling what they feel. This is why you wince when you see someone get hurt. For a tiny fraction of time, your brain thinks you were also harmed in the same way. I believe it’s the closest that humans come to being psychic.
It’s not difficult to see how these mirror neurons may be employed whilst watching porn. An fMRI study was conducted with a sample size of 10 healthy heterosexual men (I acknowledge that this is a small sample) where their physical erectile response and their brain activity was measured whilst they viewed pornographic videos. Unsurprisingly, eight out of ten of the subjects experienced an erection, but the more scientifically exciting results were that of their brain activation.
‘The level of activation of the left frontal operculum and of the inferior parietal lobules, areas which contain mirror neurons, predicted the magnitude of the erectile response. These results suggest that the response of the mirror-neuron system may not only code for the motor correlates of observed actions, but also for autonomic correlates of these actions.’ (Mouras, et al., 2008)
Isn’t that incredible?! Pretty sure I had a nerdgasm when I came across this journal article (no pun intended). Of course all studies need to be properly reviewed, and limitations considered, and this is no different, but I just can’t help but get a bit excited when I read studies like this. These scientists have found mirror neurons that activate and predict an erectile response. This means that when you’re watching porn, your brain actually thinks that you’re engaging in these sexual acts. Before your frontal lobes and ‘common sense’ can tell you that you’re really alone and just watching a video of other people, your ancient primitive brain is making you feel like you’re really there!
This adds a whole other level to understanding why porn is so enjoyable for most humans. Objectively it shouldn’t be very pleasurable; you don’t get to join in and it may even further remind you that you’re forever alone. Yet ever since humans could create scratchings on cave walls, we’ve been depicting each other having sex. Pornography is not new, what’s new is our immediate access to it. There are many who cry that porn is bad for you, it degrades women, and it makes men slobbering idiots. I think they’re worrying too much about what people do in their own time. My view is that if all parties are consenting adults (the person viewing the porn and the people featured in the porn) and it’s not hurting anyone else, then go for it. For those who insist that porn is the devil because it’s so addictive, I dare them to find something that cannot become addictive. Addiction occurs when the brain fires reward based chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline) whenever the behaviour occurs. If the behaviour is repeated too much, the brain needs to work harder to release these chemicals. Technically, you can get addicted to anything. Do you LOVE model train sets? Bubble wrap? Vegemite? If you get a big enough ‘high’ from using these things, you can become addicted. A behaviour only becomes a problem if it is maladaptive. If porn is interfering with your ability to work or maintain relationships, then you may need help. Other than that, I believe that porn is just another fun thing that humans have discovered that they enjoy.
Science has come through for us again. Sure, it’s not time travel or a solution to world hunger, but it’s an amazing insight into the goings on inside the most complicated structure in the universe; our wonderful brains.
Aforementioned study: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811908006897