Behavioural Addiction

For a quick introduction to internet porn addiction see this 3 minute video.

Recent research has shown that behaviours and not just substances can be addictive too. They can cause the characteristic changes to the brain’s reward system that cocaine or alcohol or nicotine addictions produce. These behaviours include gambling, internet pornography, internet gaming, and social media like Facebook and probably dating apps like Tinder or Grindr too.

Many are in effect a ‘supernormal’ version of the natural rewards or natural reinforcers of food, bonding, and sex. Junk food with its high levels of salt, sugar and fat are ‘supernormal’ foods in the amount of high calorie reward they give the brain evolved for scarcity; social media is like an exaggerated version of bonding, hundreds of ‘friends’ at a click; and internet porn with its unending parade of willing ‘hot babes’ is a supernormal version of sex.

With drugs, users need a higher dosage to get the same ‘hit’. With the internet, over time users need more novelty or more intensity to feel the same effect. The porn industry is only too happy to provide this.

As the dopamine level soars in anticipation of the ‘reward,’ it quickly falls off again after the reward has been received. Users need to keep clicking to novel material to keep the rewards coming. If we keep forcing the brain to manufacture a constant supply, it stresses the system and shuts down production as a protection measure. If we continue to binge however, the brain decides this must be an emergency for survival purposes and overrides its satiation (‘have had enough’) mechanism. In turn, the high levels of dopamine trigger the release of a protein called Delta Fos B. This builds up in our reward system rewiring the brain to help us focus on, remember and repeat this important reward.

dopamine

Four characteristics are now associated with the physical changes in brain function as a result of the addiction process. These are:

• De-sensitisation
• Sensitisation
• Impulse control mechanism – Hypofrontality
• Dysfunctional stress circuits

‘Desensitisation’ is a numbed response to pleasure, especially to natural rewards, like food or bonding with others. It is usually the first addiction-related brain change porn users notice. They feel depressed, bored, flat and lacklustre. Reduced dopamine signalling and other changes leave the addict less sensitive to every day pleasure and ‘hungry’ for dopamine-raising activities and substances. They need greater and greater stimulation to get a buzz. They may spend more time online, prolonging sessions through edging, watching when not masturbating, or searching for the perfect video to end with. But desensitisation can take the form of escalation to new genres, sometimes harder, stranger, even disturbing. Remember: shock, surprise and anxiety can jack up dopamine.

By contrast, the only thing that gets our attention and raises our spirits is the object of our desire, the addicting behaviour or substance of choice. This is because we have become very ‘sensitised’ to it. Sensitisation, or unconscious super-memory of pleasure that, when activated, triggers powerful cravings. The cue-memory link is the brain that ‘wires together, fires together’ process in action. This conditioned Pavlovian memory makes the addiction more compelling than any other activity in the addict’s life.

Rewired nerve connections cause the reward system to buzz in response to addiction-related cues or thoughts. Cocaine addicts might see sugar and think of cocaine. An alcoholic hears the clink of glasses or smells beer as he passes a pub and immediately wants to go in.

For the internet porn addict, cues such as turning on the computer, seeing a pop up, or being home alone, trigger intense cravings for porn. Is a guy suddenly much hornier (true libido) when his wife, mother or flatmate goes shopping? Unlikely. But perhaps he feels as if he is on autopilot, or someone else is controlling his brain. Some describe a sensitised porn response as ‘entering a tunnel that has only one escape: porn’. Maybe he feels a rush, rapid heartbeat, even trembling, and all he can think about is logging onto his favourite porn website. These are examples of sensitised addiction pathways activating the reward system, screaming, “do it now!” Even the risk of committing a sexual offence won’t stop them.

Hypofrontality, or reduced brain activity in the prefrontal regions, weakens willpower or self-control, in the face of strong subconscious cravings. This happens as a result of the shrinkage of the grey matter and white matter, in the pre-frontal regions. This is the part of the brain that helps us put the brakes on choices that are not good for our longer term wellbeing. It helps us say ‘no’ to ourselves when we feel temptation. With this area depleted, we have a weakened ability to foresee consequences. It can feel like a tug-of-war. The sensitised pathways screaming ‘Yes!’ while the higher brain is saying ‘No! Not again!’ With the executive-control portions of the brain in a weakened condition, the addiction pathway usually wins.

Adolescents are doubly vulnerable to addiction. Not only do they have more dopamine driving them to take risks (the accelerator pedal is fully depressed), but the frontal lobes have not fully developed, (the brakes aren’t working too well).

Dysfunctional stress circuits. This makes even minor stress lead to cravings and relapse because they activate powerful sensitised pathways.

These phenomena are at the core of all addictions. One recovering porn addict summed them up: ‘I will never get enough of what doesn’t satisfy me and it never, ever satisfies me’.

Withdrawal. Many people believe that addiction always entails both tolerance (a need for more stimulation to get the same effect, caused by desensitisation) and brutal withdrawal symptoms. In fact, neither is a prerequisite for addiction – although today’s porn users often report both. What all addiction assessment tests share is, ‘continued use despite negative consequences’. That is the most reliable evidence of addiction.

<< Addiction                                                                                                                                     Recovery >>