How Porn Damages Your Brain, Science Backed

Some time back I brought a message to our church, How Porn Changes your Brain (for the worse). It was part of a larger series on sex. With my prior interest in the brain and my recent research on the brain and porn, I’m amazed at how deadly porn can be not only to marriages and our walk with Christ, but to the brain as well. And with the Ashley Madison database made public last year and with a clear correlation between porn use and infidelity, I felt it would be worth reposting.

 Consider what science is now revealing about how porn damages your brain. 

Until recently the research on how porn impacts the body and brain have been correlative. That is, from a scientific perspective, studies did not show that porn use directly caused these problems (although common sense told us otherwise). The correlative evidence, however, is quite damning in itself. The problem has been that researchers have had trouble finding college students (the most often chosen group for guinea pigs in research) who have not used porn. And, even if they did, it’s questionable the ethics of introducing someone to porn.

However, new research is now showing clear causal relationships of porn use to damage to the brain. In fact, the variable (use or non-use of porn) is now becoming more available as a large number (over 75,000) of former porn addicts have formed an on-line community called NoFab. Through surveys, they are posting how their lives have changed for the better after getting off porn. Also, a recent German study has shown a clear causal connection between even moderate porn use and damage to the brain.

Here is what research now indicates that porn does to our brains and bodies.

1. It becomes addictive. Overstimulation of the brain system that releases the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine (which internet porn spurs in massive amounts) results in the buildup of the molecular switch protein called deltaFosB, an ingredient common in most addictions.

2. It impairs memory and concentration.

3. It numbs you to other pleasures of life and real sex in marriage (called desensitization).

You develop a tolerance and need for greater and greater stimulation because real sex has become dull.

4. Sensitization.

Because your reward system has been hammered, you have an amped up attraction to porn that can tempt you to view it through even simple cues like seeing your computer monitor. Your brain goes into autopilot and your reward circuit says, “Do it now!”

5. It diminishes impulse control and willpower.

The fight between clear thinking and temptation is heightened and you have less willpower to say, “No!”

6. It increases sensitivity to stress.

Even minor stresses can lead to cravings and relapse because they activate powerful sensitized pathways.

7. It literally shrinks your brain. 

Studies actually show that even moderate amounts of porn can shrink grey matter in areas associated with cognitive function related to our ability to focus. Porn users report pervasive brain fog.

8. It causes depression and low energy.

This is because it interferes with normal dopamine production and signaling.

9. You become more susceptible to risky behavior.

Since porn addicts need a bigger and bigger hit they gravitate to more degrading kinds of porn and risky behavior to get that hit with diminished fears of experiencing negative consequences (i.e., getting caught).

10. Erectile dysfunction.

Porn users become less sensitive to real sex with their spouses and need more and more stimulation to get aroused. Ex-porn addicts report that porn created significant sexual problems, specifically ED. 

That’s the bad news.

The good news, however, is that because the brain is plastic, porn users can break free from porn and change their brains back to a healthy view of sex and sexuality. With Christ’s power, men (and women) can find freedom from the devastating effects of porn on the brains, their bodies, and their marriages.

In a prior post I recommended a great site that offers help. Here’s the link again. If you struggle with porn, please check out that web site.

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What Unforgiveness Does to Your Brain

We’ve all been deeply hurt in some way…a betrayal by a spouse, a behind-your-back criticism from a friend, hateful judgment from someone at church, a false accusation by a co-worker, unfair treatment by a boss or a parent. And the deeper the hurt, the harder it is and the longer it takes us to forgive. But sometimes we simply don’t forgive. We harbor a grudge. Resentment builds in our hearts. We nurse the offense. As a result, we remain prisoner to our pain and we harm our brain.

When someone hurts us, it’s natural and normal to feel pain. God created our brains to help us survive when we feel threatened. It’s called the fight-flight-freeze response generated in our emotional centers, primarily mediated by two almond shaped clusters of brain cells called the amygdalae.

When the amygdalae are activated, a series of bio-chemical processes begin. The adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys release the stress hormone cortisol into our bodies and the brain releases neurotransmitters into the brain. Those in turn activate part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, among other things, our attention gets highly focused on survival, our digestive system stops, our pupils dilate, our saliva glands slow, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, and our muscles are readied for action. Our body prepares itself to fight, flee, or freeze.

This process can happen whether or not we are in real danger or whether or not someone really hurts us or we simply perceive that they did.

Unforgiveness can keep our bodies and brains in this state of high alertness and leads to these unhealthy results.

  • Rumination: we nurse and rehearse the hurt which reinforces our negative emotions and burns the event and pain even deeper into our neuropathways. When we’re not focused on a task, our inner self-talk will often default to rehearsing the painful situation.
  • Diminished memory: when we remain stressed for longs periods of time (i.e., we refuse to forgive), cortisol actually causes our brain to atrophy, especially our memory center called the hippocampus.
  • Amplified negative emotions: prolonged stress also amplifies our amygdalae’s sensitivity making us even more susceptible to further hurt and pain.
  • Schadenfreude: this concept describes the secret pleasure we feel when we see those who have hurt us experience misfortune themselves. It actually causes our brain to produce the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It actually feels good to see bad things happen to those we don’t forgive. It’s the opposite of praying for your enemies which Jesus commanded us to do.

So, unforgiveness not only keeps us chained to our offender but it profoundly affects our bodies and brains.

So what can we do? Consider these insights to forgive those who have hurt you.

  1. First, admit the pain. When we name a painful emotion (not stuffing or rehearsing it) we actually decrease that negative emotion’s intensity.
  2. Journal. Processing our pain through writing it down can lessen the pain and help us gain better perspective. However, don’t let journaling become another way to rehearse and reinforce your pain. Through journaling seek to gain God’s perspective and healing.
  3. Begin to choose to forgive the person. Notice that I used the word ‘begin.’ Some offences can be quickly forgiven. Some may take a long time to fully forgive. Forgiveness is a process. The deeper the pain, the longer it takes. It’s not so much forgive and forget. Rather, true forgiveness is more like remembering it less and less.
  4. Draw deeply from God’s grace. At the root of the Christian faith lies grace, receiving God’s grace and extending it to others who have hurt us.

The Apostle Paul reminded us in Colossians 3.13 to forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

What insights have you learned about forgiving others?

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The Leadership Paradox: Trusting God or Trusting Others?

Every church leader (or Christian for that matter) faces a common paradox. We’re expected to trust God for our personal and ministry needs. Yet, we need the help of others. Leading is not a solo effort. So, ho do we strike the balance between trusting God and trusting others?

Recently I noticed that same paradox reflected in the choices made by two famous Biblical characters, Ezra and Nehemiah. In the Message paraphrase below each one took a different route. One just trusted God and didn’t approach the king for help. The other sought help from the king and God worked through that choice.

Ezra 8.21 I proclaimed a fast there beside the Ahava Canal, a fast to humble ourselves before our God and pray for wise guidance for our journey—all our people and possessions.  22 I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, “Our God lovingly looks after all those who seek him, but turns away in disgust from those who leave him.” 23 So we fasted and prayed about these concerns. And he listened.

Neh. 2.7 Then I said, “If it please the king, provide me with letters to the governors across the Euphrates that authorize my travel through to Judah;  8 and also an order to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, to supply me with timber for the beams of The Temple fortress, the wall of the city, and the house where I’ll be living.” The generous hand of my God was with me in this and the king gave them to me.  9 When I met the governors across The River (the Euphrates) I showed them the king’s letters. The king even sent along a cavalry escort.

See the difference? As contrasting as were their decisions, they both made God-honoring ones.

So, what insight can we draw from their experiences when we face a similar situation?

Here’s a thought. The next time you face a ministry choice that requires resources or help, lean in the opposite direction you usually go. If you usually just ‘pray’ and ask God to meet the need, perhaps you should ask others to help meet the need as well. If you tend to go to others first, maybe your first step should be to seek God’s provision before you ask others for their help or insight.

I’ve discovered that God often works in counter-intuitive ways, through avenues outside those most familiar  and comfortable to us.

What do you think about these two options? Do you think leaders tend to show a bias one way or the other?

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Does the Bible have Refrigerator Rights in Your Life?

When I visit my parents in Georgia, within five minutes of my arrival I almost always open the refrigerator to see what’s in it. I’ve done this for years. And they don’t mind me doing so. However, I don’t have that freedom to do that in most everyone else’s home. If someone invited me over and I opened their refrigerator, they’d think I was either crazy or that I lacked key social skills. I liken refrigerator rights to how open we are to allowing God’s Word to shape our conduct and character. How do we know that God’s Word has refrigerator rights in our hearts? Consider five questions that might answer that question.

Before I suggest these questions, we can learn a key insight about ‘refrigerator rights’ from Jesus’ half-brother James who wrote the book named after him. In James 1.21 we find this insightful phrase, humbly accept the word planted in you.

The idea of accept denotes a welcoming reception you feel in a friend’s home, much like how my parents receive me when I visit them. Their welcoming atmosphere gives me the freedom to open up their refrigerator. Likewise, when we truly give God’s Word refrigerator rights to our souls, we welcome His Word to instruct, convict, and direct our lives.

Ask yourself these questions to discover the degree God’s Word has refrigerator rights to your heart.

  1. I read, meditate on, or study God’s Word several times each week.
  2. I approach the Bible as a living and God-breathed book, unlike how I approach reading a novel or a textbook.
    • For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Heb 4.12)
  3. I seek to connect the then and there (what the Bible says) to the here and now (how I need to directly apply it to my life). I don’t read simply for interest, but for life transformation.
  4. I read the Bible reflectively, slowly, and meditatively. In this post I write about a unique and fresh approach to Bible reading.
  5. I refuse to pick and choose the parts of the Bible that apply to me. I open up every part of my life and heart to God’s Spirit applying Biblical Truth to me.

The next time you open up your own refrigerator, ask yourself this question.

Does God’s Word have refrigerator rights in my heart? 

What has helped you keep your heart open to God’s Word?

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5 Ways to Improve Decision Making

A leader must make lots of decisions. The better decisions we make, the better our leadership, the better our churches and ministries, and the better those around us perform. So what can we do to improve decision making? Consider these five ways.

5 Ways to Improve Decision making

1. Avoid decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue refers to the phenomenon that occurs when the quality of our decisions degrades after a long string of successive decisions. When important decision face you, make them when you are the most refreshed, usually in the morning (although night owls may make better decisions at night). Learn more about decision fatigue here.

2. Get enough sleep.

The U.S. CDC stated in 2013 that 35% of adults aged 25-65 reported that they unintentionally fell asleep during the previous month. And the same percentage reported that they get less than 7 hours of sleep each night, although sleep experts recommend that we get 7-9 hours each night. When we don’t get adequate sleep, here’s what happens. (For a more detailed look at leaders and their sleep, read this post).

  • Our attention, alertness, and mental response speed decrease.
  • Creativity gets dampened.
  • Our brain’s CEO (the pre-frontal cortex) that is responsible for executive functions like planning, emotional control, decision making, and abstract think gets compromised.

If sometimes you just can’t get enough sleep, a short 10-20 minute nap can boost your alertness and the quality of your decisions.

3. Practice metacognition.

Metacognition is a fancy word for ‘thinking about your thinking.’ Often we get caught up in a thinking auto-pilot mode. And since our brain has five time more negative circuits than positive ones, thinking usually turns negative. It’s called the negativity bias. So, practice pausing during the day to ask yourself, “What am I thinking about right now?” This discipline can help you avoid wasted mental energy on unprofitable thoughts. The Apostle Paul counsels us to do this in Philippians 4.8.

4. Recognize how emotions affect our decisions.

For years we assumed that great decisions were based on logic alone. That is, a good leader, after mentally processing the merits of a decision, would arrive at the best one primarily through a logical thought process. However, scientists are now learning that emotion plays a much larger part in decision making than previous thought. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio found impaired decision making in people who had brain injuries to their emotional centers. So, factoring in how you feel about a decision might help you make a better one.

5. Recognize how long-term stress diminishes good decision making.

God created our bodies with an ability to respond to danger. It’s called the stress response, largely influenced by the stress hormone, cortisol. However, long term stress actually shrinks brain cells in our memory centers. And it strengthens brains cells in our fight-flight centers which in turn dampens our brain’s CEO that guides the decision making process. So, if you’ve been stressed a long time, it might behoove you to delay any significant decisions until your stress diminishes.

What has helped you make better decisions?

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