Pornography Disorts Our Perception Of Reality, Say Psychologists

Not only does porn negatively affect our mental health, it also changes how we view the world and others.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 8, 2022

A new study published in Frontiers in Psychology outlines how pornography distorts our perceptions of reality and how we view our loved ones.

I recently spoke with psychologist Stephen Sammut who informed me about the various ways pornography affects our brain and produces harmful psychological effects. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What impacts of pornography use were you trying to investigate through this study?

The goal of the study was to investigate the potential links between various aspects of pornography use, including the potential compulsive use of pornography, and the impact on mental health.

You mention that research regarding compulsive pornography use and its relationship to mental health was lacking. Did your study unearth any new findings?

Yes, our results clearly indicated a relationship between pornography use and negative mental health outcomes, predicted by compulsive behaviors potentially reflecting behavioral addiction.

In your study, the impact of pornography was assessed using multiple measures. Where did you observe the strongest impact and why do you think that was?

Mental health was progressively worse the more recent the pornography use took place relative to those who never viewed pornography.

This makes sense because, as in every insult or stressor on the body or the brain, while the impact may be most "dramatically" visible earlier on, the most disturbing issues are the lingering trauma to the mind and the negative modifications to the wiring (neurological) and behavior that are long-lasting – well beyond the time of exposure.

In your abstract, you mention that faith, morals, and personal motivation were the primary variables that reduced pornography use. Could you elaborate on that?

We believe that these results support what we know of human nature and the role of faith and morals in the formation of wholesome human beings, which is fully supported by scientific literature.

We know that faith and morals provide people with certain standards of behaviors that challenge their growth and development, in addition to standards of how they should view and treat people.

At the neurological level – at the brain level – growth is reflected by the increased use of the upper brain: the executive functioning.

We know from the study of psychopathology over many, many years, that a dysfunctional regulation of the lower brain by the upper brain is reflected in pathological behaviors.

Thus, faith and morals have the potential to contribute to appropriate brain functioning – that is assisting in the prioritization of the upper brain over the lower. So it makes sense that they could be especially helpful in regards to assisting people in reducing their pornography use.

Additionally, personal motivation takes effort. In this case, we are addressing the motivation to regulate one's behavior, which implies a higher brain function.

The fact that this was selected as a significant factor in assisting people in reducing their pornography consumption reflects the importance of appropriate education that focuses on developing higher brain function rather than satisfying the instinctive, lower brain, impulsive behaviors.

Many people believe that pornography use cannot develop into an addiction as it is not a 'hard drug' like cocaine or heroin. Could you assess the validity of this statement using your knowledge of the topic and the findings of this study?

To believe that pornography cannot develop into an addiction is a fallacy that denies the biological and neurological reality of the functioning of the brain.

We know that the limbic system, which is part of the lower brain, is involved in the processing of reward and salient (important) stimuli – irrespective of whether it is pornography, cocaine, a phenomenal meal, compulsive cell phone use, shopping, etc.

While the strength of the response to the various stimuli may vary at the neurological level in terms of how much neurotransmitter is released, the ultimate scientific and biological reality is that, in ALL of these cases and more, the reward center of the brain is activated.

Sexual pleasure is not exactly an insignificant stimulus for the brain and the context in which it takes place, most specifically when the sole goal of importance is instant gratification, does nothing to help in the development of upper brain regulation and does much to strengthen the lower brain and thus the capacity for a behavior to result in addiction-like behavior.

Pornography use has a broad impact on mental health. Could you briefly explain the various domains of mental health that pornography use affects?

Mental health is a broad concept. When mental health is compromised, it ultimately reflects a dysfunctional regulation of the lower brain by the upper brain – in ALL cases. Compromising mental health through pornography use has broad consequences.

These are manifested not only in such pathologies as depression and anxiety but also in numerous facets of daily life that we may take for granted. These include but are not limited to:

  • How we perceive ourselves (self-worth)
  • How we perceive others; e.g. if we start seeing people as being there for our pleasure – objectifying them – the sky becomes the limit as to how a person may treat/mistreat another
  • Both of the above will impact social interaction and ultimately societal integrity
  • Impacts on perception of living and reality: People become more comfortable dealing with the unreal and therefore know less how to deal with the real – a growing issue in today's society – this ultimately impacts relationships – at the couple, family, and societal level, leading to social breakdown
  • In general, if the dominating drive is to please ourselves (hedonistic), this drive is no different from that observed in drug abuse, where the drug user becomes preoccupied with seeking the stimulus at the cost of living a normal life and completing their daily duties appropriately. Our study did indicate such tendencies and these corroborate what has been previously described in the literature, even relative to brain function.

What message would you send to people who are trying to overcome pornography addiction or the excessive consumption of it?

There is hope, but it takes determination and motivation as well as a genuine belief in the dignity and value of the human person, in which faith and morals can assist.