XXX Science

05.31.14

Does Porn Cause Brain Shrinkage In Men?

A new study shows a correlation between porn and smaller gray matter volume in the male brain.

New research published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry could send chills down every man’s spine—and other parts of his anatomy.

According to a study conducted by the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, the amount of hours spent watching pornography is negatively associated with gray matter volume in the male brain. Of the 64 healthy men between the ages of 21 and 45 who participated in the research, the ones who watched more pornography literally had smaller brains. There was also a negative correlation between hours of porn watched and brain activation during sex cues. That added further evidence to the belief that “intense exposure to pornographic stimuli” can negatively impact visual sexual stimuli’s ability to do the trick, so to speak.

But men shouldn’t start blaming their love of Stoya for not being able to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle or get turned on with Cialis-guaranteed results. Many, many media outlets have been heralding this study as proof that pornography makes men “stupid” and “damages” their brain. Yet the latest data by no means proves this.

Perhaps it is our puritan ancestry or our long history of pathologizing sexual behavior, especially when it comes to masturbatory habits, but we are quick to assume the worst in studies about pornography. Porn has been accused as the root of a number of ills, from sexism to impotency, generally without the science to actually prove causality. The way we tend to jump on studies that hint at the slightest, most premature proof of pornography’s negative effect is hardly better than the early 20th Century Boy Scout handbooks warning  against “self abuse.”

That’s actually part of the problem with porn studies: a reliable control group.

Our prejudice against pornography appears to hold up even when the researchers themselves are hesitant to make any drastic conclusions. Dr. Simone Kühn, who led the Berlin study, was hesitant to say anything too conclusive, stressing that his data demonstrated correlation not causation. In an email interview with The Daily Beast, he wrote “It is not even clear whether pornography consumption causes the brain to shrink, or whether the brain structure is the precondition that makes people vulnerable for pornography consumption.” To determine a causal relationships, Kühn says “We need longitudinal studies, or ideally a study in which participants naïve to pornography are instructed to watch pornography to decide on the direction of causality.”

Good luck finding that cohort of “naïve” participants, noble goal though that it is. That’s actually part of the problem with porn studies: a reliable control group. Without it, there is the chicken-or-the-egg issue. In this case, we don’t know whether men have smaller gray matter volume in the brain as a result of watching many hours of pornography, or whether men who already have smaller brains are driven to watch more porn than big-brained guys. As Dr. Jim Pfause of Concordia University points out, “smaller ones may mean you need more stimulation.”

Smaller volumes of gray matter may not themselves even be cause for concern. “In general, gray matter shrinkage may have no impact,” says Dr. Nicole Prause of University of California, Los Angeles. There might also be confounding factors at play with the structural correlation between hours spent watching porn and brain size. “It’s really important before we make interpretations that we know the role of alcohol and depression,” says Prause, who believes neither was sufficiently controlled for in the study.

Kühn, himself, has warned against drawing too many conclusions about porn viewing and intelligence or cognition.  Since “cognitive effects were not assessed” in the study, he says, we can’t conclude porn has any correlation with “systematic effects on the brain.”

Because pornography is still a taboo, and therefore, polarizing topic, it is hard to take a middle-ground approach to this latest study and other research. The truth of the matter is that while many scientists are rightfully quick to calm the anti-porn hysterics, we should also acknowledge the very preliminary evidence that the consumption of porn could potentially be having detrimental effects.

Dr. Valerie Voon of the University of Cambridge takes a more moderate view. “I suspect [porn] probably doesn’t cause a ‘major’ cognitive risk,” she says in an email to The Daily Beast. But she adds there are potential issues with porn consumption for especially vulnerable populations. “I think one of the main issues would be that there may be a subgroup of people who may run into problems with compulsive use.”

Not only is much more research needed to determine what impact (if any) porn is having on our health; as a society, we need to learn to be receptive without becoming sensationalist or overly defensive.  For now, let just say there’s no need to join an anti-FAP support group, but there’s also nothing wrong with being more cognizant of the amount of hours you’re spending on YouPorn.