The Frontal Cortex

The Neuroscience of Porn

Porn is a big business. Every year, Americans spend $4 billion on video pornography, which makes the industry larger than the N.F.L., the N.B.A. or Major League Baseball. When you include Internet Web sites, porn networks and pay-per-view movies on cable and satellite, phone sex, and magazines, the porn business is estimated to total between $10 billion and $14 billion annually. As Frank Rich notes, “People spend more money for pornography in America in a year than they do on movie tickets, more than they do on all the performing arts combined.” Sex sites are estimated to account for up to forty percent of all Internet traffic.

But how does porn work? Why do humans (especially men) get so excited by seeing someone else have sex? At first glance, the answer seems obvious: watching porn triggers an idea (we start thinking about sex), which then triggers a change in our behavior (we become sexually aroused). This is how most of us think about thinking: sensations cause thoughts which cause physical responses. Porn is a quintessential example of how such a thought process might work.

But this straightforward answer is entirely wrong. Porn does not cause us to think about sex. Rather, porn causes to think we are having sex. From the perspective of the brain, the act of arousal is not preceded by a separate idea, which we absorb via the television screen. The act itself is the idea. In other words, porn works by convincing us that we are not watching porn. We think we are inside the screen, doing the deed.

New evidence of this porn anatomy has just emerged. In the new Neuroimage, a lab in Germany flashed images of aroused genitalia to both men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals. As expected, brain activity correlated with sexual preference: the minds of homosexual men mirrored the minds of heterosexual women, and vice-versa. But what was really interesting was the pattern of activation itself. When subjects looked at porn in the fMRI machine (not a very erotic place), “the ventral premotor cortex which is a key structure for imitative (mirror neurons) and tool-related (canonical neurons) actions showed a bilateral sexual preference-specific activation, suggesting that viewing sexually aroused genitals of the preferred sex triggers action representations of sexual behavior.” In other words, looking at still pictures of naked people triggered our mirror neurons into action, as the brain began pretending that it was actually having sex, and not just looking at smutty pictures in a science lab.

Comments

  1. #1 Uber
    September 20, 2006

    I’m skeptical that the brain thinks it is having sex while looking at pictures. Perhaps preparing to have sex is a better wording.

    I know when I see a picture of a nude woman I do not think I am having sex but may think about the possibilty:-)

    Then reality catches up.

  2. #2 somnilista, FCD
    September 20, 2006

    You might want to spell-check the title of your post. Feel free to delete this comment afterward.

  3. #3 Jonah
    September 20, 2006

    Thanks somnilista. You’re invaluable!

  4. #4 Mike
    September 20, 2006

    I’m skeptical of the numbers the porn industry comes out with – what’s your source on that? It just doesn’t really make sense. If it’s a $14 billion industry, it must be creating far more rich people than Hollywood, yet they’re invisible. I think it’s all overblown.

  5. #5 Jonah
    September 20, 2006

    See Frank Rich, “Naked Capitalists,” NY Times Magazine, May 20, 2001. While I’m also suspicious of these numbers, it is a pretty well established fact that the porn industry is signficantly larger than Hollywood. As for where all this wealth ends up…I couldn’t tell ya, but then I don’t spend very much time in the San Fernando Valley.

  6. #6 Jim
    September 20, 2006

    Because of its ‘outlaw’ status, it’s harder to figure out where the money goes: nobody wants it known they make money off of porn. I believe the article pointed that a significant share of profits go to companies we don’t associate with porn (hotel chains with pay-per-view cable, phone companies with phone sex, cable companies, etc.) In addition, technology companies (ISPs) benefit indirectly from the demand porn induces.

    Also, the ‘outlaw’ status may be keeping porn from the kind of consolidation we have seen in other media industries. More small companies splitting the pie.

  7. #7 somnilista, FCD
    September 20, 2006

    Nudes deadlier than bombs

    HARDLINE Indonesian Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who was jailed for his role in the deadly 2002 Bali attacks, says scantily clad women on television are more dangerous than bombs…

  8. #8 DavidD
    September 21, 2006

    It’s so hard to find the right words to explain a new concept. I was thinking about why Uber felt the need to disagree with the idea that porn makes us think we are having sex. Of course we know that we’re not really having sex when we watch sex, and that’s a lot easier watching gazelles going at it than some woman of my dreams paired with whatever man is performing in my place. Yet there can be satisfaction just in that much of an experience. Often it’s not enough, but sometimes it is. It’s more than just an idea.

    But that’s not a new concept, is it? We get vicarious satisfaction in many ways, when our team wins, when our children do well. I was too tough to cry at movies in my twenties, but then I had children and who knows what else. Now I cry at movies, both for sadness and for joy. I’m not confused about who’s on the screen. I usually know I’m crying about something completely fictiousness. Ah, but you just have to FEEL it! It’s real in me just from watching. It’s the same feeling as in some situations from real life, whether my life or someone else’s. Just because the people on the screen are actors whose minds might be on something entirely different doesn’t change my experience. The information that this is fake is in my intellect, wherever in the brain that is, and doesn’t interfere with the experience, especially if they do a good job in faking it.

    I suppose making this about sex makes it more likely to be read, but I don’t hear anything unique about vicariously experiencing sex compared to how we vicariously experience many things.

  9. #9 SkookumPlanet
    September 21, 2006

    DavidD has it correct. I’m trained as a fiction writer, and have some background in filmmaking and script writing. These work by creating a vicarious reality which we then willingly participate in. The crappy stuff does such a poor job at it we’re constantly reminded it’s fake. The sublime and/or powerful stories have technique that disappears.

    One might simply say when we view pornography we’re imagining having sex. I’m curious to know if there’s any evidence of a relationship between mirror nuerons and imagination, or really, any neuroscience on imagination.

    Unfortunately this art technique of creating vicarious, or fake, reality is being adopted in the political realm. I wrote an analysis of how this was used by the Bush administration to convince people that Saddam Hussien was connected to 9/11. Using vicarioius reality, these guys left no fingerprints. I’m still amazed they were able to manipulate broadcast news the way they did. It’s at Chris Mooney’s as Led to War by Proximity Soundbites.

  10. #10 Uber
    September 22, 2006

    I guess I see your point David. I was viewing it more as a potential for the same rather than a current happening.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    September 22, 2006

    I may sympathize when I see someone hit their thumb with a hammer; I may even experience a form of pain. But I do not believe that my own thumb has been hit with a hammer.

    Porn does not cause any sane person to believe they are having sex. It may cause the brain to generate representational models that cause internal experiences analogous to sex, but that’s not the same thing at all; no more than experiencing sympathetic pain is the same thing as direct physical pain.

    Overstating the conclusions that can be drawn from neurological data may be sexy, but ultimately it neither entertains nor enlightens.

  12. #12 Jonah
    September 23, 2006

    I’m interested in getting into an argument over the semantics of experience. My point was simple: when we watch porn, the motor cortex of our brain acts as if we were having sex. The exact same neurons that would fire if you were actually having sex, fire when you are just watching someone else having sex. This is the basic idea behind mirror neurons: seeing is doing. While you may not consciously know that your mirror neurons are imitating the bodily movements on the TV screen, their activity absolutely impacts your conscious experience.
    As others have noted, mirror neurons are a possible neurological explanation for many of the performing arts. From movies to theater to dance, these cells blur any distinction between the minds of the audience and the minds of the performers. They collapse, so to speak, the Brechtian 4th wall.

  13. #13 SkookumPlanet
    September 23, 2006

    Jonah
    And how about adding spectator sports also?

  14. #14 rob
    September 23, 2006

    “…splitting the pie.”

    Posted by: Jim | September 20, 2006 03:24 PM

    Great, um, way to put it, Jim…

  15. #15 Jonah
    September 23, 2006

    Spectator sports are absolutely activated by mirror neurons. I wrote an article a while back about mirror neurons and golf, and how watching the PGA tour might actually make us better golfers, since our motor cortices literally rehearse the swing of Tiger Woods (of Phil Mickelson, etc.) But the same idea is true of every sport, from football to tennis.

  16. #16 Dave B
    September 23, 2006

    This is a very interesting discussion to me as I used to do research in human sexuality and later sleep and dreams. I thought David D’s comments and Jonah’s above meshed well. If you watch a movie that makes you feel a certain way, that emotion can be just as intense as if you are experiencing it in real life, and likely the neural and other physiological signatures of the emotional experience would look pretty similar on a polygraph. Jonah’s concept as presented is a bit of a newer wrinkle in that it involves motor neurons as well…

    Let’s consider dreams, which are also something we “watch.” The activity in a dream is mirrored in things like eye movement patterns and inner ear muscle activity. Emotional centers of the brain fire away. The occipital (visual) area of the brain is going crazy, either as a consequence of the dream, or random firing which produces the dream (an interesting chicken-or-egg question that). Likely we would be trying to physically act out our dreams, were it not for an active inhibition of our muscles that accompanies REM sleep.

    I view both the movie experience and dreams as analogues to what can happen while viewing porn. And btw, I’ll bet there’s a huge difference here between looking at a photo of a naked woman, and sex acts, in what response they produce.

  17. #17 Joe
    September 24, 2006

    What turns my world on it’s head is that Bush’s Attorney General Alberto Gonzolez announced back in 2003 that he is actively pursuing the porn industry to make up ground lost during the Clinton years. There was just another hearing rebroadcast again this weekend on C-Span with the hero of the anti-porn forces, Edwin Meese (A.G. under Reagan…) Meese was the one who’s millions-dollar, years-long porn study determined that all forms of BD/SM (even consentual between married couples) are directly responsible for violence against women. (It is therefore embarassing to figure out how he explains the prevalence of Male submissive/Female Dominant sites fit into this theme) But what got my attention about the C-Span hearing was the fascinating use of the language which effectively blended all porn into Child porn. Ergo, we must now eradicate all porn to save the children.

    I am sorry – but when we have betrayed the fundamental precepts of freedom and privacy under the guise of pursuing terrorists, I can’t believe that all of these illegal intrusions into our lives are not going to also be used to make scapegoats and pseudo-Rosenbergs out of pornographers and those who view it. And whatever psychological, sociological, and emotional affects that porn has on society, I simply can’t bring myself to agree that guys who subscribe to a particular set of websites should be frog-marched to the courthouse in front of the media as the new target of evil in our society.

    If they are willing to make the argument that porn leads to the degradation of society because men see images that blinds them to their own impulses, then I have to wonder how you can make movies like “Hostel” and think that never a harmful thought was ever passed along. Showing images of people consentually having sex = inevitable destruction of society; showing images of psychopathic homicidal fantasies acted out on unwilling kidnapped victims desperately pleading for their life and being ignored with a smile before their brutal slaughter=perfectly normal entertainment.

    Yes – porn addictions have cost a lot of men their marriages, boatloads of money, and a lot of people are getting rich from it. But if you use that logic to make porn the new evil, then someone has got to explain to me how we can keep alcohol, tobacco, and firearms legal. The destruction as a result of the latter is magnitudes greater than porn, and the outrage is somehow not on the agenda of our Attorney General.

    Does this make sense to you?

  18. #18 SkookumPlanet
    September 25, 2006

    Joe
    Yeah, it does make sense to me. I don’t disagree with anything you said, but want to point out an alternative, or additional, tactical rationale for the behavior you describe. The radical right cadre, in taking over the Republican Party have turned the Christian Evangelical right into the party’s base. Thus, this constituency provides the votes that keep what was a faction, in power. And in control of most of federal a state governance.

    All sorts of dangerous, ridiculous, and founding-fathers’-apoplexy-inducing [Congress intervening in Schaivo] initiatives, both inside and outside government, are designed to keep this base fired up, activated, and voting. Control of the most powerful nation in history is a stake. Virtually all the issues important to this constituency have been adopted, pushed, and showcased by Republican officeholders. Anti-porn is one of those.

    The arguments presented by this campaign are non-rational, or pseudo-rational, engineered for specific motivational effect in specific populations. They are impervious to rational and logical counter argument as they operate emotionally. It’s, ironically, an amoral initiative, as will become clear as the lies continue accumulating. Anyone interested could study the developement you mention as a basic model for all these rightwing psychomarketing campaigns.

    Sad as it is to see and say, the radical right and Republican operatives have made their choice between power and the institutions and impulses inherent in the founding of the United States. There is an argument to be made that this behavior is itself a form of pornography.

    We’re a bit off subject, but I couldn’t resist.

  19. #19 hank
    September 30, 2006

    “This is the basic idea behind mirror neurons: seeing is doing.”

    But you have to spin that fact a certain way to make it particularly interesting. It’s been known for quite a while that looking at, say, a hammer will partially activate motor areas of the brain (as compared to looking at, say, a zebra) simply because part of our knowledge about that object is “motor” in nature.

    To the extent it’s true that memory representations ‘live’ in or near the same areas of the brain where we initially process a stimulus (and that does seem to be at least roughly the case), these types of findings don’t really tell us much we didn’t already know.

    This isn’t to say understanding the specifics of how mirror neurons themselves work isn’t interesting and important. Just that the “golly gee! The same areas light up when we see vs. when we do!” type findings don’t typically deserve the press they always seems to get.

  20. #20 julien
    October 1, 2006

    Hi Jonah,

    About the Neuroimage study: how mirror-neurons could get involved? And isn’t it actually evidence AGAINST your view?

    As far as I know, mirror neurons get excited 1) when you perform a given action, 2) when you see it performed, and maybe 3) when you plan performing it. Now, in watching porn, you do see an action performed, and that might activate mirror neurons. But in the study, people where shown pictures of genitalia of their preferred sex. For instance, heterosexual men where shown pictures of female genitalia. At first sight, you should NOT expect those images to trigger any activation of the mirror neurons.

    Of course, you might expect them to do so indirectly. To wit: when shown your preferred object of desire, you think about… your preferred object of desire, and this in turns makes you think about the related action. But: first, that predicts an activation of any neurons that represent the action, not specifically of mirror-neurons representations of that action. And second, that’s precisely the view you want to reject in the case of porn! Namely: first think about sex, then think about having sex.

    Actually, your view (i.e., that viewing porn makes you think directly about having sex, via mirror neurons) sort of suggests that in order to be more effective, porn should be focused on the subject rather than object of desire. For instance, if it’s a movie for heterosexual men, it should be focused on the male character’s actions, rather than, say, the female character’s sensations or body. But, as far as I can see, porn directors do things exactly in the opposite way. Do you think they get it backwards (if I may say)?

  21. #21 julien dutant
    October 1, 2006

    Addendum: I just saw that The Neurocritic made the same point about the potential role of mirror neurons in the Neuroimage study:

    “if the PMv activity in this experiment is really imitative in nature, or even “empathetic” (instead of motor imagery or motor preparation), then wouldn’t same-sex genitals elicit greater activity than opposite-sex genitals, regardless of sexual orientation?”

  22. #22 Phil
    November 22, 2006

    Amazing. As a PhD neuroscience student, I had this thought seperately and then googled to find this page. The idea for me sprang from the observation that when I obtained a real person to have sex with i.e. my girlfriend, when i stopped watching porn I lacked triggers to arousal. I have since burnt my porn collection and am refocusing on a real person to trigger arousal.

  23. #23 Andrea
    April 23, 2008

    You know, this may explain why icky squishy “hard core” is so popular, despite its poor actors and barely-there plot. But me, I’d much rather watch a good movie that happens to have lots and lots of well-written sex.

  24. #24 örgü
    March 5, 2009

    thanks

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