Can Neuroplasticity be blamed for compulsive Porn use?
A common misconception flying around the world today is the idea of blaming the brain for addicted and continued pornography use. Books, articles, blogs, preachers, and popular DVD series pair in methodology and agree with the statement, "Their brain made them do it."
This misguided theory reiterates the idea that, "A person's brain can't help themselves with lusting after those portrayed in pornography, because overtime it creates these roadmaps in their brain. These already woven roadmaps make it impossible for neurons to go anywhere else, as neurons fire off every time someone looks at porn, making them unable to turn away. These roadmaps in the brain make it almost impossible to reject pornography, as the brain continually fires off in certain pathways - thus making it impossible for people to look away and discontinue their use and love of porn."
Thus, again… the ‘Brain’ made them do it.
But this isn’t entirely accurate and these popularized misconceptions about the brain do not tell the whole truth of what the brain was always intended to do… which is to assist humans in their behavior though desires.
Neuroplasticity is a fascinating study and the ability of our brains to line up with our wants and desires - pushes us through our behavior, towards what we want as humans. This relatively new area of development to science is enthralling and not surprisingly - reiterated throughout Scriptures.
The study of neuroplasticity all started with the groundbreaking experiment that a scientist, Ivan Pavlov, used on his dog by ringing a bell and giving him a treat. Soon afterwards, all the scientist would have to do was to ring the bell and the dog would salivate. The conclusion: That a roadway through the brain was being established in the dog, that when a bell rang an expected treat would be given - giving the evidence of neuroplasticity (1).
Since the ground breaking news of neuroplasticity in the early 1900’s, there has been much discovery made in the late 1980’s up until today.
Let’s talk geek.
Neuroplasticity is made up of two words:
Neuro - the system of nerves and nerve centers in human, including the brain.
Plasticity - moldable.
Neuroplasticity means: a brain that is Moldable (2).
The brain is made up of brain cells called neurons. These neurons send electrical signals to certain areas of the brain that help and assist with action, thought, and movement. Thanks to ‘functional brain imaging’ we can now see the altering structure of the brain while learning at the cellular level (3).
The human brain has 100 billion neurons and each neuron connects to 10 thousand other neurons. This interwoven communication system enables the human brain to function at incredible speed and with precise accuracy. Neurons are made with axons and dendrites, these connect to other neurons through transmitting an electrical signals to other neurons through its axon and receives signals through the dendrite (4).
The more the dendrites are reinforced, the stronger the connection. The connections where neurons meet are called synapses, this creates a connection. The more and stronger the connection, the new fact or skill will be reiterated and learned. Neuroplasticity is the study of these connections (5).
Neuroplasticity is used by the brain to discover, adapt, learn, recover, and memorize for all basic learning, whether it is cognitive or physical. This strengthening in the brain by neuroplasticity helps create every new skill, learned art, and activity that you do. So for every skill, hobby, function, and activity that you have in life - needs a synapses connection for each of those items.
So for an example, if you are learning to write, neurons aimed directly at neuron bonds will create a connection that forms a synapses that assist in learning that particular skill. That synapses will be connected, reinforced, and strengthened through every writing practice you do. And when you practice, those synapses will be wired together, forming strong bonding which assists in the learning pattern of writing (6).
What is the key with ‘neuroplasticity’?
Practicing. Practicing. Practicing.
Practicing strengthens these neurons with repetition and intensity. Neuroplasticity is the roadways of neurons, so these neurons make pathways that are created by repetitious learning. Neuroplasticity is the study of those roadways in the brain that fires together tight bonds of neurons. These neurons cling to other neurons creating a road map for learning to be reinforced, creating a stronger connection for understanding that leads to the learned behavior.
Good or bad. Honorable or dishonorable. With every single thing you learn, these connections become strong and reinforced through the patterned behavior of practicing (7 ).
This is the area in which the term, “Neurons that fire together wire together” (8). Since neuroplasticity is what is being referenced, we can see that the neurons that are firing constantly through practicing are wiring together stronger to make the behavior proficient. Everything we learn has to do with wiring and firing in new directions of neurons. Neuroplasticity takes place every single day. As long as you are alive your brain will make new connections, as it assists in learning the skill you desire to learn (9).
Dr. Lara Boyd - a brain researcher at the University of British Columbia, Canada, whose new area of expertise is centered around neuroplasticity, has this to say, “Every time you learn a new fact or skill - you change your brain through neuroplasticity. All of our behaviors change our brain in one way or another, but mostly through neuroplasticity. While practicing an activity, your brain increases the chemical between your neurons.” (10)
Every time you can learn a new fact or skill, you are changing your brain through neuroplasticity as roadways of neurons are etched deeper and stronger so that information can move faster and easier through these roadways. Neuroplasticity is what is taking place when you are determined to participate in an activity. And the more you practice something, the better you become, the more you long to do it, and the stronger your brain synapses are in the area that you are practicing in, whether it is riding a bike, playing an instrument, learning a language, or partaking in an addiction.
Scientists are still unsure why certain pathways are created. I believe that there must be a fear and pleasure center that contributes to certain aspects of the brain; because almost every successful experiment that was conducted for neuroplasticity had to do with a fear or pleasure, as well as many other brain study results. Since Scripture never is wrong, I think we can lean on it for answers. We are taught as Believers to fear the Lord and to take pleasure in righteousness, while the wicked do not fear the Lord and take pleasure in unrighteousness. Fear and pleasure are major players in one's determination, purpose, intensity, and internal desires.
Now let us bring it around to Pornography use.
If someone desires to look at pornography, their brain will assist their internal desires as they view pornography with determination, purpose, and intensity. Once it is acted upon, the synapses bond would be ignited and strengthened due to the practice of it and the reward is established by stronger and faster connections. Therefore their behavior of sinning with pornography, would build stronger and stronger desires to continue in that particular sin.
It just depends on what the individual desires, as the brain encourages mastering the desired skill through practicing and by practicing it, not only does the brain collaborate in wanting to do it again, but will continue to assist in further development in that desire. It is almost like whoever practices something is actually working towards what they are practicing.
Remember, Practicing strengthens neurons with repetition and intensity (11).
But what about the activities that we don't like? Are we just stuck with a bad mind and roadmaps of sinning if we have behaved unrighteously in the past? Are we destined to a life of disobedience, all because we have been a slave to sin with our mind? What about all those out there that claim, "It’s not a battle of the will… It’s a battle of the brain.” So... is it a battle of the brain? Are we powerless against the brain? If a roadway of neurons are connected to sinful activities, like pornography or any other addictions, is there no hope then to change these mental pathways because now the Brain is in control?
Of Course not...
A recent discovery of synaptic pruning is the process of synapse elimination. Synapse pruning is what happens when the brain is shedding unnecessary connections. The brain is constantly trying to save energy, therefore deleting any roadways that the neurons have not taken recently, saving energy. Neurons are constantly being challenged, rerouted, and changed. In fact, if they aren’t used very often, then the roadways are dissected and absorbed so that more energy is put into needed connections (12).
That is a fancy scientific way to say: Nope you can’t blame it on the brain because just as fast as bonds can be created, they can also be destroyed.
The ‘use it or lose it’ principle is used for neurons. Those synapses that are frequently used have strong connections, while the rarely used (weakest synapse) are eliminated (13). The developing brain sheds unnecessary connections and empowers connections that are being used repeatedly. Neurons are always changing their connection to one another to meet changing demands. Practicing strengthens these neurons with repetition and intensity; as well as destroys roadways that do not have any practicing or repetition paired with intensity.
Rewiring of the brain can literally take place by those who practice a different behavior and desire it. Through brain imaging they can physically see the change in neurons and where they fire or are destroyed through those who chose to behave in different ways.
But it doesn’t stop there. Did you know, that these roadways can be destroyed in less than a week? New studies reveal that synaptic pruning can happen within a week. Rewiring of the brain can happen in as little as 5 days (14). Which is amazing. It took the Lord less than a week to create the World and He can recreate new roadways in the brain in the same amount of time. That doesn't mean it won't or can't take longer, but it means that right away your brain will assist you in your efforts for change.
That means if you act apart from an activity or sin, those roadways and paths to behave in that particular activity or sin, will actually be destroyed. It is amazing that once someone chooses to not behave in a certain way, the roadways in which once were strong, start to destroy themselves. They literally start to take apart themselves, demolishing the roadways that once were so strong.
Therefore, it will take determination, purpose, and a new desire to want to internally change a behavior. But with the help of the Lord behaving and acting apart from that deed will cause the brain to retrain it. Rewiring of the brain can literally take place by those who desire to practice a different behavior.
Continuous practice of something, will retrain the brain to actually promote future behavior. So by practicing these things, we can attain improvement in whatever we practice, whether good or bad. It is like practicing leads to act more proficiency in that area.
It also proves that practicing sinning leads to act more lawlessness and practicing righteousness leads one to behave more righteously.
Which reflects Scripture because there is something oddly familiar with all this talk about practicing. Scripture from 1 John 3 echoes the study of neuroplasticity.
1 John 3: 4-10 states, "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."
Again, our Biblical Christian verbiage, might be literal after all, as the brain functions in such a way that assists the doer to continue to excel in whatever they practice. Whether it is excelling in sin or excelling in godliness.
You can not blame your pornography or any other sinful addiction problem on the brain, because the Lord has created our brains to assist in the direction that we desire to walk in and what behavior we desire to do through practicing.
So... what are you practicing?
A grouping of info, including Quantum University, Plasticity Brain Centers, Innovative Treatment for Traumatic Brain Injuries, SciShow with Hank Green, Michael Aranda, and Olivia Gordon, and a TEDxTalks. Quantum University (QuantumUniversity.com) is the world's largest institution of higher learning to provide degrees and certification programs in holistic, alternative, natural and integrative medicine based on the new emerging science of quantum physics.