Christian Professor: Science Shows Watching Porn Shrinks Your Brain

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“The more people watch pornography, the more their brains shrink.”

This claim was recently made by Oklahoma State University professor, Dr. John Foubert, during a recent lecture on pornography at Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college in Western NY.

If that statement doesn’t strike you as patently absurd, it should. A self-proclaimed fighter of porn using “data-based” strategies, Foubert travels around the country speaking to college students and other young people about the terrible dangers of pornography. During his talks, not only does he claim that porn viewing shrinks one’s brain, but that it decreases short-term memory, and causes erectile dysfunction. He repeats these claims in his Porn Research Fact Sheet on his website.

Being a natural skeptic, and a person who cares deeply about how science is used, I took a look at the studies Foubert uses to support his claims about the harms of pornography. As it turns out, he either has no idea how to properly interpret scientific data, or something much more sinister is going on.

So is it true that the more people watch pornography the more their brain shrinks? While an uninformed, surface-level reading of the research might lead to that conclusion, this is simply not the case. As evidence for his claim about shrinking brains, Dr. Foubert cites a recent study performed by German scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. The study, performed on 64 healthy men (with an average age of 29), consisted of three brain scans: the first scan was simply a structural brain scan, the second determined patterns of brain activity while the men were shown sexual and/or neutral images, and the third scan was a 5-minute “resting-state scan.” The researchers also asked the men to self-report how much pornography they watched on a weekly basis. The results? Researchers found that men who reported spending hours/week watching porn tended to have slightly less grey matter in the right striatum (the part of the brain associated with processing rewards for activity), and that the more frequent porn viewers seemed to have less activity in the left striatum when viewing sexually explicit images, as well as less connectivity between the right striatum and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In sum, the men who watched hours of porn were also men with slightly less grey matter in one part of the brain, and those who watched the most porn showed less of a neurological reaction when viewing porn (i.e. they were desensitized to pornographic images).

And what did the researchers conclude as a result of the study? One conclusion may be that increased porn viewing “could reflect a change in neuroplasticity as a consequence of an intense stimulation of the reward system.” In other words, increased and intense stimulations of our reward system (including rewarding it with porn), causes that center of the brain to show less of a response to what it is being continuously stimulated with. A second conclusion was that “alternatively, it could be a precondition that makes pornography consumption more rewarding.” In layperson’s terms, some people may find more of a reward from viewing pornography than others, simply because of the way their brains are wired. None of this supports Foubert’s claim that the more one watches porn, the more his brain shrinks.

During his talks, Foubert also claims that porn decreases working memory. In the memory study, researchers showed four sets of images to healthy men: these sets of images were either neutral, positive, negative, or pornographic in nature. Participants were tasked with determining if the current picture was the same one they had been shown four pictures prior. The result was that participants performed slightly worse in the task when using the pornographic set of images. Researchers concluded that sexual arousal due to viewing pornographic images may interfere with working memory performance. What’s interesting is that participants were only found to do worse with the memory task when the images were pornographic. Does this show that overall working memory for other tasks is damaged by porn? On the contrary, it merely shows that working memory, when applied to sexual images, is worse than for other things. And this is due to the sexual arousal that happens because of such images. So rather than concluding that pornography is the cause of decreased memory, it is sexual arousal in general that leads to this decrease.

Foubert also claims that pornography causes erectile dysfunction. On his website he puts it this way: “60% of men who are addicted to pornography have erectile dysfunction with a woman, but not when they use pornography” (emphasis mine). He also pairs the general rise in erectile dysfunction with the availability of pornographic material (especially the internet variety) — all this to support the claim that “pornography causes erectile dysfunction.” But is this a correct interpretation of the data? Again, no. One would want to say that of course people who are addicted to something (like pornography) find it harder to function normally. We already know this from experience with a variety of other addictions. People who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or a host of other things, do not behave normally. Does this show that porn causes ED? No! It simply tells us what we already know: addictions cause problems. Period. End of sentence. Full stop. It doesn’t matter what the addiction is, problems ensue. But pornography, just like many other things used in moderation, is not necessarily harmful. Further, saying that an increase in porn availability is associated with higher rates of ED is nothing more than a correlative observation.

What does all this mean for Foubert’s claims about pornography’s ill-effects on the brain and erectile functionality? It means that he is quite literally wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion — the data and studies he cites simply do not support the claims he makes. There seems to be a pattern to his madness: he locates a study that shows an association/correlation between pornography and something else, and then he claims that pornography is the cause. This is to commit the cum hoc ergo propter hoc — with this, therefore because of this — fallacy. Just because some things are found together does not imply a causal relationship between the two. And you don’t need a Ph.D. in neuroscience to understand the difference between correlation and causation. This is something entry level science, statistics, and logic courses teach. A logical mistake like this may be forgiven in the beginning of such courses, but for a seasoned academic to repeatedly make it is not so easily excused. Either Dr. Fourbert is grossly incompetent as a scholar and social scientist, or he’s just lying to push his own agenda.  

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Foubert sees pornography as the single-largest threat to Christianity in the world today. He thinks it has come about as part of the underhanded (pun intended) plots of Satan himself and sees it as his (and other Christians’) personal duty to rid the world of pornography. For Foubert, it is as simple as looking at Jesus’ statement that whoever looks upon a woman with lust is committing adultery in his heart. And it isn’t too easy to view pornography without lusting after the people on screen, therefore it is an intense evil that is to be avoided and eradicated at seemingly any cost.

So what cost is Foubert asking his audiences to pay? He wants us to ignore the facts, to ignore what is really going on in the world, in our relationships, and within our own minds. He is willing to mention science, but only long enough to twist it into a tool for terrifying young and impressionable minds around the country. When asked about his misrepresentation of the data, he said that he did “not appreciate” the questioner’s “tone.” Well, let me tell you what I don’t appreciate — religious fanatics like Foubert using his position in academia as a platform to present false information to students in order to scare them into accepting his worldview.


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