This section is based on extracts from Gary Wilson’s book Your Brain on Porn, Internet Porn and the Emerging Science of Addiction with the permission of the Author.
What is a supernormal stimulus?
Erotic words, pictures and videos have been around a long time –as has the neurochemical rush from novel mates. So what makes today’s porn uniquely compelling? Not just its unending novelty. Dopamine fires up for other emotions and stimuli too, all of which often feature prominently in internet porn:
• Surprise, shock (What isn’t shocking in today’s porn?)
• Anxiety (Using porn that isn’t consistent with your values or sexuality)
• Seeking and searching (Wanting, anticipating)
In fact, internet porn looks very much like what scientists call a supernormal stimulus. Years ago, Nobel laureate Nikolaas Tinbergen discovered that birds, butterflies, and other animals could be duped into preferring fake eggs and mates. Female birds, for example, struggled to sit on Tinbergen’s larger-than-life, vividly-spotted plaster eggs while their own pale, dappled eggs perished untended. Male jewel beetles will ignore real mates in favour of futile efforts to copulate with the dimpled brown bottoms of beer bottles. To a beetle, a beer bottle lying on the ground looks like the biggest, most beautiful, sexiest female he has ever seen.
In other words, instead of the instinctive response stopping at a ‘sweet spot’ where it doesn’t lure the animal out of the mating game entirely, this innate programming continues to trigger enthusiastic responses to unrealistic, synthetic stimuli.
Tinbergen dubbed such deceptions ‘supranormal stimuli,’ although they are now often referred to simply as ‘supernormal stimuli’.
Supernormal stimuli are exaggerated versions of normal stimuli that we falsely perceive as valuable. Interestingly, although it’s unlikely a monkey would choose images over real mates, monkeys will ‘pay’ (forego juice rewards) to view images of female monkey bottoms. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that today’s porn can hijack our instincts.
How is internet porn a supernormal stimulus?
When we make an artificial supernormal stimulus our top priority it’s because it has triggered a bigger blast of dopamine in our brain’s reward circuit than its natural counterpart. For most users, yesteryear’s porn magazines couldn’t compete with real partners. A Playboy centrefold did not duplicate the other cues earlier porn users had learned to associate with real potential or actual partners: eye contact, touch, scent, the thrill of flirting and dancing, foreplay, sex and so forth.
Today’s internet porn, however, is laced with supernormal stimulation. First, it offers endless novel hotties available at a click. Research confirms that anticipation of reward and novelty amplify one another to increase excitement and rewire the reward circuitry of the brain.
Second, internet porn offers countless artificially enhanced breasts and Viagra sustained gargantuan penises, exaggerated grunts of desire, pile-driving thrusts, double or triple penetration, gang-bangs and other unrealistic scenarios.
Third, for most people, static images cannot compare with today’s hi-definition 3-minute videos of people engaged in intense sex. With stills of naked bunnies all you had was your own imagination. You always knew what was going to happen next, which wasn’t much in the case of a pre-internet 13-year old. In contrast, with an endless stream of ‘I can’t believe what I just saw’ videos, your expectations are constantly violated (which the brain finds more stimulating). Keep in mind also, that humans evolved to learn by watching others doing things, so videos are more powerful ‘how to’ lessons than stills.
With science-fiction weirdness that would have made Tinbergen say, ‘I told you so’, today’s porn users often find internet erotica more stimulating than real partners. Users might not want to spend hours hunched in front of a computer staring at porn and compulsively clicking on new images. They might prefer to spend time socialising with friends and meeting potential partners in the process.
Yet reality struggles to compete at the level of the brain’s response, especially when one throws into the balance the uncertainties and reversals of social interaction. As Noah Church puts it in his memoir Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn, ‘it’s not that I didn’t want real sex, it’s just that it was so much harder and more confusing to pursue than pornography.’ And this finds an echo in numerous first person accounts:
“I went through a period of being single, stuck in a small town where there were very few dating opportunities, and I began to masturbate frequently with porn. I was amazed at how quickly I got sucked in. I began losing days of work surfing porn sites. And yet I didn’t fully appreciate what was happening to me until I was in bed with a woman and caught myself furiously trying to recall an exciting porn image in order to get hard. I did not imagine that it could happen to me. Fortunately, I had a long foundation of healthy sex before porn and I recognized what was going on. After I quit, I started getting laid again, and often. And shortly after that I met my wife.”
How the Porn Industry exploits Supernormal Stimuli
These days, there’s no end of supernormal stimulation in sight. The porn industry already offers 3-D porn and robots and sex toys synchronized with porn or other computer users to simulate physical action. But danger lurks when something:
• registers as an especially ‘valuable’, that is, exaggerated version of a thing that our ancestors (and we) evolved to find irresistible (high-calorie food, sexual arousal),
• is available conveniently in limitless supply (not found in nature),
• comes in lots of varieties (abundant novelty),
• and we chronically overconsume it.
Cheap, plentiful junk food fits this model and is universally recognized as a supernormal stimulus. You can slam down a 32-ounce soft drink and a bag of salty nibbles without much thought, but just try to consume their caloric equivalent in dried venison and boiled roots!
Similarly, viewers routinely spend hours surfing galleries of porn videos searching for the right video to finish, keeping dopamine elevated for abnormally long periods. But try to envision a hunter-gatherer routinely spending the same number of hours masturbating to the same stick-figure on a cave wall. Didn’t happen.
Porn poses unique risks beyond supernormal stimulation. First, it’s easy to access, available 24/7, free and private. Second, most users start watching porn by puberty, when their brain’s are at their peak of plasticity and most vulnerable to addiction and rewiring. Finally, there are limits on food consumption: stomach capacity and the natural aversion that kicks in when we can’t face one more bite of something.
In contrast, there are no physical limits on internet porn consumption, other than the need for sleep and bathroom breaks. A user can edge (masturbate without climaxing) to porn for hours without triggering feelings of satiation, or aversion.
Bingeing on porn feels like a promise of pleasure, but recall that the message of dopamine isn’t ‘satisfaction’. It’s, ‘keep going, satisfaction is j-u-s-t around the corner’:
“I would arouse myself close to orgasm then stop, keep watching porn, and stay at medium levels, always edging. I was more concerned with watching the porn than getting to orgasm. Porn had me locked in focus until eventually I was just exhausted and orgasmed out of surrender.