public domain image of surface of human brainChristians active in the battle against pornography have lately been excited by news of a not-yet-peer-reviewed Cambridge study popularly reported to prove that “porn addiction” is as real as addiction to drugs or alcohol. When I first heard about this (in an email from Breakpoint), I was skeptical, since I recalled (or thought I recalled!) from a couple Physiological Psychology courses that alcohol and drugs don’t just prompt certain patterns of brain activation but in fact directly stimulate neurons and so cause such activation. Whatever else pornography might be, I reasoned, it is certainly not a chemical substance that can cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate neurons. Accuracy or inaccuracy of my memory aside, I confess that, given how frequent identification of behavioral habits as “addictions” has left many with no sense of responsibility for (and no sense of control over) their own behavior, I wasn’t so excited about the “porn addiction proven” reporting. (If you ask me, what we least need is further fuel for our contemporary addiction to “addiction.”) I’ve been pleased to learn, therefore, that there are reasons for skepticism.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting pornography is something safe and harmless or that activists against it should lighten up and join the Libertarian Party. Scripture’s picture of innate human depravity gives us good reason to expect that indulgence of vice will increase in proportion to how readily vice-feeding fuel is available and to how limited are the legal and social consequences of indulgence. For example, where adultery is punished lightly or not at all, and where adulterous thoughts are encouraged (I noticed in a recent news item about a woman suing her employer for firing her after she posed for Playboy that the Playboy publication she posed for was dedicated entirely to pictorials of mothers and wives), a Christian understanding of human depravity predicts higher rates of adultery. Where pornography is easily available, that same understanding predicts that both usage of pornography and indulgence in the sorts of activity such material encourages users to think approvingly about (and to desire) will become more prevalent. (Theonomists, therefore, might be on to something when they suggest that a good use of the laws of Moses, in addition to revealing to humans their sinfulness and need for the Savior, may be curtailment of sinful indulgence even among the unregenerate. Of course, this requires enforcement, not just proclamation; the latter alone may actually increase sin by awakening innate rebelliousness—“forbidden fruit,” you know.)

Unbelievers may debate whether pornography poses any danger (or whether any danger is posed by other materials that appeal to and suggest outlets for innate depravity, such as realistic virtual violence and movies and television shows that “entertain” by allowing vicarious enjoyment of simulated immorality), some even asserting that fantasy indulgence can make real indulgence less likely. Christians, however, know on God’s own authority that no good can be expected from easy availability of encouragements to sin. (We recall, for instance, that encouragements to pagan worship were deemed so dangerous as to prompt God to rule out “religious tolerance” in ancient Israel: Exodus 34:12-13.) Interestingly, self-reflective unbelievers have often seen at least part of the truth. For instance, a rock group once titled an album, What Were once Vices are Now Habits. As well, a popular 1980s band, The Police, observed that “anything you take to” can become “a habit-forming need for more and more.” Bad behavior has a natural appeal to fallen humans and persistence in it can, through well-documented conditioning effects God originally created in us (one assumes) so that good behavior could become habitual, become more and more difficult to discontinue. The “be smart, don’t start” advice applies as fully when bad behavior does not involve brain-altering chemicals as when it does.

(Singer/songwriter/one-upon-a-time-child-piano-prodigy Tori Amos, or rather one of her album performance personae, once described herself as “abnormally attracted to sin.” While this attraction is in fact ubiquitous among humans, and so not “abnormal” so far as statistically-minded psychologists would say, it is true that the fall introduced a pervasive abnormality into our race, of which attraction to sin and tendency toward death are two aspects. A book I’ve recently been reading, Geisler and Saleeb’s Answering Islam, observes that the majority view among Muslim theologians is that humans are not in fact fallen at all, only fallible and forgetful of God’s will. It is a sad thing when a singer producing pop culture more accurately perceives the human condition than does a rapidly growing world religion.)

All that said, in addition to articles that jump to conclusions about the study (one bearing the title, “Finally! Cambridge University brain study finds porn addiction is real” [viewed 04 October 2013]), I did find a couple that were a bit more circumspect, one from Discover Magazine‘s Neuroskeptic, discussing the study and some popular takes on it, another from The Guardian‘s Headquarters, reviewing a documentary based (in part) on the study.

Before looking briefly at the more circumspect articles, a look at the “Finally! Cambridge University brain study finds porn addiction is real” post. This post is essentially just the foregoing title plus reproductions of articles posted elsewhere (specifically, this one, this one, and this one). The first article, after noting that the study subjects were persons “who admitted to compulsive pornography use,” quotes the following statement by the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Valerie Voon: “When an alcoholic sees an ad for a drink, their brain will light up in a certain way and they will be stimulated in a certain way. We are seeing this same kind of activity in users of pornography.” Did you catch the parallelism? Alleged porn addicts (that is, persons who identify themselves as “compulsive” viewers of pornography) respond to viewing pornography, to indulging their alleged addiction, in the same way alcoholics respond to viewing advertisements for alcohol. The porn “addicts” do not respond to pornography consumption as alcoholics respond to alcohol consumption , but as alcoholics respond to alcohol advertisements.

So far as I know, no one claims that alcoholics are addicted to alcohol advertisements. That frequent consumers of pornography respond to pornography in a way resembling how frequent consumers of alcohol respond, not to alcohol itself, but to advertisements for alcohol, hardly seems good evidence that pornography addiction is like alcohol addiction or, it must be said, that it is an addiction at all. Now, it could perhaps be said that pornography advertises something, namely sexual immorality, but then the inference suggested by the parallel brain activation would be that alcohol as a target of addiction resembles sexual immorality as a target of addiction. Believers in an “addiction to sexual immorality” might thus find some support in this study, since “addicts” seem to respond to advertisements for their vices of choice in a consistent manner, at least insofar as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs, the type of scans involved in this study) indicate. (If we’re going to use the term “addiction” at all for the habits resulting from behavioral choices, I consider “addiction to sexual immorality” a more accurate label than the more popular “sex addiction.” I’ve yet to hear anyone labeled a “sex addict” for engaging solely in morally permissible sex, that is, for having sex exclusively with his or her spouse.)

What the study found was that, as Neuroskeptic words it, “the region differentially activated was the reward system,” with said region being more strongly activated in “compulsive pornography users” viewing pornography than in “healthy volunteers” viewing same. The obvious interpretation here would be that frequent pornography viewers find pornography viewing more rewarding than do infrequent viewers. (Given the earlier-noted parallel, it would also seem that alcoholics find alcohol advertisements more rewarding to watch than do non-alcoholics.) Put this way, the finding hardly seems very profound: in layman’s terms, people who look at porn a lot like looking at porn more than people who don’t. Duh? Obviously, one would hardly become a “compulsive user” of something unless one found doing so rewarding in some way, would one? This does nothing to answer the question of how these “compulsive users” came to find pornography use so rewarding in the first place. With alcohol and drug addiction, if memory serves, the sense that one is doing something “rewarding” is chemically induced by the addictive substances themselves. In the case of pornography viewing, as in the case of alcohol advertisement viewing, something else must be happening.

At first glance, Classical Conditioning a la Pavlov’s dogs seems a plausible guess: in the case of alcohol advertising, alcohol itself is the meat powder, alcohol advertisements the bell; in the case of pornography, sexual immorality would be the meat powder, pornography the bell. A strained analogy? Very likely. All the same, here it is restated, with a cognitive spin no true Pavlovian would endorse: Pavlov’s ringing bells advertised (suggested, called to mind) meat powder as alcohol advertisements advertise alcohol as pornography advertises sexual immorality. Of course, as noted, a Pavlovian would never speak of a conditioned stimulus “calling to mind” an unconditioned stimulus. As well, alcohol advertising and pornography gain their association with alcohol consumption and sexual immorality by actually resembling (since literally depicting) them, not by being repeatedly paired with them. This may call into question the whole Classical Conditioning hypothesis. Sticking with it for the time being, however, one might ask: Could Pavlov’s dogs have been described as “addicted” to ringing bells? Would banning bells, or at least limiting canine access to them, be a good way to lesson the addiction’s prevalence? Or would this fail to get at the root issue, the base response to meat powder?

If these silly questions based on a weak analogy can be said to suggest anything, they seem to suggest that a focus on the advertising rather than on the reasons such advertising has an appeal, such as focus on pornography rather than on the disordered desire for sexual immorality that makes consumption of it “rewarding,” may be misdirected. Still, limiting or eliminating the advertising might be worthwhile. Even if the advertising just reminds people of vices they might wish to indulge and of ways they might indulge them, rather than itself being the thing to which such people are “addicted,” is there any good reason to keep such reminders around? Though eating is essential to life, so that we needn’t either condemn Pavlov’s dogs nor ban food advertising, no one has shown either alcohol consumption or indulgence in sexual immorality to be life necessities. Banning the advertising does fail to address the actual target of the “compulsive” or “addictive” impulse, however.

In any case, Neuroskeptic’s article (“Hardcore Neuro-Porn,” posted 03 October 2013, accessed 04 October 2013) expresses doubts about even this “obvious” reading of the scans. For one thing, possibly-relevant activity in the rest of the brain (outside the rewards area) seems to have been masked out, causing Neuroskeptic to speculate:

For instance, if brains of users lit up in the visual cortex, as well as the reward areas, then that might suggest that rather than being addicted to pornography, the users were just looking at it more closely. Perhaps, having seen it all before, they were less prone to averting their eyes than the more bashful controls. [The idea here, I believe, is that the frequent porn users’ greater response owed to greater stimulation. Both users and non-users found the stimuli reinforcing or rewarding in proportion to their exposure, the frequent porn users getting more exposure because they looked more closely at the materials.]

Or alternatively, it could be that the users’ brain activity reflects the emotions of shame or guilt they feel at being confronted with their weakness—in which case, emotion and self-concept-related circuits might well light up too. [Superficially, this does not seem to fit with activation of the rewards or reinforcement area. But perhaps Neuroskeptic is thinking the rewards area might light up showing reinforcement for the moral self-condemnation indicated in another area. One does sometimes find a certain satisfaction in condemning one’s own bad thoughts and behavior, doesn’t one?]

Or it might be that the users’ brain response was just heightened overall because they were [breathing] more heavily, causing changes in blood oxygenation that fMRI uses as a proxy for brain activity.

In fact, all of these interpretations are possible even if there wasn’t any masking. [!]
In case this is not skeptical enough for you, Neuroskeptic adds that even if there were “a selective (and statistically significant) difference in brain response in the reward area,” and even if this “were proven to be a consequence of porn use and not a preexisting risk factor,” all that this would provide neuroscientists with is “another data point to ponder in our attempts to figure out what these areas of the brain do,” since, “as of yet, we’re just not sure what most brain activity means.”

Next is The Guardian Headquarters’ review of the British documentary based in part on this study (“Porn on the Brain—TV review,” accessed 04 October 2013). Though the review does not criticize researcher Voon, it does find fault with the show’s host, Martin Daubney, who declares at one point “that brain imaging provides ‘proof’ of porn addiction,” when in fact “showing a pattern of brain activity similar to that seen in substance dependence [if indeed that is what this study has shown; note preceding discussion] doesn’t make porn a drug, and it doesn’t mean compulsive porn users are ‘addicted’ in the same way drug users can be.” The review’s basic assessment of the documentary is that because of such

shortcomings, Porn on the Brain is bound to divide public opinion along established lines, [fueling] confirmation bias on both sides. Those in [favor] of porn will attack the multiplicity of flaws in arguing that porn provides a…valid example of addiction, or that there is any causal link between legal porn and sex offending. Those against will take anecdotes [in the program]…to reinforce moral objections—or, like Daubney, they’ll conclude that brain imaging provides much sought ‘proof’ of pornography’s nefarious power.

Bottom line: Christians troubled by and wishing to oppose the wide availability of pornography should not let their cause cloud their reasoning or become an excuse for using bad arguments. If we are to honor God in the use of our minds, we must use them honestly. Taking this brain imaging study as proof that there is such a thing as “porn addiction” does not appear to meet this requirement.

Really, we should realize from Scripture that we cannot expect to find a “causal link” between fuels of vice and indulgence of vice, because it is the depraved desire to indulge, not the fuel used for indulgence, that causes the indulgence. “And [Jesus] said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:20-23). We will continue to see suggestive correlations that mesh with Scripture’s picture of human nature, surely, but scientific proof that the objects of human depravity’s expression cause human depravity is not to be expected.