Renewing the Mind: Porn, Neurology, and Monkish Wisdom

Romans 12:2 says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  A book I read recently revealed how physically this renewing of the mind needs to take place.  And I think wisdom from a different, more ancient book can teach us a lot about that physical renewal. 

InterVarsity Press recently released a new book by William Struthers called Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. It describes in scientific detail the neurological processes involved in at least one pattern of sin: lust.  And the most surprising – and for some, terrifying – insight of the book is that theses processes are dynamic.  Viewing pornography actually shapes men’s brains, creating neural pathways designed to speed the brian’s processing of sexual images.  Male brains are already programmed to respond to erotic imagery, but this is about nurture on top of nature:  “Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set the course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly traveled with each exposure to pornography. . . . Repeated exposure to pornography creates a one-way neurological superhighway where a man’s mental life is over-sexualized and narrowed” (p. 85). 

Obviously porn is a tremendous issue:  it’s a growing multi-billion dollar business in the US, thanks in part to its addictive character. Internet access only increases the likelihood of people viewing porn “privately” where there’s little fear of getting caught.  (I’m curious how many more hits than usual this post will get, simply because it contains words like porn.)  Regardless of the lies the entertainment industry produces about it, the truth is that porn is demeaning and violent toward both women and men, it’s destructive to relationships, and – as this book shows –  it even rots the brain.  Struthers chronicles in scientific detail the process described above with the hiking metaphor, especially in the male brain. (Struthers does helpfully distinguish between physiological sex and gender-identity; the scientific portion of the book addresses the physiological male brain, but Struthers does also discuss what constitutes masculinity.)  Succinctly put, for men, indulgence in porn and masturbation is “playing with neurochemical fire.”   

But then what? If porn has a brain-rotting, chemical-fire singing effect, how can this be reversed?  The final chapter, with the promising title “Rewiring and Sanctification” has great ideas, but doesn’t seem to me to go as far as it could in suggesting how one’s mind can be rewired and renewed.  Struthers recommends confession, practices like “chaining” to help identify triggers which cause men to stumble, and the establishment of healthy relationships as ways to rewire the brain. All good things. But I have a question:  if the distorted neural pathways of a porn-addicts mind were created through a dynamic process that  the physical neurology of the brain, won’t even more embodied physical practices be helpful in positively rewiring the brain?  Example: Fasting.  Earlier in the book, on page 92, Struthers notes that the hypothalamus is the part of the brain that directs the body’s three drives: eating, drinking, and sex.  He writes there that “It is important to note that the sexual drive is located in the same region as the centers for eating and drinking.  Thus the sexual/reproductive drive is experienced as a survival need similar to the drive for eating and drinking.”  Obviously one can die from not eating or drinking properly, but a human will never die from lack of sex.  Might physical disciplines like fasting train the brain that it can survive abstaining from a physical drive?

Here’s where I think modern science dovetails beautifully with centuries-old monastic wisdom.  In the fourth century, St. John Cassian wrote about how to fight lustful temptations through fasting: “This harsh struggle has to be fought in both the soul and the body, and not simply in the soul, as is the case with other faults.”  Thus fasting is one of the prescriptions he gives for fighting against lust.  Interestingly, St. Mark the Ascetic – another monk whose work is included after St. John Cassian’s in the Philokalia – systematically describes the psychological processes of sin in ways that parallel the scientific discussion in Struthers’ book.  These stages of temptation for Mark are provocation (a tempting thought popped into my head, but I ignored it), disturbance (I barely thought about the tempting thought), communion (seriously thought about the tempting thought, toyed with it), assent (gave in and indulged in tempting thought, at least mentally), prepossession (have given in so many times that I’m reminded of it even when I don’t want to be), and passion (powerless over the temptation, subject to it, within its control).  These stages are recognizable in Struthers’ discussion of compulsion and addiction to porn. The early monks of the Church were aware mentally of the processes shaping their minds in sin, even without the scientific language to depict it. And, they recommended physical asceticism as a way to assist in retraining the mind.  Perhaps it’s time to do some research on the neural pathways created by spiritual disciplines.

All that said, I think Wired For Intimacy and the resources it recommends will be helpful for anyone wrestling with porn (or counseling, pastoring, or caring for those wrestling with it). Those interested should check out the author’s blog.  May God bless the transformation and renewal of all our minds.

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4 comments
  1. sarah louise said:

    the stages of sin is a helpful illustration. I’m familiar (aren’t we all) with them, but to have them illustrated out is helpful. Thanks for a great post!

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