Habitual sin causes brain damage! That’s the shocking discovery of numerous studies documenting the effect of pornography, gambling – and even chronic overeating – on the human brain.
In the summer issue of Salvo magazine, Dr. Donald Hilton describes how this brain damage occurs. Apparently, in the middle of the brain is a pleasure reward center, called the nucleus accumbens. When a person participates in certain activities, cells in the brain produce the drug dopamine. Then, it sends this dopamine to the nucleus accumbens, where it produces pleasure. This pleasure-producing process is vital because it gives people incentive to eat, procreate, or even succeed at a task.
However, when a person habitually views porn, gambles or overeats, he’s abusing this dopamine reward system. This overuse causes the dopamine cells in his brain to atrophy and shrink. And, as a result, the reward cells in his pleasure center become starved for dopamine and exist in state of constant craving. That’s why the porn, gambling, or food addict needs to continually feed his habit. What’s worse, the brain’s reward circuits also start to desensitize, requiring stronger stimuli to produce the same result. So, porn, gambling, and overeating appear very similar to dependency on heroin or cocaine: they all produce an addictive and progressive neuro-chemical trap. But, it gets worse.
Porn, gambling, and overeating also damage the brain’s frontal lobe. This is the area of the brain that affects judgment and decision-making. For years, scientists have known that the frontal lobes of drug addicts are significantly smaller than the normal population. But, studies published in 2006 and 2007 found similar shrinkage in the frontal lobes of obese people and those with severe sexual addiction.
All this gives new meaning to Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul describes a horrifying consequence of idolatry: since the idolater rejects God, God gives them over to a morally depraved mind. Not only is this a spiritual reality; it’s a physical one, as well. Too often, I think, people indulge in sins like pornography, gambling, and gluttony because they believe these sins cause little harm. The fact that they actually damage one’s brain certainly dispels that myth. Plus, it should serve as a strong deterrent to avoid these vices.
Fortunately, though, the brain damage habitual sin wreaks is not irreversible. Several studies show that the brain returns to more normal function after time in recovery. Clearly, though, recovery requires porn, food, and gambling addicts to wage an intense and protracted battle against powerful impulses. Understanding this should transform the way we minister to these sufferers. They need to be immersed in an environment that provides support while reducing their access to their particular sin. Many will need some sort of 12-step program. But, all will need a power greater than themselves. Fortunately, though, the One who created the brain has the capacity to heal it.