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The Science of Neighbourhoods: Koreatown and Your Brain On Porn
The neuroscience of kinks, porn addiction, and why people get foot fetishes

Image via flickr user Synapticism

There comes a time in every Toronto adolescent’s life when we realize Koreatown isn’t just great for karaoke and 3 am bibimbap. Along the western corridors of Bloor Street, betwixt Manning and Clinton, you’ll find the Metro Theatre – home to the city’s best-known adult cinema, and to older gentlemen zipping up their corduroys as they exit back onto Bloor in the post-porn daylight. It’s not the friendliest of places, with its crumbling deco signage and patrons whose eye contact you’d rather avoid, but it’s also weirdly endearing. Apparently local developers are working on turning it into an art house cinema by night (though it’ll still show porn by day) – which, to some, is a cause for lament.

But whether you’re an avid viewer of public porn, or prefer to enjoy it from the comfort of your own laptop, there’s something pretty unique about the effects of pornography on our brains. In fact, a surprising amount of research has gone into studying exactly that. So, in keeping with the love-and-sex theme that has maybe accidentally set in with The Science of Neighbourhoods in the last few weeks, this week we’ll check out exactly what happens to your brain on porn and miscellaneous kink.

While porn can be pretty straightforward, it’s also an especially good outlet for exploring fetishes. In fact, the structure of our brains makes particular fetishes especially common. Take foot fetishes, for instance. To the podophile (take note, “podo” means foot in Greek), feet – their shape, smell, taste, etc. – are a major turn-on. And apparently there’s a brain explanation for that.

The part of the brain responsible for sensing touch (called the somatosensory cortex) is laid out in a strip across the surface of the brain. You’ve got different body parts represented along that strip of brain tissue, so that if you touch something with your fingertip, the part of the cortex allocated to finger sensation will light up, and so on. Since the whole body is divided up along that stretch of cortex, it’s called the sensory homunculus (or “little man” in Latin).

Where it gets interesting is the particular placement of these body parts along the somatosensory cortex. The section of cortex that responds to sensation in the genitals just happens to be right next to the part that responds to sensation in the feet and toes. That’s where foot fetishes come in: neuroscientists think that some interaction between those two very close areas might be the origin of sexual attraction to feet.

The coolest part is that this theory was actually developed by accident. Vilanayur Ramachandran, a neurologist famous for his work on phantom limb syndrome, found that one of his patients with an amputated leg was experiencing orgasms in his missing foot. That is, since his foot was no longer part of his body, the brain area responsible for genital sensations took over the vacant neighbouring foot real estate. The patient still felt like the feelings were coming from his foot, but the sensations themselves were, uh, not the kind of thing you’d typically feel in your foot.

But it’s a two-way street: your brain doesn’t just affect your porn and fetish preferences – porn can also cause changes to your brain. For example, when you watch porn, the part of your brain that processes vision actually becomes less active. It’s a counterintuitive finding, but in fact, the more explicit the erotic imagery, the less activity you’ll see in the visual cortex. Researchers believe this is because the brain’s resources are being pooled toward the regions regulating sexual arousal during porn viewing. It makes sense: you’ve got limited energy resources, so your brain will spend them where it counts.

More lasting brain changes can take place when your porn viewing gets chronic and frequent, and spills over into the realm of addiction. Yes, porn addiction is a real thing. Some psychologists say it’s more addictive than cocaine, since the stimulus is always available when you need it. Studies of cocaine, methamphetamine, and food addiction show that these behaviours are linked with reduced brain mass. This occurs particularly in the frontal lobes, which make up your brain’s “braking system,” helping you control your impulses and use your judgment.

Based on addictions research, scientists were interested in finding out whether sex can be addictive in the same brain-altering ways as other drugs. Apparently it can. The brains of porn addicts demonstrate changes in the cells of the frontal cortex, causing heightened responses to porn, and reduced responses to pretty much everything else. Like any addiction, it’s difficult to function normally when you’re physically dependent on a pleasurable stimulus. That’s why the next edition of the DSM (the big book of psychiatric diagnoses, set to be released in May 2013) might include a new diagnosis called Hypersexual Disorder –a diagnosis that applies to compulsive pornography use.

Thankfully porn doesn’t have to be pathological. Even if your next stop in Koreatown is the Metro Theatre, a little moderation will help keep your frontal cortex intact.

____

Erene Stergiopoulos writes about brains and neighbourhoods for Toronto StandardFollow her on Twitter @fullerenes.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @TorontoStandard and subscribe to our newsletter.

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