Porn and Working Memory

“Around half of 15 to 17-year-olds have accessed porn on a smartphone or tablet” (BBC, 2014).

Surprised by the quote above?

Whatever the answer, your feelings on how these behaviours may impact upon young people’s perception of sex may well be mixed. The potential consequences of exposure to pornography (whether from a young age or not) is an ongoing debate in the scientific world, but it’s likely that the impact is not limited to future sexual behaviours and expectations. We’ve taken a look at one piece of research investigating its influence on working memory.

 

retro

With pornography becoming ever-more readily accessible in a modern world of tablets, smartphones, laptops and whatever’s next – it might seem unsurprising that many of the population regularly watch pornographic material online for free. Quite interestingly, associations have been reported between watching porn and forgetting appointments, neglecting responsibilities and even impaired decision-making abilities. Working memory itself is known to be influenced by activity levels in the amygdala – a structure in the brain classically associated with emotional processing – indicating that emotional stimuli can modulate our working memory capacity.

From an outsider’s point-of-view, this would explain why particularly emotional experiences can linger in our memories for much longer than experiences we may consider ‘boring’. Whilst links can be made between certain emotions and states of arousal, the effects of watching porn on similar and related structures on the brain, and the function effects on working memory, have yet to be extensively explored.

One piece of the porn-memory puzzle
28 heterosexual adult males participated in a study where they undertook a continuous working memory task called an ‘n-back’ task. In simple terms, the task involves assessing a person’s ability to recognise that they’ve been presented with a piece of information previously. For example, if the task involved being presented a series of letters in turn, the individual must identify whether they have been presented with a particular letter previously in the sequence, and how far back in the sequence the repeated letter first occurred.

In this porn-memory study, instead of letters, participants were presented a series of images which fell into 4 categories: ‘neutral’ (such as images of people at work or with blank expressions), ‘negative’ (such as images of acts of violence/crime), ‘positive’ (such as images of people laughing, or happy occasions such as weddings) or ‘pornographic (such as images showing penile-vaginal intercourse).

There was in increased number of incorrect calls made when looking at pornographic images in comparison to the neutral, negative and positive images – indicating that working memory was impaired when the mind is stimulated by pornographic material. The reaction time for making a decision was increased when making decisions over the pornographic images in comparison to the other images. It was also found that more greatly arousing images, which induced a greater to need to masturbate, interfered more greatly with performance on the working memory test, indicating that the level of arousal was linked to the magnitude of working memory disruption.

These observed effects of pornographic images on working memory may well go some way to explaining signs of working memory dysfunction. We’re not sure exactly how well this excuse will stand up in front of your boss when you ‘forget’ to attend that not-so-interesting meeting, but it might at least explain some teenagers’ lack of progress in algebra class!

 

References:

Laier C, Schulte FP, & Brand M (2013). Pornographic picture processing interferes with working memory performance. Journal of sex research, 50 (7), 642-52 PMID: 23167900
http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/26122390
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23167900
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17021168
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15755219
http://www.springerreference.com/docs/html/chapterdbid/184046.html

 

Images adapted from:

http://www.readfast.co.uk/retrospective-memory

http://www.livescience.com/24836-mystery-memory-recall.html

 

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