Does Internet Porn Really “Cause Memory Loss?”

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A new study published in The Journal of Sex Research about the psychological effects of exposure to online pornography has been making the rounds in the media recently. A number of provocative headlines have popped up stating things such as “Viewing Online Pornography Can Make You Lose Your Memory” and “Your Porn Addiction May Lead To Memory Loss.” So, basically, porn causes amnesia. Sounds pretty serious, right? Not so fast. A closer look at the research reveals that these claims are overblown.

In this study, a group of German researchers recruited 28 heterosexual men to participate in a study that involved exposure to “explicit pornographic stimuli” [1]. Each participant completed four working memory tasks in a random order. In case you aren’t familiar with the term “working memory,” it refers to the cognitive system that allows you to temporarily hold several pieces of information in mind while you’re completing a task. In this study, the working memory test involved viewing a photo slideshow and indicating whether each photo that appeared is the same as the one that appeared exactly four slides before it. Each participant viewed four different slideshows that either featured (1) neutral images (e.g., people shopping), (2) positive images (e.g., people laughing and smiling), (3) negative images (e.g., weapons and war), or (4) pornographic images (e.g., heterosexual vaginal intercourse).

The researchers calculated the number of correct responses and false alarms reported for each image in each set of photos. Results revealed that in the neutral, negative, and positive photo sets, participants were right 77-80% of the time and had false alarms about 15-20% of the time. In contrast, when viewing pornographic images, participants were right 67% of the time and wrong 28% of the time (note that the numbers do not add up to 100% because participants sometimes skipped to the next image without providing a response). Participants also took longer to provide a response when viewing pornographic images compared to non-pornographic images, but perhaps that’s because participants wanted to look at the porn a bit longer.

There are a few things worth noting from these results. First, the way this study was designed does indeed tell us that exposure to pornography seems to impair memory—however, it only tells us that pornography impairs memory for other pornography. Basically, when people see a lot of pornographic images, they have a hard time remembering which images they have previously seen and in what order. The researchers did not show that porn reduces memory for upcoming deadlines or appointments, that it impairs performance on important tests or exams, or that it has any major consequences for everyday life. Thus, the practical implications of this study are rather minimal. Second, performance in the pornography condition was still very good overall, with people being right 2/3 of the time instead of 3/4 of the time. So, people do slightly less well when viewing porn, but they certainly don’t fail. And finally, remember that we’re only talking about effects on working memory, not long-term memory (i.e., watching porn isn't going to make people forget things like their name or phone number). Thus, to summarize these findings as some in the popular media have (i.e., that online porn “can make you lose your memory” or that it “may lead to memory loss”) is pretty disingenuous.

In all fairness to the authors of this research, they described the study as an attempt to explain why heavy online porn consumption sometimes interferes with people’s lives and causes distress—they were not setting out to say that all porn use is bad or anything along those lines. However, the way this study was carried out doesn’t really mesh with the overall goal because it did not consider different doses or porn or measure impact on daily life. Thus, while this study is certainly interesting, it represents only a very preliminary look at the potential link between porn and cognitive functioning and certainly is not cause for alarm that watching porn will make you lose your mind.

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[1] Laier, C., Schulte, F. P., & Brand, M. (in press). Pornographic picture processing interferes with working memory performance. Journal of Sex Research.

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