A reader sends a news story that confirms what I’ve heard myself from priests: pornography is a huge, huge issue in the confessions of men. If it’s that big in the lives of men who are spiritually engaged enough to go to confession, how much bigger an issue is it in the lives of everybody else?

Excerpt from the story, which appears in a Catholic magazine:

Pornography’s addictive strength is a result of long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic changes in the brain. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of the best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin, 2007), writes, “Pornography, by offering an endless harem of sexual objects, hyperactivates the appetitive system. Porn viewers develop new maps in their brains, based on the photos and videos they see. Because it is a use-it-or-lose-it brain, when we develop a map area, we long to keep it activated. Just as our muscles become impatient for exercise if we’ve been sitting all day, so too do our senses hunger to be stimulated” (108).

With pornography, in other words, our brain’s pleasure system that excites our desires is activated, but there is no real satisfaction. This explains why users can spend endless hours searching for pornography on the Internet.

Doidge further notes that porn viewers develop tolerances so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation. Thus, they often move to harder, more deviant pornography.

Don’t want to believe the Catholic magazine? Try BigThink’s report:

But there is a dark side to this phenomenon of “neuroplasticity”: unhealthy behaviors are just as likely to alter the brain as are healthy ones. Addictions are a prime example. “All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain,” says Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of “The Brain That Changes Itself.”

In his book Doidge catalogs some amazing stories of personal triumph, but he also discusses how neuroplasticity can be hijacked by one of society’s most pervasive addictions—porn addiction. “The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor,” he says. “Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running,” he says. So why not pornography? “All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act.” Porn addicts exhibit all these qualities, he says.

And the numbers support this diagnosis. According to Online MBA, 40 million Americans are regular visitors to porn Web sites. And in the U.S. $2.84 billion is spent on pornography yearly. And as with most addictions, the habit has intensified over time. Society’s taste in pornography has skewed further and further towards the extreme as internet porn has become more widely accessible: “Hardcore pornography now explores the world of perversion, while softcore is now what hardcore was a few decades ago, explicit sexual intercourse between adults, now available on cable TV. The comparatively tame softcore pictures of yesteryear—women in various states of undress—now show up on mainstream media all day long, in the pornification of everything, including television, rock videos, soap operas, advertisements, and so on.”

The more you entertain vice, the more hard-wired into your personality vice becomes. That’s not just a teaching from religious sages. In the case of pornography, at least, it’s neuroscience.