One of the subjects that never seems to stop fascinating psychologists and neuroscientists is memory – what it is, how it works, and the things that affect it. Such scientists make a distinction between long-term memory (information or experiences that have a lengthy duration, and can be easily recalled later, even after years or an entire lifetime), and short-term memory (information and experiences that are retained only for a short time, also often called working memory). Some have theorized that long-term memories are recorded in the brain semantically, as words with associated meanings, while short-term memories are recorded acoustically, similar to the way we repeat a phone number to ourselves before dialing it, only to forget it almost immediately.
These same scientists have studied the factors that influence short-term memory, and that tend to make it even shorter. These include the effects of alcohol and drugs such as marijuana, sleep deprivation, vitamin deficiencies, and thyroid disorders. But who knew that watching porn on the Internet might be one of the things that could make you unable to remember things you saw only a few seconds ago?
Yes, Virginia, scientists really do get paid to watch porn
Or at least the subjects of their experiments do. In this latest study, conducted in Germany and published in the Journal of Sex Research, the psychologists asked 28 heterosexual men with an average age of 26 to look at a number of images displayed on a computer. Some of the images were nonsexual, including photos of people laughing or playing sports. Other of the images were definitely sexual, and could generally be classified as pornographic.
As the subjects watched the images, they were asked to perform a short-term memory exercise by pressing either a “Yes” button or a “No” button, indicating whether they had seen the image before, only four slides previously. The male subjects were wrong much more often when viewing the nonsexual images than when viewing the sexual images. They were correct 80% of the time when trying to remember the nonsexual images they had just seen a few seconds ago, but they were correct only 67% of the time when trying to remember the porn images seen just as recently.
Fascinatingly, this short-term memory loss seemed to be correlated to how aroused they were by the pornographic images – the more sexual arousal they felt while watching the images, the poorer their short-term memory was. As study author Christian Laier put it, “Sexual arousal interferes with working memory, an important facet of executive functioning.”
So what’s up with this – why would viewing porn affect memory?
Well, almost avoiding the temptation to invoke Robin Williams’ famous one-liner that God gave men a brain and a penis, but only enough blood to run one of them at a time, the answer to this question remains unanswered. The study scientists don’t fully understand the phenomenon, only that it appears to exist, and that they documented it in their experiments. As psychologists, they are hoping that their findings will help them to understand why people who have admitted to having become addicted to Internet porn often miss appointments, shirk their job responsibilities, forget to sleep, and neglect real-world relationships. As they put it, “Sexual arousal and its impacts on cognitive processes might explain parts of these negative effects.”
One of the limitations of the study in question, of course, is that the subjects in the study were all men. Would the same short-term memory loss be experienced by women viewing pornographic images of men? Would gay men or women have their short-term memories affected by viewing porn images of the same sex? These are all the kinds of questions that must be addressed in follow-up research.
Also something to be studied in future research, if and when it is conducted, is that if this link between viewing porn on computers and reduced short-term memory holds true, how big a problem is it for society as a whole? In another report released today, an organization called PornWatchers.org claimed that people have collectively watched 1.2 million years worth of porn on the Internet since 2006. That comes out to over 15 views for every person on Earth. If the findings of this German study are true, there are an awful lot of people out there whose memory abilities have become impaired.