In the summer of 1969, when my family was moving to a new house, I had an experience of physics I will never forget. After we emptied our rental truck of the first load of furniture, we returned to our old house for another. There was not enough room for me in the passenger cabin, so I climbed into the empty back of the truck. Its two tailgate doors were the vertical kind that swung shut and could only be secured by closing them from the outside. So my father shut me into the windowless cavern.
After a while, when my eyes had adjusted to what little light there was, I began to notice shadows moving along the inside wall of the truck. But there was something strange about them: I began to make out the shapes of buildings projected on the wall, and then even the sign of a gas station, but with the letters turned backwards. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was sitting inside what is known as a camera obscura!
I looked for the source of the incoming light and saw that there was a small aperture at the top, where the two doors came together, allowing daylight from the street to enter. Similarly, light enters our eyes through the aperture we call the pupil and is projected onto the back wall of our eyes. The image is then sent to the brain, which reverses it (again) so that we see what our eyes are directed at, if there is the right amount of light. Too much light, as when you look at the sun, and you are blinded by it; too little, and you are kept in the dark.
Our brains are programmed, or “wired,” to respond to the light that comes in, as well as to interpret the images. The written letters on this page mean something to you because your brain has been educated, or programmed, to recognize their shapes and their correlation with words you have learned to speak and read over time.
Other responses are not verbally based but can be emotional, instinctual, aesthetic, and so on. The visage of an angry dog baring its teeth, a sunset over the ocean, a smiling baby—each of these triggers a certain response in us via our brains.
Scientific studies of the brain have revealed how certain images instantaneously cause the release of various chemicals in the brain that are considered drugs or virtual drugs. In the case of visual pornography, to which males are particularly responsive (male and female brains are now known to be hard-wired differently), the reaction is automatic. The brain of any male seeing a billboard featuring an image of a voluptuous, bikini-clad woman immediately begins to lock in the image and to produce certain chemical reactions.
Well, so what? This is not entirely surprising.
Enter Donald L. Hilton, a practicing neurosurgeon and clinical associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio. In “Slave Master” in this issue (page 34), he describes this brain-chemical process in detail, and makes a compelling argument for regarding pornography as a drug, and the habitual consumption of it as an unacknowledged addiction. Indeed, the physical similarities between the brains of regular consumers of porn and the brains of drug addicts are striking. If “this is your brain on drugs,” then something very similar is your brain on porn. Salvo’s Judith Reisman has been writing regularly about this in our pages; and Hilton lays out even more details in an extended argument for your consideration.
If porn does such things to the brain as Hilton describes, it’s worth raising the question, yet again, of why “freedom of speech” means that anyone has the right to expose, say, an 11-year-old boy to visual images that jumpstart his brain with these chemicals before he even knows what hit him. An older and wiser man can train himself to force his eyes to look away before the chemical chain reaction can ramp up and essentially hijack his brain. But what about the millions who aren’t aware of the addictive nature of porn?
Will anyone say no to porn? Steve Jobs of Apple Computer recently did:
(W)e do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. . . . You know, there’s a porn store for Android. . . . You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go—so we’re not going to go there.
Is this a sign that perhaps we as a society might have begun to reconsider the “right to pornify,” to display images designed to incite lust? Might ubiquitous porn in the public sphere come to be regarded with the same disapproval as secondhand smoke?
I doubt it. But one can still hope (and work) for a change in public opinion. Sometimes a change occurs when word gets out about the physical danger of something—we’ve seen it happen with tobacco. So we must keep trying to get the word out about the power of porn to hijack and chemically alter the brain. In so doing, we enable each individual to make an informed decision to avoid the harm of porn, even if society as a whole does little or nothing to curtail it.
For a long time, an image from the Sermon on the Mount puzzled me as to its precise meaning:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, you whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If, then, the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
I think about this when I remember my startling experience of being inside that camera obscura in 1969, viewing the images projected from the light outside into the darkness in which I sat. Whatever light comes through even a little opening creates an image inside. The untrained eye may indeed admit light that brings darkness, like porn. But we have been told this in order that we might do something about it. We can reject such darkness lest we become permanently blind to true beauty. •
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