Brain's response to sexual images linked to number of sexual partners

May 15, 2014 by Mark Wheeler
Brain's response to sexual images linked to number of sexual partners
UCLA researcher Nicole Prause

(Medical Xpress)—Like most things, sex requires motivation. An attractive face, a pleasant fragrance, perhaps a sexy image. Yet people differ in their response to sex cues, some react strongly; some don't. A greater responsiveness to sexual cues might provide greater motivation for a person to act sexually, and risky sexual behaviors typically occur when a person is motivated by particularly potent, sexual reward cues.

Now researchers at UCLA have, for the first time, directly linked  and real-world sexual behaviors. Specifically, the researchers found that how strongly the brain responded to viewing such images was related to the number of sex partners a person had in the previous year.

Led by Nicole Prause, a research scientist in the department of psychiatry in the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, the study was published in the current online edition of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Prause and her colleagues used electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure a particular type of electrical activity in the brains of people as they were viewing a variety of images—some romantic, some pornographic, and some having nothing at all to do with sex.

Understanding how the brain responds to sexual images could help scientists create a brain stimulation intervention to reduce sensitivity to sexual reward and thus reduce some people's proclivity to engage in risky sexual activities.

"These are the first data we know of that link brain responses to actual ," said Prause, who directs the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at UCLA. "If your brain responds very strongly even to very tame pictures of sex, then you seem to be easily sexually excited in the real world, too. If we show very explicit sex pictures, eventually everyone's brain responds strongly. It is those weaker images, just hinting at sex, that show the difference."

In the study, 40 men and 22 women, ages 18 to 40, completed a questionnaire that included the question, "How many partners have you had sexual intercourse with in the last 12 months?" They then were shown 225 images that included non-sexual, pleasant images (for example, skydiving), neutral images (like portraits) and sexual images ranging from G-rated to explicit scenes.

While viewing the images, participants' activity was measured by EEG. Specifically, the researchers looked at a type of activity called late positive potential, which reacts to images depending on their emotional intensity.

The researchers found that participants who reported having had a higher number of sexual partners in the previous year exhibited similar late positive potential responses to both the graphic and less-graphic sexual images. Those who reported having had fewer intercourse partners in the previous year were different: They showed reduced late positive potential responses to the less explicit sexual images and greater response to the more graphic .

"This pattern helps tell us why people may choose to pursue new ," Prause said. "For example, some researchers have suggested that people may pursue new partners to experience sexual excitement that they did not experience in their regular lives or with their regular partner. These results, she said, "suggest that new partners actually might be pursued because people have high sexual excitement in response to any potential partner, whether regular or new. This distinction is very important if we want to help people feel in control of their sexual urges."

Explore further: Is sexual addiction the real deal?

More information: Nicole Prause, Vaughn R. Steele, Cameron Staley, and Dean Sabatinelli. "Late positive potential to explicit sexual images associated with the number of sexual intercourse partners." Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online February 12, 2014 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsu024

Related Stories

Is sexual addiction the real deal?

July 19, 2013
Controversy exists over what some mental health experts call "hypersexuality," or sexual "addiction." Namely, is it a mental disorder at all, or something else? It failed to make the cut in the recently updated Diagnostic ...

There's no faking it—your sexual partner knows if you're really satisfied

April 10, 2014
There is no point faking it in bed because chances are your sexual partner will be able to tell. A study by researchers at the University of Waterloo found that men and women are equally perceptive of their partners' levels ...

Teenagers' pornography and sexual experiences—fewer differences than expected

April 8, 2014
Although a greater proportion of teenage boys than girls watch and fantasise about sex they have seen in pornography, there are no differences between the sexes when it comes to what types of sex they fantasise about. This ...

LGBT youth face greater cancer risks

February 19, 2014
A new study led by City College of New York psychologist Margaret Rosario found that youths of same-sex orientation are more likely to engage in behaviors associated with cancer risk than heterosexuals. The peer-reviewed ...

Free birth control doesn't promote risky sexual behavior in women

March 7, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—New research shows that providing women with free contraception does not increase the likelihood that they will have sex with multiple partners, as critics of the practice have suggested.

Sexually explicit material affects behavior in young people less than thought

April 25, 2013
Viewing sexually explicit material through media such as the Internet, videos, and magazines may be directly linked with the sexual behavior of adolescents and young adults, but only to a very small extent. That is the conclusion ...

Recommended for you

Scientists capture first image of major brain receptor in action

July 24, 2017
Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) researchers have captured the first three-dimensional snapshots of the AMPA-subtype glutamate receptor in action. The receptor, which regulates most electrical signaling in the brain, ...

Research identifies new brain death pathway in Alzheimer's disease

July 24, 2017
Alzheimer's disease tragically ravages the brains, memories and ultimately, personalities of its victims. Now affecting 5 million Americans, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and a cure ...

Illuminating neural pathways in the living brain

July 24, 2017
Using light alone, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried are now able to reveal pairs or chains of functionally connected neurons under the microscope. The new optogenetic method, named Optobow, ...

Study suggests link between autism, pain sensitivity

July 24, 2017
New research by a UT Dallas neuroscientist has established a link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and pain sensitivity. 

Eye test could help diagnose autism

July 24, 2017
A new study out in European Journal of Neuroscience could herald a new tool that helps physicians identify a sub-group of people with Autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The test, which consists of measuring rapid eye movements, ...

The neural codes for body movements

July 21, 2017
A small patch of neurons in the brain can encode the movements of many body parts, according to researchers in the laboratory of Caltech's Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Tianqiao and Chrissy ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) May 16, 2014
This study makes the erroneous assumption that the number of partners is directly linked to desire rather than availability rather than the ability to attract a mate.

Many people may well have a high desire for a sexual partner and have none. If this were not the case then dating agencies, prostitutes and pornography would be out of business immediately, and rape would become all but unknown.

The relationship between number of partners and desire for partners is complex, not simple and trivial as the article assumes.

I would have had a different sexual partner every day in my youth if I could have, but managed only 5 one night stands between age 18 and 26 despite constant effort.
5 / 5 (1) May 16, 2014
This study does not factor in the subject's masturbation habits. Would daily masturbation or abstinence from it skew the data plots? Even if a person had few partners that does not mean they're not "sexually" active - my hypothesis would be that habitual masturbation (there may differences even when comparing those who look at hardcore porn, softcore porn, or use their "imagination" while doing it) would greatly affect the results of this study.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.