The role of conditioning, learning and dopamine in sexual behavior: a narrative review of animal and human studies (2013)

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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jan;38:38-59. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.10.014.

Brom M1, Both S2, Laan E3, Everaerd W4, Spinhoven P5.

Abstract

Many theories of human sexual behavior assume that sexual stimuli obtain arousing properties through associative learning processes. It is widely accepted that classical conditioning contributes to the etiology of both normal and maladaptive human behaviors. Despite the hypothesized importance of basic learning processes in sexual behavior, research on classical conditioning of the sexual response in humans is scarce. In the present paper, animal studies and studies in humans on the role of pavlovian conditioning on sexual responses are reviewed. Animal research shows robust, direct effects of conditioning processes on partner- and place preference. On the contrast, the empirical research with humans in this area is limited and earlier studies within this field are plagued by methodological confounds. Although recent experimental demonstrations of human sexual conditioning are neither numerous nor robust, sexual arousal showed to be conditionable in both men and women. The present paper serves to highlight the major empirical findings and to renew the insight in how stimuli can acquire sexually arousing value. Hereby also related neurobiological processes in reward learning are discussed. Finally, the connections between animal and human research on the conditionability of sexual responses are discussed, and suggestions for future directions in human research are given.

KEYWORDS:

Classical conditioning; Incentive salience; Reward; Sexual arousal; Sexual motivation