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Socioaffect Neurosci Psychol. 2012 Mar 15;2:17337. doi: 10.3402/snp.v2i0.17337. eCollection 2012.

Doing it … wild? On the role of the cerebral cortex in human sexual activity.

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Department Neuroscience, Section Anatomy, University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands.



We like to think about sexual activity as something fixed, basic and primal. However, this does not seem to fully capture reality. Even when we relish sex, we may be capable of mentalizing, talking, voluntarily postponing orgasm, and much more. This might indicate that the central control mechanisms of sexual activity are quite flexible and susceptible to learning mechanisms, and that cortical brain areas play a critical part.


This study aimed to identify those cortical areas and mechanisms most consistently implicated in sexual activity.


A comprehensive review of the human functional neuroimaging literature on sexual activity, i.e. genital stimulation and orgasm, is made.


Genital stimulation recruits the classical somatosensory matrix, but also areas far beyond that. The posterior insula may be particularly important for processing input from the engorged penis and coordinating penile responses. Extrastriate visual cortex tracks sexual arousal and responds to genital stimulation even when subjects have their eyes closed. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is also tightly coupled to sexual arousal, but low activity in this area predicts high sexual arousal.


This review has indicated cortical sites where activity is moderated by tactile genital inflow and high sexual arousal. Behavioral implications are discussed and where possible the relevance for learning mechanisms is indicated. Overall, it is clear that the cerebral cortex has something to say about sexual activity.


clitoris; extrastriate visual cortex; functional neuroimaging; insula; orgasm; penis; ventromedial prefrontal cortex

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