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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1995 Summer;19(2):211-24.

Placing erection in context: the reflexogenic-psychogenic dichotomy reconsidered.

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Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs 06269-1020, USA.


Penile erections are usually classified as arising from "reflexogenic" or "psychogenic" causes. In practice this dichotomy has translated, somewhat circularly, to a distinction between spinal vs. supraspinal mediation, pelvic vs. hypogastric neural mediation, and perineal somesthetic stimulation vs. stimulation of receptors innervated by the cranial nerves. Evidence for differential regulation of erection in different contexts is reviewed. Research ascribing a physiological role to the hypogastric nerves in psychogenic erection, exemplified by classic studies of cats and spinally injured men, is suggestive but not compelling. Somewhat stronger is evidence that erection in some contexts (e.g., nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) in humans or touch-stimulated erection in rats) is more sensitive to androgen levels than in other contexts (e.g., visual erotic stimuli in men or copulation in rats). However, some of these differences may arise from the relative erectogenic strength of the stimuli, rather than from qualitative differences in androgen sensitivity of different contexts. More compelling is the possibility that conflicting interpretations of the role of dopamine in erection may stem in large part from differences among laboratories in the context in which erection is evoked. In light of the evidence reviewed, it seems unlikely that the conventional reflexogenic-psychogenic dichotomy should be retained, at least in its present form. As a first step, it may be worth considering that reflexive erections may not be limited to somesthetic perineal stimulation, but rather may also include stimuli received via the cranial nerves. Two alternatives to the standard reflexogenic-psychogenic dichotomy are proposed. The first is a minor revision in which two senses of psychogenic erection are distinguished: the weak, commonly used, sense would include erection resulting from any extrinsic nonsomesthetic stimulation, whether visual, auditory, or chemosensory. In this sense, reflexive erections and psychogenic erections may not be mutually exclusive. The strong sense of psychogenic erection would be limited to memory and fantasy. The origins of psychogenic erection in both senses need not be available to consciousness, which may account for apparently spontaneous erections. In the second alternative taxonomy, erectogenic stimuli are classified as contact (somesthetic) or noncontact, and their action in evoking erection is placed on a continuum of reflexivity. Erectile contexts could then be considered as orthogonal to the other two dimensions. Even without a change in taxonomy, the conduct and interpretation of research into erectile function may be expected to benefit from closer attention to differences and similarities between contexts and species, and to context-sensitive differences in the regulation of erection.

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