In the past few decades, tremendous advances have been achieved in the understanding of the human brain. A considerable part of these advances has been made possible by functional neuroimaging techniques that allow for the investigation of the functioning brain in healthy subjects as well as in patients. While a great emphasis was initially put on the investigation of cognitive mechanisms, in recent years emotion and motivation have been increasingly studied. Hence, these new techniques have made it possible to study brain mechanisms underlying sexual desire, sexual pleasure and romantic love in healthy human beings.
The core purpose of the presentation is to expound how the brain controls the sexual life of human beings, from courtship behavior to orgasm, supporting both approach behavior and inhibition of unwanted sexual behavior. To show the direct connection between sexuality and the functioning of the brain, alterations of sexual behavior caused by neurological disorders, such as tumors and epilepsy, will be described. We shall then devote a large section of the talk to the discoveries about human sexuality made possible by functional neuroimaging techniques.
Next, as love is intimately related to sexual desire and arousal, we will present new insights on love provided by functional neuroimaging techniques. Then, based on accumulated psychological and neuroscientific knowledge, we shall present a “neurophenomenological” account of sexual desire and pleasure. By the term neurophenomenological, we mean that the responses of the brain to sexual stimuli and the subjective –phenomenological -experience of these stimuli are two facets of one single phenomenon. Thus, this talk is not a biological account of sexuality that would deny the importance of its psychological, sociological and cultural aspects. Rather, we argue that, while psychological, sociological and cultural processes impact brain functioning, in return the inherent characteristics of brain functioning constrain psychological, sociological and cultural processes of human sexuality.
Finally, we consider a societal aspect of the neuroscientific approach to human sexuality: Is neuroscience relevant in the courtroom? Given the insights offered by functional neuroimaging studies of sexual offenders, should judges and juries solicit the advice of neuroscientific experts?
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