Men and women differ in amygdala response to visual sexual stimuli


Men are generally more interested in and responsive to visual sexually arousing stimuli than are women. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that the amygdala and hypothalamus are more strongly activated in men than in women when viewing identical sexual stimuli. This was true even when women reported greater arousal. Sex differences were specific to the sexual nature of the stimuli, were restricted primarily to limbic regions, and were larger in the left amygdala than the right amygdala. Men and women showed similar activation patterns across multiple brain regions, including ventral striatal regions involved in reward. Our findings indicate that the amygdala mediates sex differences in responsiveness to appetitive and biologically salient stimuli; the human amygdala may also mediate the reportedly greater role of visual stimuli in male sexual behavior, paralleling prior animal findings.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Women's (n = 14) and men's (n = 14) ratings of visual stimuli according to attractiveness and physical arousal.
Figure 2: Regional activation maps.
Figure 3: Average fMRI signal change for males and females for couples, opposite-sex and neutral stimuli (vs. fixation baseline), for ROIs in the left amygdala, right amygdala and hypothalamus.
Figure 4: Regions of significant overlap (conjunction) between group activations for males and females.


  1. 1

    Canli, T., Desmond, J.E., Zhao, Z. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. Sex differences in the neural basis of emotional memories. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 99, 10789–10794 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Cahill, L. et al. Sex-related difference in amygdala activity during emotionally influenced memory storage. Neurobiol. Learn. Mem. 75, 1–9 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Gur, R.C. et al. An fMRI study of sex differences in regional activation to a verbal and spatial task. Brain Lang. 74, 157–170 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Symons, D. The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 1979).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Laumann, E.O., Gagnon, J.H., Michael, R.T. & Michaels, S. The Social Organization of Sexuality (University of Chicago Press, Chicago,1994).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Herz, R.S. & Cahill, E.D. Differential use of sensory information in sexual behavior as a function of gender. Hum. Nature 8, 275–286 (1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Newman, S.W. The medial extended amygdala in male reproductive behavior: a node in the mammalian social behavior network. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 877, 242–257 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Beauregard, M., Levesque, J. & Bourgouin, P.J. Neural correlates of conscious self-regulation of emotion. J. Neurosci. 21, 1–6 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Redoute, J. et al. Brain processing of visual sexual stimuli in human males. Hum. Brain Mapp. 11, 162–177 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Arnold, A.P. & Gorski, R.A. Gonadal steroid induction of structural sex differences in the central nervous system. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 7, 413–442 (1984).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Roselli, C.E., Klosterman, S. & Resko, J.A. Anatomic relationships between aromatase and androgen receptor mRNA expression in the hypothalamus and amygdala of adult male cynomolgus monkeys. J. Comp. Neurol. 439, 208–223 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Friston, K.J. et al. Statistical parametric maps in functional imaging: a general linear approach. Hum. Brain Mapp. 2, 189–210 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Schmitt, D.P. et al. Universal sex differences in the desire for sexual variety: tests from 52 nations, 6 continents, and 13 islands. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 85, 85–104 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Rauch, S.L. et al. Neural activation during sexual and competitive arousal in healthy men. Psychol. Res. Neuroimag. 91, 1–10 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Stoleru, S. et al. Neuroanatomical correlates of visually evoked sexual arousal in human males. Arch. Sex. Behav. 28, 1–21 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Kampe, K.K., Frith, C.D., Dolan, R.J. & Frith, U. Reward value of attractiveness and gaze. Nature 413, 589 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Gottfried, J.A., O'Doherty, J. & Dolan, R.J. Encoding predictive reward value in human amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. Science 301, 1104–1107 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Everitt, B.J. Sexual motivation: a neural and behavioral analysis of the mechanisms underlying appetitive and copulatory responses of male rats. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 14, 217–232 (1990).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Hamann, S.B., Ely, T.D., Hoffman, J.M. & Kilts, C.D. Ecstasy and agony: activation of the human amygdala in positive and negative emotion. Psychol. Sci. 13, 135–141 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Garavan, H., Pendergrass, J.C., Ross, T.J., Stein, E.A. & Risinger, R.C. Amygdala response to both positively and negatively valenced stimuli. Neuroreport 12, 2779–2783 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Karama, S.M. et al. Areas of brain activation in males and females during viewing of erotic film excerpts. Hum. Brain Mapp. 16, 1–13 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Bradley, M.M., Codispoti, M., Sabatinelli, D. & Lang, P. Emotion and motivation. II: Sex differences in picture processing. Emotion 1, 300–319 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Anderson, A.K. et al. Dissociated neural representations of intensity and valence in human olfaction. Nat. Neurosci. 6, 196–202 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Canli, T., Zhao, Z., Brewer, J., Gabrieli, J.D. & Cahill, L. Event-related activation in the human amygdala associates with later memory for individual emotional experience. J. Neurosci. 20, 1–5 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Everitt, B.J., Cardinal, R.N., Parkinson, J.A. & Robbins, T.W. Appetitive behavior: impact of amygdala-dependent mechanisms of emotional learning. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 985, 233–250 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Arana, F.S. et al. Dissociable contributions of the human amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex to incentive motivation and goal selection. J. Neurosci. 23, 9632–9638 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Gallagher, M. The amygdala and associative learning. in The Amygdala: a Functional Analysis edn. 2 (ed. Aggleton, J.P.) 311–330 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Baird, A.D. et al. The amygdala and sexual drive: insights from temporal lobe epilepsy surgery. Ann. Neurol. 55, 87–96 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Hamann, S.B., Ely, T.D., Grafton, S.T. & Kilts, C.D. Amygdala activity related to enhanced memory for pleasant and aversive stimuli. Nat. Neurosci. 2, 289–293 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Anderson, A.K. & Phelps, E.A. Lesions of the human amygdala impair enhanced perception of emotionally salient events. Nature 411, 305–309 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Adolphs, R., Tranel, D. & Damasio, A.R. The human amygdala in social judgment. Nature 383, 470–473 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Davis, M. & Whalen, P.J. The amygdala: vigilance and emotion. Mol. Psychiatry 6, 12–34 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Calder, A.J., Lawrence, A.J. & Young, A.W. Neuropsychology of fear and loathing. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 2, 352–363 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Dolan, R.J. & Morris, J.S. The functional anatomy of innate and acquired fear: perspectives from neuroimaging. in Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion (eds. Lane, R.D. & Nadel, L.) 225–241 (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Funayama, E.S., Grillon, C., Davis, M. & Phelps, E.A. A double dissociation in the affective modulation of startle in humans: effects of unilateral temporal lobectomy. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 13, 721–729 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Morris, J.S., Ohman, A. & Dolan, R.J. Conscious and unconscious learning in the amygdala. Nature 393, 467–470 (1998).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Holstege, G. et al. Brain activation during human male ejaculation. J. Neurosci. 23, 9185–9193 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Talairach, J. & Tournoux, P. Co-planar Stereotaxic Atlas of the Human Brain (Thieme Medical, New York, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Duvernoy, H.M. The Human Brain: Surface, Three-dimensional Sectional Anatomy and MRI (Springer, New York, 1991).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was supported by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a Science and Technology Center Program of the National Science Foundation, under agreement IBN-9876754.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Stephan Hamann.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Hamann, S., Herman, R., Nolan, C. et al. Men and women differ in amygdala response to visual sexual stimuli. Nat Neurosci 7, 411–416 (2004).

Download citation

Further reading


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing