Nonconscious Processing of Sexual Information: A Generalization to Women

Article excerpt

Activation of sexual response may be largely determined by nonconscious cognitive processing. The subjective experience of sexual arousal certainly depends on conscious processing, the individual's awareness of bodily sensations together with the appraisal of the response as sexual. Yet this subjective experience can be seen as contingent on cognitive processing outside of awareness. Sexual stimuli may be recognized nonconsciously; autonomic responses as well as motor programs may be activated by efferent messages from implicit sexual memory. Two studies (Janssen, Everaerd, Spiering, & Janssen, 2000; Spiering, Everaerd, & Janssen, 2003) have found empirical support for this view; however, only male participants were included. The goal of the experiments reported here was to investigate to what extent these results could be generalized to women.

In the production of a sexual response, stimuli that are appraised as sexual are transformed into specific messages. Emotion theories and theories about the role of different memory systems can be applied to clarify this activational process. Long-term memory is not a unitary entity, but can be subdivided into explicit (or declarative) and implicit (or procedural) memory (Squire, 1992; Tulving & Schacter, 1990). Explicit memory is consciously accessible; implicit memory is not. Regarding "sexual memory"--that is, memory associated with sexual responding--explicit memory refers to, for instance, recollections of sexual encounters, attitudes toward sex, sexual fantasies, and knowledge about sexual rewards or costs. Implicit sexual memory refers to, for instance, innate sexual reflexes, learned sexual scripts, and classically conditioned sexual responses. Explicit memory is connected with the experience of sexual excitement and implicit memory to the physiological components, such as sexual arousal (Geer, Lapour, & Jackson, 1993).

The coming about of an emotional response can be conceived as the result of two independent processes (LeDoux, 1996, 2000). The core of the emotional system involves a mechanism for computing the affective significance of stimuli (cf. Zajonc, 1984). This mechanism depends on implicit memory and operates automatically and outside of conscious awareness. The second process is dependent on explicit memory and involves conscious elaboration of emotional information. In the field of sex research, Janssen et al. (2000) recently proposed a theoretical model wherein different levels of cognitive processing differentially affect subjective and physiological components of sexual arousal. Physiological sexual arousal is activated automatically when a relevant stimulus matches with implicit sexual memory. Through an attentional process associated with explicit memory, a subjective experience of sexual arousal is constructed. To test this model, different experiments were conducted using a priming paradigm (Janssen et al.; Spiering et al., 2003; Spiering, Everaerd, & Elzinga, 2002; Spiering, Everaerd, & Laan, 2004).

Priming involves a change in the ability to identify a stimulus as a consequence of a prior encounter with a related stimulus. This type of paradigm can be used to study the independent contributions of implicit and explicit processes (Schacter & Badgaiyan, 2001; Schacter & Buckner, 1998). An accepted operational definition of implicit processes is evidence for indirect effects of a stimulus in the absence of direct effects (e.g., Greenwald, Klinger, & Schuh, 1995), or in other words, when priming stimuli produce a response without being consciously elaborated.

In experiments of Janssen et al. (2000) and Spiering et al. (2003), male participants were asked to categorize sexual and neutral "target" slides as quickly as possible. Targets were preceded by subliminally presented sexual or neutral "prime" slides. As predicted, sexual primes facilitated the recognition of subsequent sexual targets. …