(395 kB) AC Hahn, CE Lefevre & DI Perrett (2013). What does sexual arousal look like? Temperature and color changes in the face. European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association in Amsterdam, Netherlands. March 2013.

Objective: Thermal imaging studies have suggested that face and body temperature increase during periods of heightened arousal including: sexual arousal, fear, and stress. The present study was designed to determine the time-course and topography of facial temperature and color changes in females during social interaction with a male and, separately, during sexual arousal. Methods:Thermal and color images were captured for heterosexual females (N=23): (1) during a standardized interaction with a male experimenter (i.e. social contact) and (2) while watching a film-clip depicting a sexual encounter (180s). Skin color and temperature were measured at six regions of interest (forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth and chest). Participants reported various types of arousal post-condition for both conditions and used a slider (1-5 scale) to provide a continuous report of sexual arousal during the film condition. Results:Social Interaction - Facial temperature and skin redness were analyzed pre-contact and post-contact. Significant increases in skin temperature were observed, but color changes were not. These skin temperature changes occurred primarily along the midline of the face: in the eye, nose, and mouth regions. Sexual Arousal - Facial temperature and skin redness were analyzed at pre-arousal and maximum arousal time points. There was a significant increase self-reported arousal (mean = 2.7). Temperature changes were found in the nose, mouth and chest; while skin redness increases were observed in the eye, mouth and cheek regions. Conclusions: We show a measurable change in facial temperature that occurs during periods of mild arousal (i.e. during social contact) and during sexual arousal. Increases in skin redness also occur during sexual arousal. This thermal imaging technique offers a less invasive way of measuring arousal than traditional sexual arousal studies employing plethysmography. Whether these temperature and/or color changes are discernible to either an observer or to the participant remains to be determined.

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