Neural Activation in Women in Response to Masculinized Male Faces: Mediation by Hormones and Psychosexual Factors

Evol Hum Behav. 2009 Jan;30(1):1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.006.


Women's preference for masculine faces varies with hormonal state, sociosexuality, and relationship status, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. We hypothesized that hormones and psychosexual factors (sociosexuality, sexual inhibition/excitation) mediate the perception and evaluation of male faces thereby influencing women's preferences. We used fMRI to measure brain activity in twelve women as they evaluated pictures of male faces (half 30% masculinized, half 30% feminized). Participants were heterosexual women, age 23-28, who were not in a committed relationship and not using hormonal contraception. Women were tested during both the follicular and luteal phase of their menstrual cycle. We found five brain regions related to face and risk processing that responded more to the masculinized than to the feminized faces, including the superior temporal gyrus, precentral gyrus, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobule, and anterior cingulate cortex. Increased activation in the anterior cingulate cortex, specifically, may indicate that women perceive masculinized faces to be both more risky and more attractive. We did not see any areas that were more strongly activated by feminized faces. Levels of activation were influenced by hormonal and psychosexual factors. The patterns of hormonally and psychosexually mediated neural activation observed may offer insight into the cognitive processes underlying women's partner preferences.