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The original self-organizing feature map did not define any probability distribution on the input space. However, the advantages of introducing probabilistic methodologies into self-organizing map models were soon evident. This has led to a wide range of proposals which reflect the current emergence of probabilistic approaches to computational intelligence. The underlying estimation theories behind them derive from two main lines of thought: the expectation maximization methodology and stochastic approximation methods. Here, we present a comprehensive view of the state of the art, with a unifying perspective of the involved theoretical frameworks. In particular, we examine the most commonly used continuous probability distributions, self-organization mechanisms, and learning schemes. Special emphasis is given to the connections among them and their relative advantages depending on the characteristics of the problem at hand. Furthermore, we evaluate their performance in two typical applications of self-organizing maps: classification and visualization.