Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, we all know that expression and when it comes to emotions, especially, negative ones it might be true. Men and women are divided about emotions and reactions to certain events or images. According to well-known stereotypes, men are more rational when it comes to emotions and women are more sympathetic. Why men and women react differently to negative situations or imagery? A recent study reveals that subtle differences in brain function are the reason for these different reactions.
Study: Why women experience negative emotions differently?
Researchers from the Institute Universitaire en Sant? Mentale de Montreal and the University of Montreal conducted a study whose primary purpose was to investigate and determine why women experience negative emotions differently. The author of the study and lead researcher was Adrianna Mendrek, an associate professor at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry.
The inspiration for the study came from differences in mental illnesses among men and women. In her press release, professor Mendrek said:
“Not everyone’s equal when it comes to mental illness. Greater emotional reactivity in women may explain many things, such as being twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders to men.”
In the previous research that was also conducted by Mendrek, the team came to the conclusion that men and women have different response to emotional stimuli. For example, Mendrek and her colleagues discovered that when men and women looked at negative images the emotional and memory center in their brains (limbic system) reacted differently.
For the most recent study, the team of scientists wanted to take this step to a whole new level by monitoring in more detail how these differences play out in men’s and women’s brains. They also wanted to find out whether the hormonal level affects the psychological processing.
The research included 46 participants (21 men and 25 women). Scientists ruled out potential contributing factors such as age differences, marital status, education level, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. At the beginning of the study, each participant was given a blood test whose aim was to assess changing levels of estrogen and testosterone. Scientists wanted to observe how these hormones contribute to final results.
After they were given blood tests, participants in the research were exposed to various images that evoked positive, negative, or even neutral emotions while they were undergoing fMRI scans. fMRI stands for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging which refers to a procedure that uses MRI technology to measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.
Study’s participants also had to review their emotional responses while they were looking at the images. Findings of this study were published in the Psychoneuroendicrinology.
Results of the study showed that women usually reported being more reactive to the images they saw. Higher estrogen levels, regardless of the person’s gender, were in most cases associated with increased sensitivity. On the other hand, higher testosterone levels were most commonly related to lower sensitivity to the images.
While they were observing brain’s reaction to images, scientists discovered that the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and amygdala on the brain’s right hemisphere were active in both genders when they were viewing the images. However, the researchers noticed some differences. For example, the connection between these two brain parts was stronger in men; which leads to improved interaction between two parts and decreased sensitivity to emotional stimuli. It is assumed that the connection between dmPFC and amygdala is modulated by testosterone, which would explain why women have a more rational approach to emotions.
Researchers elaborated this discovery with the explanation that reactions of dmPFC and amygdala say a lot about who person processes his or her emotions. dmPFC is the part of the brain that helps us process social interactions and mediates perception, reasoning, and emotions. On the other hand, the amygdala detects the threats and it usually activates when a person is exposed to fear or sadness.
Stephan Potvin, associate professor at the Department of Psychiatry at University of Montréal said:
“A stronger connection between these areas in men suggests that they have a more analytical rather than emotional approach when dealing with negative emotions. It is possible that women tend to focus more on the feelings generates by these stimuli, when men remain somewhat passive toward negative emotions, trying to analyze the stimuli and their impact.”
Mendrek and team of scientists believe that study successfully proved how male and female brains function differently on psychological levels. She also announced the study that will investigate how hormones affect people’s reactions to different emotions.
More scientific proof from Switzerland
The study conducted in Montreal isn’t the only research that inspected the differences in the way men and women process their emotions. For example, a Swiss study conducted in January found similar results to Mendrek’s study.
The research was led by Klara Spalek from Department of Psychology, Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Basel, Switzerland. The research had a similar method to the one conducted in Montreal. Both men and women had to undergo fMRI where they were exposed to various images.
However, the number of participants was much bigger in this study; the scientists looked into brain activity of 696 volunteers and found that the motoric region, the brain area known for planning and controlling, was more active in women when exposed to emotional imagery.
Moreover, a group of scientists also discovered that attaching emotions to various images helped women create more memories than it did in men. Findings of this study were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
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Men and women have a different approach to emotional situations or imagery and we finally know why – according to studies listed in this article, it is due to some changes in the brain. However, scientists believe men’s and women’s reaction to emotional stimuli can also be caused by other factors as well and they emphasize the importance of new studies to be conducted.