When it comes to the way they experience emotions, there appears to be a divide between men and women. Men are stereotypically seen as rational, level-headed thinkers, while women are often viewed as being more emotional. But are these assumptions entirely unfounded? Perhaps not completely.
A recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal and the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal, has found that certain differences in brain functioning affect the way in which men and women respond to negative imagery.
The researchers drew their inspiration from the differences they observed in mental illness between the sexes. “Not everyone’s equal when it comes to mental illness,” said Adrianna Mendrek, one of the researchers. "Greater emotional reactivity in women may explain many things, such as their being twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders to men.”
Earlier studies have also given credence to the theory that women and men react to emotional stimuli in different ways. Mendrek and her co-researchers had previously found that the limbic system (the brain's emotion and memory center) reacted differently for men and women, when participants were shown negative images. They decided to go a step further for this study, as they now chose to research whether hormonal levels affect this psychological processing, too.
There were 46 participants who took part in the study (25 female and 21 male), and the researchers ruled out potential contributing factors such as age, education, ethnicity, marital status, and socioeconomic status. Every volunteer was given a blood test at the start to assess their levels of testosterone and estrogen in order to see in what way they affected the results. They were then exposed to images that evoked positive, negative, or neutral emotions, while they underwent fMRI brain scans. Participants also had to review their emotional responses when looking at each image.
Overall, men seemed far less reactive to the emotional images than their female counterparts. Higher estrogen levels seemed to indicate increased sensitivity to the images, while higher testosterone levels appeared to make the subjects more desensitized.
When assessing the brain's reaction to the images, they discovered that the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) and amygdala on the brain's right hemisphere were activated for both men and women. However, the connection between these two components was discovered to be more powerful in men, leading to the additional interaction between these two parts, and thus further decreased sensitivity to the stimuli.
The researchers explained that the reactions of the dmPFC and amygdala can tell us loads about how people process their emotions. The dmPFC is the part of the brain that helps process social interactions and mediates reasoning, emotions, and perception. The amygdala, on the other hand, is the part that is used to detect threats, and is often triggered when somebody experiences sadness or fear.
“A stronger connection between these areas in men suggests they have a more analytical than emotional approach when dealing with negative emotions,” said Stéphane Potvin, associate professor at the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry. “It is possible that women tend to focus more on the feelings generated by these stimuli, when men remain somewhat ‘passive’ toward negative emotions, trying to analyze the stimuli and their impact.”
Mendrek's team believes that their study shows just how the male and female brains seem to function differently at a psychological level. “There are both biological and cultural factors that modulate our sensitivity to negative situations in terms of emotions,” Mendrek said. She concluded that the next step forward is to research exactly how hormones affect people's reactions to various types of emotions, such as sadness, fear, or anger.