Are women "wired" to be more emotional? Not exactly -- but new research provides more evidence that the male and female brain may have very different ways of processing emotion.
Previous research has shown that women generally experience higher levels of emotional stimulation than men. Now, a new large-scale study from the University of Basel suggests that gender differences in emotion processing are also linked to sex variation in memory and brain activity.
The Basel researchers designed an experiment to determine whether women perform better on memory tests than men because of the way that they process emotional information. The researchers exposed 3,400 test participants to images of emotional content, finding that women rated these images as more emotionally stimulating than men, particularly in the case of negative images. When presented with emotionally neutral imagery, however, the men and women responded similarly.
After being exposed to the images, the participants completed a memory test. The female participants were able to recall significantly more of the images than their male counterparts. The women had a particularly enhanced ability to recall the positive images. The study's lead author, Dr. Annette Milnik, explained, "This would suggest that gender-dependent differences in emotional processing and memory are due to different mechanisms."
Then, fMRI data from 700 participants suggested that womens' stronger reactivity to negative emotional images is linked with increased activity of motor regions of the brain.
Previous studies have suggested that women display heightened facial and motor reactions to negative emotional stimuli.
"In our study, we see a similar pattern with the fMRI data," Milnik said in an email to The Huffington Post. "One possible explanation would be that women might be better prepared to physically react to negative stimuli than males. Another explanation would be from normative expectations, with women being expected to be more emotional, and also to express more emotions."
The red and yellow patches indicate patches of the brain that are more active when presented with stimuli ranked as highly emotionally stimulating. The green indicates regions that become more active in women only.
The findings may help scientists to come to a better understanding of gender differences in neuropsychiatric conditions, which may pave the way for improved treatment options.
"Women are more likely to develop major depression, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which are related to emotional dysregulation," Milnik said. "We hope that understanding the neural correlates of sex-specific emotional processing will be an important step towards elucidating the mechanisms linked to sex-dependent emotional dysregulation."
The findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.