Friday, October 1, 2010

Are Stressed Men Unable to Identify Angry Faces?

Really? . . . How stressed to you have to be to shut down so much that you cannot see anger in your partner? I found this at The Good Feed blog from the Good Men Project.

The headline doesn't quite make sense to me, so I went to the original article - see below.

Men Are Too Stressed to Tell When You’re Angry

September 30, 2010 By Cooper Fleishman

Balk on The Awl reports sardonically on this study, which suggests that physical differences in brain responses dictate how we gauge others’ emotions:

Science, which has been doing a terrific job of late at giving men excuses for being total dicks, comes up with another winner: Dudes who are under stress cannot tell when someone else is angry. And you know what stresses out a guy but good? When some woman is angry at him. I’m sure he would totally address the situation if he knew that she was mad, but he doesn’t! At all! Says Science!

I can imagine stand-up comics everywhere are struggling to find an angle on this.

Sure, we tend to offer practical advice when she’s looking for support—and vice versa. But if how we’re wired seriously limits our ability to empathize, well, that’s good to know. Instead of using that knowledge as an excuse, keeping it in mind could help partners attack problems a bit more efficiently, eh?

So, going back to the original article at Live Science, the picture that emerges is a little more complex than this post (and the Back on the Awl post they reference) might suggest.

Here is the key comment, which comes at the very end of the article:
The researchers don't know whether these brain differences are innate or a product of socialization, and they can't yet say if the decreased activity in stressed men causes them to actually become less engaged and empathic, or if they compensate in some other way.
They also do not mention personality type, ego development, or emotional intelligence, all of which might influence the findings and/or the ways in which the men respond.

There is also the gender difference of socialization, which may alter male brains to be less perceptive of emotions. We know this is true - and we know that male infants are very emotionally focused - until 6 months of age, but which time it has been socialized out of them.

So, I am skeptical that this is an innate brain difference.

Stress Brings Out the Difference in Male, Female Brains

By Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer

Posted: 29 September 2010

Think your anger is as plain as the scowl on your face? If you're talking to a stressed-out man, that may not be the case.

A new study finds that when men under stress looked at angry faces, they seemed to disengage, at least according to brain scans showing lower activity in brain areas responsible for processing other people's emotions and facial expressions. In contrast, stressed-out women showed more activity in those brain regions.

The findings, appearing in the Oct. 6 issue of the journal NeuroReport, could represent a neurological basis for findings that women tend to be more emphatic than men. Researchers don't know exactly why these differences occur, but one reason may be the interaction of sex hormones with stress hormones.

"Very rarely do we see sex differences in the studies that we have in our lab, but now that we've started to do things where we're looking at how stress affects cognitive processes, the stress differences are really jumping out at us," said Mara Mather, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the paper. "We see differences that don't show up unless people are stressed."

Two genders, under stress

Psychologists have long noted that stress affects men and women differently. Women tend to seek out social support, while men are more likely to withdraw. To find out if brain differences are influencing these behaviors, Mather and her colleagues focused on the amygdala, an almond-size structure buried deep in the brain that helps process fearful stimuli like angry faces. The researchers also looked at the insula, another deep brain structure that assists with empathy, and the temporal pole, a brain area tucked behind the ears involved with understanding another person's state of mind.

The researchers measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol from saliva samples collected from 47 volunteers. Next, half of the men and half of the women were asked to immerse their hands in nearly freezing water for up to three minutes, while the others dipped their hands in comfortably warm water.

Both groups then had their brains scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures blood flow to different brain areas. The participants completed some tasks unrelated to the study, before giving another saliva sample for stress-hormone levels. After that, the researchers continued the brain scan while participants watched images of 160 faces, 80 angry and 80 neutral.

Stress and the brain

The researchers found that the men and women who had been given the ice water were equally stressed by the experience, judging by their cortisol levels. But how that stress affected their brains was very different. When the stressed-out men viewed either neutral or angry faces, their brains showed a decrease in activity in the fusiform facial area, which helps with facial recognition. The signal measured in their FFA was about 0.75 percent, compared to almost 1.5 percent for the men in the warm-water group. Frazzled women, by contrast, seemed more attuned to recognizing facial expressions. Their FFA signal measured almost 1.5 percent, compared with 0.75 percent among the relaxed women.

The researchers also noticed a hormonal correlation: The higher the testosterone levels to begin with, the lower the FFA activity when stressed. They found no comparable fluctuations based on estrogen levels. The finding supports the theory that hormones may be at the root of the differences in men and women's responses to stress.

The interactions between emotion-processing areas like the right temporal pole, insula and inferior fontal gyrus also differed by gender. The researchers looked at a measurement called functional connectivity, which reveals the extent to which brain areas simultaneously become active. Men showed less functional connectivity between these areas when stressed, while women showed more. It seems that when women are stressed, social and emotional areas of the brain go on alert, perhaps reflecting a tendency to reach out. The same areas in men's brains seem to disengage.

The researchers don't know whether these brain differences are innate or a product of socialization, and they can't yet say if the decreased activity in stressed men causes them to actually become less engaged and empathic, or if they compensate in some other way. However, Mather said, other research does find gender differences in the way men and women act when stressed. The current study meshes with those findings, she said.

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