Thursday, April 18, 2013

Men Easily Attune to Other Men's Feelings, But Struggle Attuning to Women

The headline of this article surely comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever been in an opposite sex relationship. A study like this might lead a moron with a diploma mill degree to conclude that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. He'd be painfully wrong of course, but most Americans are desperate to understand why communication between the genders can be so challenging sometimes, so they will buy his book, which probably bears a similar title.

The hidden problem with a study like this is that they are claiming adult males are hardwired to be more attuned to other men and less so to women. But these are adults - we cannot say they are hard-wired at birth, since there is no way to ascertain that information. But there is considerable evidence from interpersonal neurobiology that social interactions and relationships shape the developing brain in profound ways.

For example, most boys grow up playing with other boys, not girls. This ongoing relational experience is going to wire their brains to be more attuned to male emotions because those are the people closest to them most of the time. But then these boys become teens and young adults and start hanging around with females (for the sake of this argument, the boys are heterosexual), and strangely, these female humans are emotionally quite different from their male friends.

Likewise, these young women have grown up mostly spending time with other women, and so their brains have become more attuned to female emotional expression. When they start dating young men, it may seem as though these young men are an alien species.

A study such as the one below does not take into account the socialization of men in all the years prior to their participation in the research study.

Here is the abstract and citation for the original study that is summarized below.
Men are traditionally thought to have more problems in understanding women compared to understanding other men, though evidence supporting this assumption remains sparse. Recently, it has been shown, however, that meńs problems in recognizing women’s emotions could be linked to difficulties in extracting the relevant information from the eye region, which remain one of the richest sources of social information for the attribution of mental states to others. To determine possible differences in the neural correlates underlying emotion recognition from female, as compared to male eyes, a modified version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test in combination with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was applied to a sample of 22 participants. We found that men actually had twice as many problems in recognizing emotions from female as compared to male eyes, and that these problems were particularly associated with a lack of activation in limbic regions of the brain (including the hippocampus and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex). Moreover, men revealed heightened activation of the right amygdala to male stimuli regardless of condition (sex vs. emotion recognition). Thus, our findings highlight the function of the amygdala in the affective component of theory of mind (ToM) and in empathy, and provide further evidence that men are substantially less able to infer mental states expressed by women, which may be accompanied by sex-specific differences in amygdala activity.
Full Citation: 
Schiffer B, Pawliczek C, Müller BW, Gizewski ER, Walter H (2013) Why Don't Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60278. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060278

Study: Men Struggle to Read Women’s Emotions

By Bill Andrews | April 12, 2013

In a paper sure to please lazy stand-up comics and beleaguered husbands everywhere, scientists say that men do indeed have a hard time understanding women. Recent results show that men have a significantly harder time recognizing women’s emotions than they do men’s, and that men seem to use different parts of their brain when ascribing intentions and feelings to women versus men.

Previous experiments had suggested that men are naturally wired to be more intuitive toward other men’s mental states and emotions. Eager to figure out why and how this could be, the researchers studied the brains of 22 male participants as they received a version of a well-known empathy test called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.” (You can take a version of the test online here.) As the name suggests, the test consists of snapshots of pairs of eyes. Pairs of eyes were shown in succession to each participant, who had to determine either the gender or the emotional state of the person pictured. This all took place within an MRI machine, allowing the researchers to see which parts of the brain were active while participants made their determinations.

Participants were about equally good at guessing the gender of male and female eyes, but the men did significantly worse at recognizing the emotions of the female eyes. They correctly interpreted about 87 percent of men’s eyes but only about 76 percent of women’s eyes. Participants also took longer to judge women’s emotions—about 40 milliseconds longer on average. Thus, in effect, men can “read” other men’s eyes faster and better, the researchers report in PLOS ONE.

The MRI data also showed for the first time that this difference is linked to different areas of brain activity. Men inferring other men’s mental states showed much more activity in the right hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex than men reading women’s emotions. Those two brain areas are involved in the acquisition of emotional memories, and so it may be that men were drawing more strongly on their own remembered experiences when imagining others men’s emotions.

The authors speculate that, evolutionarily, it would have been most useful for men to quickly and accurately interpret other men’s facial expressions, since males were more heavily involved in violent activities like hunting and territorial battles. Of course, just because “men are less able to infer mental states expressed by women,” as the authors put it, doesn’t mean that men find women completely inscrutable. The results show noticeable, but still generally subtle, differences. Plenty of men have still been known to lead long and happy lives (mostly) understanding women.

Image courtesy Dave Clark Digital Photo / Shutterstock

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