Nature vs. Nurture: Emotional Differences in Men and Women

Nature or Nurture: Neurobiological Links May Also Contribute to Emotional Differences Between Men and Women
By Patti. F Boyle

Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders than men, which is usually attributed to the way women are socialized; females are reared to show emotion whereas men are taught to remain stoic. But, a new study at the University of Montreal (2015), has found there are neurobiological factors contributing to the differences in women’s and men’s emotionality, and these include brain processes and hormones. 

For the study, forty-six individuals, 25 women and 21 men, were asked to view negative, positive and neutral images during an fMRI session. Prior to the beginning of the study, blood was also taken from participants to determine hormonal levels such as testosterone and estrogen, and feminine and masculine traits were also measured. 

Study results showed ratings of negative emotional images were higher in women than in men, and higher emotional sensitivity was linked to lower testosterone levels, whereas higher testosterone levels were linked to lower emotional sensitivity. Additionally, higher measures of feminine traits (regardless of gender) were also linked to higher emotional sensitivity.  In other words, the more testosterone and masculine traits, the less emotional sensitivity. 

As for brain processes, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for processes involving social connection and action planning, and the amygdale, which is our “threat detector”,  were activated in both men and women at the time of viewing the negative images. Yet, the connection between the threat detector and the social and action planning parts of the brain was stronger in men than in women, and the more these two sections interacted,  the less sensitive a person was to negative images.  “This last point is the most significant observation and the most original of our study,” said Stéphane Potvin, a researcher and co-author of the study.

Potvin also suggested that the stronger connectivity in men between the two brain regions may suggest that men are neurobiologically more analytical than emotional when approaching and dealing with negative emotions, and that women tend to focus more on feelings. This could mean that both neurobiological and cultural factors influence our sensitivity to emotional situations. 

The differences in brain processing and hormones between men and women may help to explain why women are more prone to depression and anxiety, and further studies will be conducted to discover how the brains of women and men react depending on the type of negative emotion encountered, such as fear, sadness and anger. 

This is a commentary on the Library of Alexandria article  “Do women experience negative emotions differently than men?”. You can read the full article at: