Inside the brains of men and women controlling their emotions

Women do seem to cry more readily than men, but is that because they are less able to control their emotions? According to Ute Habel and colleagues, research does suggest women are more ’emotional’. They cite the fact that women are more vulnerable to emotional disorders, and a study showing men are better able than women to control their negative emotions.

So if this gender difference is true, what is happening in men’s brains when they exert control over their emotions, and how does it differ from female brain activity in similar circumstances?

Habel and colleagues scanned the brains of 19 women and 21 men while they performed a simple verbal memory task. On some trials the participants were also exposed to the smell of rotting yeast, thus triggering the negative emotion of disgust.

The smell impaired the participants’ performance, but to the researchers’ surprise, the women were no more affected by the horrible smell than the men, ostensibly contradicting the notion that women are less able to control negative emotion. However, the researchers pointed out this didn’t mean their brain imaging findings wouldn’t reveal differences in the way the male and female participants processed emotions and exerted cognitive control during the memory task.

Indeed, key gender differences were found. Women showed greater brain activation to the smell on its own, and to the memory task on its own. And, crucially, when they performed the memory task while exposed to the smell, they didn’t show any activation indicative of an interaction – it was as if the smell and memory task were processed in parallel.

In contrast, when the men performed the task while exposed to the smell, there was evidence of interaction between cognitive and emotional areas in the brain, with cognitive activation seemingly outweighing emotion-associated activation.

“These results provide initial evidence for the assumption that the interaction between emotion and cognition relies on differential processing mechanisms in men and women,” the researchers said.

Kock, K., Pauly, K., Kellermann, T., Seiferth, N.Y., Reske, M., Backes, V., Stocker, T., Shah, N.J., Amunts, K., Kircher, T., Schneider, F. & Habel, U. (2007). Gender differences in the cognitive control of emotion: An fMRI study. Neuropsychologia, 45, 2744-2754.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. BELL, Sir Charles (1774-1842) Sir Charles Bell, The anatomy of the brain explained in a series of plates, 1823. Plate 1, watercolour drawing of the brain.

4 thoughts on “Inside the brains of men and women controlling their emotions”

  1. Disgust at a smell? One hardly considers that an “emotion”. It would be better if they showed them videos of happy or unhappy incidents, although I suppose it they would have to control for the subjects relative level of response to the images.

  2. hi ElaineDisgust is generally considered to be an emotional reaction by psychologists. But you’re right, this kind of research does need to be extended to include other emotions, a fact also acknowledged by the researchers in their paper. Christian

  3. Great post and thanks Christian! Interestingly, the gurus no longer spearate out cognitive from emotional as they did in past. For instance, you seem to be describing certain of Gardner’s multiple intelligences as active here — (such as INTRAPERSONAL) intelligence … and that shift would also change the equation. Men use different parts of cognition – than women use cognitively for the same task. Now we can squeeze the insights into a distinctive framework for each. Nuff said — except that I enjoyed your site! Thanks for the great ideas so well written here. Ellen

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