If it seems like men and women generally have a different reaction to stress, you might not be imagining it: According to a new study male and female brains respond differently to stress. But since studies also strongly suggest that there aren't inherent differences between male and female brains, there might be something else at play than just biology; in fact, these different reactions might be the result of years of social conditioning.
This isn't the first study to suggest that men and women don't experience stress in the same way. Research presented earlier this year, for instance, suggested that different levels of hormones such as estrogen could make women more susceptible to stress. However, in a new study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology researchers set out to see how stress might affect empathy and found that the answer tends to look different for men and women.
As part of the study, 60 participants (30 men and 30 women) were exposed to a short-term social stress and then hooked up to an EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain. Because researchers have identified the types of activity associated with empathy, they hoped to see how stress might affect empathy. While their brain activity was being monitored, participants were shown multiple photographs of hands, some in neutral positions, and some in painful positions. They also filled out an empathy assessment, and had saliva samples taken to measure their levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress.
So what were the results?
Well, interestingly, the EEG showed somewhat different brain activity between male and female participants, and suggested that men use more cognitive processes in order to cope with stress. However, both men and women were found to exhibit similar levels of empathy in the assessment.
"Our findings suggest that sex-dependent effects of social stress on the neural responses to empathy for pain give rise to comparable behaviors in men and women," the researchers explain, "implying that each sex may engage in distinct mechanisms to cope with stress."
In many ways these findings are in line with other studies that have found different effects of stress for men and women when it comes to empathy. However, where other studies have suggested that women react to stress by becoming more empathetic and men do not, this study suggests that men and women both arrive at the same effect — an empathetic response — after experiencing social stress, but by somewhat different neurological means.
While the underlying reasons behind this are still untested and should be further explored, I have a theory: It might be a result of the differences in the way men and women are socialized.
I'm just spitballing here, but stay with me for a minute: There is an overwhelming wealth of evidence that how we use our brains over time has an impact on how those brains react to and process things. In the same way that a mathematician's brain draws on different regions when doing equations than non-mathematicians do, or the same way a ballet dancer's brain suppresses balance signals from the inner ear to avoid getting dizzy, I wonder whether women, who live in a society that tells us from birth to be kind and patient and understanding, would wind up with brains that are more primed for empathy than the brains of men, who aren't socialized in the same way.
The research suggests that men and women don't have inherently different brains. We do, however, have brains that have been conditioned very differently. I'd be interested to see if this conditioning might be related to the fact that the brains of men and women react differently. It's a topic worth exploring, so here's hoping more research is on the way soon.