Choose Constructive Emotions (and don’t forget your greatest asset) (7)

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“The old saying “opposites attract” is often true. The difficulty is once they marry they drive each other crazy.”

― Dr. Steven Stephens


Reading time: 15 mins

In this final post on constructive emotions it might be useful to remind ourselves that the way we experience and process our feelings and emotions is quite different for men and women, boys and girls. When it comes to general, emotional awareness however, we all appear to have far more in common than the traits that can set us apart.

There are key differences in how we manage and react to feelings adjusted through the lens of our emotions. The way we manage them is so different in fact, that we frequently appear to be a different species to our opposite sex. (Why does he go silent? Why does she never shut up?) We need to be cognizant of these differences if we are to make headway in our relationships and our quest for a more constructive emotional life.

Needless to say, in our current climate of gender politics it’s a bit of a minefield; the mainstream media, social scientists and cultural commentators pore over the latest data and put it through the meat-grinder of ideological bias and belief. Despite this, from most people’s experiences on the ground, men and women do have different ways of coping and expressing their emotional world which is probably leaning towards a dominance of genes and biology and environment/sociocultural influences playing a part. How large a part we are not yet sure. One thing is certain, as the role of biology and epigenetics attains its rightful place as a key driver in gender differences the power of suggestion and cultural inculcation shouldn’t be underestimated.

Although we live in a culture that appears to be pushing the ideology that there are no differences and male and female is just a social construct, anyone who has had any relationships, partnerships and marriages will tell you that men and women are hardwired to process emotions in different ways. Yet, we seldom remember this dimension when in the midst of row or the inevitable misunderstandings at work. Undoubtedly cultural influences and a host of personal experiences play a big part, but these differences appear to have an even larger biological component that stretches back thousands of years to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and beyond.

Such evaluations and their conclusions don’t fit well with those invested in feminism and “gender fluid” beliefs since it dilutes the idea that it’s all about stereotypes or the “patriarchal system of oppression.” Ideologues don’t like being reminded that there are compelling arguments pointing to biology as a powerful reason for gender differences with their roots in survival and tribal cohesion. Gender does indeed matter but not to create divisions, rather to help us work together, much like the two hemispheres of the brain – If our brains were only given the chance.

Emotional processing

While culture is a powerful programmer of perception, underlying biology determines human endeavour at an instinctual level, melding with beliefs, institutional authority and social mores. If we are to choose constructive emotions then we need to be aware of that, not least in order to increase harmony in our relationships. If we are aware that we communicate and process emotions differently then we can learn to adapt and compromise accordingly. Yet, in terms of emotional sensitivity and intelligence one comprehensive study found that there appears to be very little difference overall, but key differences observed, albeit subtle ways.

Researchers from Universities in the Netherlands conducted a test of the emotional sensitivity hypothesis using in a large community sample, including six emotions, displayed at different levels of prototypical responses and intensity. The stimuli included a variety of human and non-human faces, displaying six different emotions, with two levels of intensity. Both male and female models were used without categorisation, as in previous studies. In addition, they explored the relation between self-reported emotional intelligence (EI) and actual emotion perception performance to gauge how this might influence overall evaluation. 5,000 participants took part in the study and a diverse range of recognition stimuli, which means the findings are significant.

The emotional sensitivity hypothesis poses that women are not generally better than men at the detection of facial emotions but much better at perceiving low intensity and less obvious displays of emotions. This also supposes that there is similarity in accessing highly intense displays of emotion.

In fact, the researchers did not find any empirical support for gender differences in the perceived intensity of emotional displays nor in interaction with the intensity of the emotional display. Both men and women came out the same – even with non-human abstractions such as avatars and icons etc. as well as obvious and perceived targets of emotion. Thus, the emotional sensitivity hypothesis was not supported.” [1]

Furthermore, self-perceived emotional intelligence, didn’t predict any significant gender difference regarding the perception of  emotion. Although interestingly, the researchers state: “Men did score lower on self-perceived EI, which suggests that they think of themselves as less confident in perceiving, understanding and regulating emotions than did women. However, this did not affect the intensity ratings of target emotions. In other words, men and women’s self-perceived emotional intelligence is not a reliable predictor of rating the intensity of the intended emotion displays on the face.” [2] [Emphasis mine]

There were gender differences in the perception of subtle or understated emotion – even the absence of it. Men rated such covert emotion as more intense than women – even when there was no emotion from neutral faces and applied to all emotions. They go on to posit some possible reasons why this might be the case.

The apparent inaccuracy of men on this point may be due to less competency in emotion perception, which doesn’t make sense since the findings partly contradict this. What appears more probable as the researchers state: “…men are more focused on subtle facial expressions, and thus perceive more complex emotion profiles on the face. This would suggest that men are better in perceiving emotional complexity.” And also possible that “…men are more uncertain about their emotion perception, and get more easily confused when asked to rate the intensity of several emotions.” [3]

Hardly surprising. These days most men have no idea who they are meant to be and what role they allowed to play.

All in all however, what this shows is a mix of cultural influences and biology at work here, where emotional sensitivity in assessing facial and abstract emotion isn’t a speciality of any one gender. Men could be cued to see complexity in visual emotions since males are wired to be visually focused, but due to cultural stereotypes and the present ambiguity and denigration of male gender roles, distrust this “sixth sense”. For women however, such an analysis wouldn’t necessarily come from the mere appraisal of a visual cue but an interaction with the person, which is why women generally tend to talk out their problems and men seek distance and solitude to ruminate in their own minds.

The upshot of this study is: “there are no gender differences in the perception of target emotions which diverges from various earlier reviews and meta-analyses on gender differences in emotion accuracy”. This may have been the overall conclusion, but there were interesting divergences. Although women’s perceptions were generally more accurate and self-assured, it was men who appeared to be more complex in their evaluations. Which doesn’t say anything about how men and women manage those emotions once perceived.

A study led by professors Dominique de Quervain and Andreas Papassotiropoulos at the University of Basel, reaffirmed findings that while neutral images offered no gender-related differences, emotional images are more emotionally stimulating to women and thus more memorable. This proved that “…emotional processing and memory are due to different mechanisms...” When women from over 3,398 test subjects appraised negative emotional images content this was found to be linked to increased brain activity in motoric regions. “This result would support the common belief that women are more emotionally expressive than men.” [4]

These findings are important for a range of obvious reasons, but most of all, it offers an added dimension for the treatment of neuropsychiatric illnesses which consistently exhibit gender-related differences. This may deliver biological reasons why women are more likely than men to have common mental health problems and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders. [5] Whereas the highest rates recorded for suicide are overwhelmingly from boys and men. [5]

In another study from 2016, heart rate (HR) was recorded as an indicator of emotional experience while participants watched 16 video clips that induced eight types of emotion (sadness, anger, horror, disgust, neutrality, amusement, surprise, and pleasure). Further measures of emotional expressivity were derived from reported valence, arousal, and motivation. Women showed relatively stronger emotional expressivity, particularly for negative emotions, and men had stronger emotional experiences with angry and positive stimuli. The net result was further inconsistency in findings but with gender differences clearly dependent on the specific emotion type but not the valence i.e. the quality of averseness to good or bad., suggesting these are hardwired differences.[6]

In 2017, a large, multinational study was carried out and reported in the Scientific American. Apart from the same patterns of male and female emotional expressivity as found in the above study, it suggested again, much more than just social convention or gender appropriate behaviour was at work. Confirming women’s propensity for greater emotional expressivity (negative and positive) and men’s more anger-based facial behaviors, these data also showed the complexity and nuanced nature of these discoveries. If there are no gender differences to speak of, and it’s all a social construction from “patriarchal domination” why were these findings consistent across several different cultures, across the five nations (US, Germany, UK, China, France) with “the directionality of the data … the same regardless of the country”? [7]

Gender and emotional stereotypes are said by many social science academics to play a dominant role in reconstructing our emotional responses or expressivity yet the analysis find it is inconsistent or veering towards innate. So, let’s look at studies on how we are “wired” using the latest studies on the clear differences in the male and female brain.


Men most often know what they want, yet they are not always sure how they feel. Women most often know how they feel, yet they may not always know what they want.”

Ken Poirot, author / entrepreneur


The Male and Female Brain

For most people it’s common sense drawn from everyday experience that male and female brains are wired differently. The book that drew our attention to this topic back in the 1990s was the self-help book Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus (1992) By John Gray. He took some liberties with those differences by simplifying concepts and behaviour to the point of caricature and dispensed with any inconvenient grey areas. Nonetheless, the advice was constructive and he delivered an accessible (if not entirely correct) bestseller which was highly successful. Clearly, it struck a chord in the populace and cemented the idea that these differences weren’t just in the imagination nor strictly a product of cultural stereotypes.

In 2016, some research published by neuroscientists at the University of California in Los Angeles gave scientific proof by measuring the brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) during blood pressure trials. The results showed men and women have opposite neuronal responses in the right front of the insular cortex, (embedded in the cerebral cortex) a critical area of the brain that controls experience of emotions, blood pressure control and self-awareness. The report states: “…the male brains showed a higher amount of activation in the area, while the female brains showed a lower response.” [8]

According to a raft of data from previous studies which present “road maps” of brain connections, it seems men’s brains may be “hardwired for better special awareness and motor skills, while connections in women’s brains are wired to give them an edge in memory and social cognition.” [9]  It appears a cluster of neurons we know as the amygdala responsible for fear, aggression, emotion, perception and sex hormones, also differs in men and women.

In men, communication between brain regions responsible for motor actions and the visual cortex. Responses are focused outside the body. While in women it communicates to brain regions such as the insular cortex and hypothalamus responding to sensors inside the body. If men were socio-biologically wired to protect, hunt and be on the look at for threats this obviously designs males to be externally prepared. The woman as primary nurturer and social connector, with all the complex regulation needed when it comes to hormones, this also makes sense – to find biological differences designed to cope with these internal stressors.

What’s more, the amygdala is radically different in male and female brains when it comes to connectivity with other parts of the brain. The right amygdala is more active and shows more connections to other areas in the male brain. Whereas in the female brain, these associations are in the left amygdala. An exact mirror opposite. [10]

Back In 2000, the brains of men and women were scanned whilst viewing highly aversive or emotionally neutral films. Lead researcher UC-Irvine professor of neurobiology and behavior Larry Cahill, PhD expected to see strong negative emotions triggered and the resultant imprinting on the amygdala. As predicted, activity in the brain organ predicted the subjects’ later ability to recall the viewed film clips. But the relationship was only seen in the left amygdala in women and in the right amygdala in men. Such data has since been replicated by the professor and others.

Indeed, brain imaging studies over many years have shown that the male amygdala not only works differently to the female but is also a bigger. Conversely, a woman’s hippocampus responsible for learning and memorization, though bigger in the male, also works differently. [11]  Numerous studies have shown females’ brains have a stronger coordinated activity between hemispheres, with males’ brain activity more tightly coordinated within local brain regions. The corpus callosum a cable that connects the hemispheres is bigger in women’s brains than in men’s. Not only that but women’s brains are generally more “bilaterally symmetrical”. [12]

Since the amygdala likely has a large part to play in mental illness this has serious implications for the diagnosis and misdiagnosis of mental illness. As one writer describes: “If, as is likely, the amygdala figures into depression or anxiety, any failure to separately analyze men’s and women’s brains to understand their different susceptibilities to either syndrome would be as self-defeating as not knowing left from right.” [13]

If there are clear “opposite neuronal responses” and polar opposite functionality in men and women’s brains suggesting how we might experience, express and become aware of ourselves through emotion –  what about cognition? Any differences there?  Of course! Emotions give rise to the quality of our thoughts and perceptions so wouldn’t they be effected by our biology as much as our cultural programming?

One 2008 study explored emotional regulation between the sexes using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Researchers asked male and female to use regulate their emotions through reappraisal or to “down regulate” emotional responses to pictures with negative values and associations. On the face of it, men and women behaved in the same way with comparable decreases in their experience of negative emotion. At the neurological level however, clear differences were observed:

  • Compared with women, men showed lesser increases in prefrontal regions that are associated with reappraisal
  • greater decreases in the amygdala, (associated with emotional responding)
  • lesser engagement of ventral striatal regions, which are associated with reward processing.[14]

The researchers propose that men have an “automatic” i.e. hardwired cognitive regulation which means less effort is expended. Women, on the other hand “may use positive emotions in the service of re-appraising negative emotions to a greater degree.” In other words, women use positive emotions to re-invent or rationalise what appears to be negative and thus threatening. This is amounts to a defence mechanism for internal survival so as to limit the negative incursions into an emotional regulatory and parasympathetic system already more sensitized then the male.

The final brain bomb of data to send the mainstream media into a frenzy of speculation was the recent findings on size.  Men have bigger brains than women.

But isn’t that only logical since men are generally bigger than women anyway? There is no suggestion that size equates to greater intelligence as it is the complexity of neural connections between individual brain cells that create cognitive ability and not the total amount of brain tissue. That hasn’t stopped a bevy of commentators (mostly women) from crying foul and citing more evidence of bias within patriarchal science (even though much of this research was from women).

Carried out in 2014 by researchers from University of Cambridge and University of Oxford and published in the NHS peer-reviewed scientific journal, the study researchers collected data from studies between 1990 and 2013 and which provided information on male and female brain volumes and the volumes of specific regions of the brain. published. Statistical analyses were used to combine all the results making sure to adjust for differences between all the studies and any possible biases. The results were as follows: “Males were found to have a larger overall brain volume than women … brain volume was between 8% and 13% larger in a man than a woman.” These volume differences also extended to specific brain regions such as the organs discussed above i.e. the amygdalae and hippocampi; (larger in males) and the insular cortex which was larger for women. [15]

Overall, research from the last ten years alone have shown that while there is no average difference in intelligence, males brains were much more variable mentally and physically compared to female brains. So, what does that mean? Males are more adaptable and flexible? Women are more emotionally dependable? More prone to destabilization? Or none of the above? Research is in its infancy so we will have to wait and see.

For a comprehensive summary of male and female brain differences have a look at 45 Scientific Facts About Differences Between Men and Women. You’ll be under no illusions that a huge percentage of our behaviours have a biochemical component.


“Instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them.”

―Sheryl Sandberg


Neurosexism?

Ideology has even infiltrated neuroscience with allegations of “neurosexism” being levelled at those who are merely exploring tangible evidence that inborn biological traits are common to each gender. But stereotyping only goes so far before ignorance and denial begins to rear its head, or as clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen remarks: “Stereotyping reduces individuals to an average, whereas science recognizes that many people fall outside the average range for their group.” [16]  Which is, if anything, a considerable understatement. It is not as if scientists conducting this research are ruling out social influences – quite the contrary. They think it more than probable that genetic inheritance, the role of genes and culture work in tandem to shape who we are.

To reiterate this doesn’t mean one sex is better or more intelligent – as anyone one who is not ideologically possessed will acknowledge. The facts remain that an enormous body of research carried out over decades has been suppressed due to an intolerant climate of social science which insisted on a particular paradigm. This is reprehensible and unscientific. Thankfully, the balanced is being addressed as there is simply too much biologically based emotional, cognitive and sex-based research to ignore.

You only have to look at animal research to see the same characteristics surfacing in gender/brain studies. Numerous studies continue to dismantle the long held view that gender and behaviour was purely a product of culture:

“In a study of 34 rhesus monkeys, for example, males strongly preferred toys with wheels over plush toys, whereas females found plush toys likable. It would be tough to argue that the monkeys’ parents bought them sex-typed toys or that simian society encourages its male offspring to play more with trucks. A much more recent study established that boys and girls 9 to 17 months old — an age when children show few if any signs of recognizing either their own or other children’s sex — nonetheless show marked differences in their preference for stereotypically male versus stereotypically female toys.” [17]

If it is well established that men and women have different predispositions towards developing different mental health conditions so it surely follows that social conditioning and inculcation from authorities anchored in society are layered onto pre-existing biological substrates. Biology determines how we respond to the latter  – negative or positive – and how such cultural influences interfere and distort the efficiency of those biological systems of regulation and cognition. Not the other way around.

Think of it like this: men and women have largely the same basic hardware but the software instructions and how we use it is significantly different – even to the point of switching terminals, availability of inputs and outputs, memory storage capacity, and size and speed of ethernet cables!

To be aware of that fact should help you respect your own essential nature and those of the opposite sex, whilst exploring ways to elevate your emotions away from auto-instinctive and conditioned responses.

Self-knowledge is creative power.

 

Further reading: Denying the neuroscience of sex differences


Notes

[1] ‘Gender differences in emotion perception and self-reported emotional intelligence: A test of the emotion sensitivity hypothesis’ | https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5784910/
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] ‘Men and women process emotions differently’ Science Daily, January 20, 2015 | https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150120185853.htm | Klara Spalek, Matthias Fastenrath, Sandra Ackermann, Bianca Auschra, XDavid Coynel, Julia Frey, Leo Gschwind, Francina Hartmann, Nadine van der Maarel, Andreas Papassotiropoulos, Dominique de Quervain and Annette Milnik, Sex-Dependent Dissociation between Emotional Appraisal and Memory: A Large-Scale Behavioral and fMRI Study, Journal of Neuroscience (2014) |DOI:10.1523/jneurosci.2384-14.2015
[5] FUNDAMENTAL FACTS ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH 2016 | https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/fundamental-facts-about-mental-health-2016
[6] Ibid.
[7] ‘Gender Differences in Emotional Response: Inconsistency between Experience and Expressivity’ Lei Chang, Meng Yang, Meng Huo, Renlai Zhou, PLOS, National Basic Research Program of China (No. 2011CB505101) and the Key Project of Philosophy and Social Science Research in Colleges and Universities in Jiangsu, June 30, 2016 PLOS | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0158666
[8] ‘A large-scale analysis of sex differences in facial expressions’ Daniel McDuff, Evan Kodra,Rana el Kaliouby, Marianne LaFrance PLOS, April 19, 2017 |https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173942
[9] ‘Male and female brains DO react differently: Scans reveal opposite responses in the area that governs emotions and self-awareness’ By Shivali Best, Daily Mail Online, 14 July 2016 | https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3689820/Are-male-female-brains-wired-differently-Scans-opposite-responses-area-responsible-experience-emotions.html
[10] ‘Emotional Wiring Different in Men and Women’ By Robin Lloyd,livescience.com, April 19, 2006 | https://www.livescience.com/4085-emotional-wiring-men-women.html
[11] ‘Two minds’ -The cognitive differences between men and women By Bruce Goldman, Stanmed, Stanford University | https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] ‘Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: An fMRI Study of Cognitive Reappraisal’ Kateri McRae, Kevin N. Ochsner, Iris B. Mauss, John J. D. Gabrieli, James J. Gross, April 25, 2008, Research Article | https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430207088035
[15] ‘Men’s and women’s brains found to be different sizes’ NHS, February 14 2014 | https://www.nhs.uk/news/mental-health/mens-and-womens-brains-found-to-be-different-sizes/
[16] Baron-Cohen; Simon; The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism
(2004)
[17] op. cit. Goldman

 

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