If you have ever wondered why your guy appears to just shut down in a stressful situation, this study published in NeuroReport offers some cool insight—and suggests that it may in fact be a “guy thing.” Researchers had men and women look at pictures of angry faces, and found that the brain areas responsible for visual processing and interpreting and understanding facial expressions became super active in both sexes. Then, they stressed everyone out and found that in men both areas showed significantly less activity whereas in women (bet you can guess) it caused increased activity in these areas. Interestingly, these marked and completely opposite sex-differences had nothing to do with memory (both sexes were equally good at remembering the faces). And stress levels (as indicated by a measure of the sex hormone cortisol) were no different, suggesting that men and women were equally stressed but their brains were reacting differently.
This study lends some scientific support to a phenomenon that most of us have witnessed time and time again—how we tend to react differently than men under situations of work, home and general life stress. It also offers a novel biological perspective into why men tend to withdraw under times of stress and are less likely to reach out for help when they are struggling whereas women reach out to others for support during difficult times. Perhaps it’s evolutionary (it would not have been beneficial for cavemen to react outwardly stressed in scary situations) so our brains evolved differently. Or maybe it’s social (men get reinforced early on for appearing “brave” and stoic”) and our brains develop accordingly. Either way, it is incredibly interesting to witness this brain science play out in real life—and now we have an idea as to why it may happen.
Orsha Magyar, M.Sc., B.Sc., RHN
Mather M, Lighthall NR, Nga L, Gorlick MA, 2010. Sex differences in how stress affects brain activity during face viewing. Neuroreport. 21(14):933-7. (Original Research Article)
Lighthall NR, Sakaki M, Vasunilashorn S, Nga L, Somayajula S, Chen EY, Samii N, Mather M, 2012. Gender differences in reward-related decision processing under stress. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 7(4):476-84.