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How men and women process emotions differently

Red and yellow indicate the more active areas of the brain when images are rated as highly stimulating. Green indicates the areas that specifically become more active in women. (MCN, University of Basel)

Women react more intensely to negative images than men, a difference that can be seen even when looking at their brains, a new study finds.

Researchers from University of Basel, whose study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, found that women rated positive and negative images as more emotionally stimulating than men did, and that their brains were more active than men's when viewing negative pictures.

Such findings seem to support a common perception that women are more emotionally sensitive than men "and provides evidence for gender differences on the neural level," said lead author Annette Milnik of the University of Basel.

A total of 3,398 men and women ranging from 18 to 38 years old participated in the study. First, they were shown 72 images of natural scenes that were categorized as positive, neutral or negative. For example, they showed pictures of cute cats (positive), houses (neutral) and accidents (negative).

The participants rated how positive, negative or neutral the images were, and then how emotionally stimulating they were. The women rated the negative and positive images as having more impact than the men did.

To test their memories, the researchers distracted the participants for 10 minutes and then asked them to recall some of the images they saw. Women outperformed men on freely remembering all types of images.

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Researchers also looked at fMRI data from 696 of the participants and found that women had more brain activity, especially in motor regions, than men when they looked at negative images.

It was already known that people tend to better remember emotionally stimulating things and that women outperform men on memory tests. "One could speculate that if women react stronger to arousing information, it could explain part of their memory advantage in comparison to men," Milnik said, which is why they looked into that question.

But women were better at recalling all kinds of images, especially positive ones. "This would suggest that gender-dependent differences in emotional processing and memory are due to different mechanisms," Milnik said in a statement.

Researchers don't know why women's brains were more active than men's when looking at negative images, and whether it's a question of an innate quality or one that's the result of social conditioning. But Milnik said the findings help further the understanding around whether there are gender-specific mechanisms that control intense and shifting emotional responses.

"Women are more likely to develop major depression, anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which are related to emotional dysregulation," she said.

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