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Men and women see things differently

November 30, 2009 |  4:49 pm

Brain-imaging comparisons of men and women viewing the same series of positive and negative images suggest what many of us have long suspected: we think differently. That was the upshot of research conducted by a group of Polish researchers and presented Monday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

When men viewed a lengthy series of images conveying negative events, their brains responded in a way that cues a rapid physical response--say, fight or flight: in men, the pictures evoked a burst of activity in the left insula, a portion of the brain that appears to serve as a kind of tracking station for involuntary physiological responses: as signals such as elevated heart rate, increased sweating or rapid heartbeat are detected, the insula appears to give rise to subjective feelings, which, in turn, serve as a guide for action.

Comparatively speaking, women responded to the same pictures with quieter response in the insular cortex. Instead, researchers noted strong and sustained activity in the women's left thalamus--a relay station for sending sensory information to the brain's cerebral cortex, including pleasure and pain centers. That pattern, said Dr. Andrzej Urbanik, the study's lead author, suggests that women's brains responded to the negative images by trying first to identify and analyse the emotional content of stimuli.

Men's and women's brains responded differently as well to the positive images. As men viewed a series of everyday objects and images intended to evoke positive emotions, their visual processing centers dominated, showing the greatest activity. When women did so, an area of the brain associated with auditory processing and memory--the right superior temporal gyrus-- showed strongest and most extensive activity. Urbanik suggested that "positive images are devoured by men's visual and motivational systems," while women's brains seem wired to analyze positive images in the context of their own memories and social experience.

In an interview, Urbanik said he was surprised by the starkness of the differences he and his colleagues observed in the functional MRIs of 21 men and 19 women. 

--Melissa Healy