Man’s emotional blind spot

A man’s inability to understand his female counterpart appears to be a plague of endemic proportions. But what makes the fairer sex so difficult to understand? After all, women aren’t from Venus and men aren’t from Mars; we’re from the same planet, sure, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a language barrier. A study, published in PLoS ONE at the end of March, reveals that men struggle to process emotion from female eyes in the same way they can for their male companions. Seemingly, some essentials are lost in translation.

The study, led by Dr. Boris Schiffer of LWL-University Hospital Bochum in Germany, used the functional MRI scans of 22 men faced with pairs of eyes from both genders, expressing various positive, negative and neutral expressions. The task was to simply match the expression with the correct emotion. Unsurprisingly, men found it twice as difficult to decode female eyes, but showed no struggle in identifying with their male comrades.

A closer look at neural regions in action over the course of this decision-making revealed why this may be so: when looking at male eyes, the men’s right amygdala and limbic region showed heightened activation. These areas, including the hippocampus and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, have a proven association with emotional memory, so men are well-equipped to gauge how each other are feeling. Looking at women’s eyes seems to be a different story: these regions of the brain aren’t activated, so men don’t look back on their own memories in the same way; hence facing a disgruntled pair of female eyes doesn’t elicit an equivalent response. Whether women experience similar difficulty was, perhaps significantly, not examined.

The authors propose that this phenomenon, while often getting the contemporary man into trouble, was crucial in getting our ancestors out of it. The eyes are crucial in processing how others are feeling, and by being able to interpret them well, men could thrive when confronted with territorial fighting or hunting. “From an evolutionary point of view, accurate interpretations of other men’s, rather than women’s, thoughts and intentions may have been a factor contributing to survival,” says Dr. Schiffer. “It would have been important for them to able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals.”

So there you have it. A little off topic I know, but interesting nonetheless. Will this discovery prove to be a get-out-of-jail-free card for the poor souls who mistakenly agreed, “Why yes, your bum does look big in that”?

Somehow, I think not…

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