20 May 2013

Why don't men understand women?

Men might have found themselves an excuse not to listen to women. New research suggests that men have twice more difficulty reading emotions in women than in men. This may not sound surprising, but evidence that men have trouble understanding women is, at best, scarce.

Being able to guess someone else’s thoughts, feelings and intentions is an instinctive social skill that develops in early childhood. We might take it for granted, but people who struggle or are unable to read other people, like people with autism spectrum disorders, have serious problems in communicating and interacting socially. This important ‘mindreading’ trait, so far thought to be unique to our species, recruits a complex brain network. Different, but partially overlapping, brain regions are activated when we perceive mental states like beliefs, intentions or desires (mentalizing) and when we ‘feel’ the emotions of another person (empathy).

In a new PLoSONE study, Boris Schiffer’s research group at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, investigates whether there are differences in neural activation when men recognise emotions in women when compared to men.

The researchers asked 22 healthy adult men to do a modified version of the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ (RME) test while their brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The RME test has been used in countless studies to measure mentalizing and empathy (you can take the test here). In this study, each participant had to guess what either a man or a woman in a photo was thinking or feeling from looking only at his or her eyes. For each of the 36 pairs of eyes, there was a choice of two mental states, for instance ‘terrified’ or ‘upset’. The participants performed better in the test when the eyes belonged to men, suggesting that men have greater difficulty in recognising mental states in women than in their own gender. But the question is… why? The fMRI readings shed some light into this.

Schiffer and colleagues predicted that recognising mental states in male or female eyes would activate brain areas involved in mentalizing and empathy, and this is what they found. But there was more. Some areas were more active when the participants were guessing emotions in men, and others when they were recognising emotions in women. It isn't clear what these results mean though. As these differently activated brain regions have in one way or another previously been involved in memory, the authors speculate that they are recruited to retrieve either autobiographical emotional memories (when the participants look at male eyes) or memories of past encounters with women (when they look at female eyes). But this doesn’t explain why men have more difficulty in perceiving women’s emotions. There was, however, another clue in the fMRI readings. Just looking at male eyes, without having to do any particular task, activated the amygdala, which is a brain region associated with processing of emotions and empathy.

The authors suggest that when men respond to their own gender, emotion and empathy brain networks are recruited (because men can more easily relate to other men), and this might enhance their ability to perceive mental states. A few studies support this idea. For instance, one study showed that men are better than women at recognising angry faces in men. Schiffer and colleagues further speculate that in evolutionary terms, ‘it makes more sense’, they claim, that we should be better at mentalizing about people that are most similar to us. This would have been particularly important for men in the ‘ancient times’, the authors add, as men were hunting and fighting for territory and it was advantageous for them to predict the intentions of their male rivals. But while this is an attractive hypothesis, it remains rather speculative.

And what about women? The main lingering question from this research is perhaps whether women are also better at reading mental states in individuals of their own gender. According to the authors, the prediction is that they should. So men should not be too quick to blame their gender for not understanding the opposite sex- this may backfire.

Schiffer B., Pawliczek C., Müller B.W., Gizewski E.R., Walter H. & Krueger F. (2013). Why Don't Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes, PLoS ONE, 8 (4) e60278. DOI:

This article was published in Lab Times on 15-05-2013. You can read it here.

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