Different effects of stress on the brains of men and women related to empathy

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The different effects of social stress on the brains of men and women are related to their response to empathy for pain, according to a study published this July in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. The study provides evidence that each sex may engage in distinct mechanisms to cope with stress.

Empathy is an essential aspect of social functioning. It allows people to build an understanding and mental representation of other peoples’ emotions and feelings. Research suggests that the brain mechanisms involved in how people empathize with others in painful circumstances involve two distinct responses. Firstly, there is an early emotional response seen in front-central regions of the brain; and secondly, there is a later cognitive evaluation, over the parietal area, where attention is either directed towards or away from stimuli.

As humans are a highly social species and face social stress on a regular basis, it can be expected that stress affects how people react to their environment. Therefore, the extent to which someone empathizes with another in pain is thought to be influenced by social stress.

Within this area, it has been proposed that men and women are distinctively affected by social stress. Men supposedly become more self-oriented, engaging in “fight or flight” behavior, whilst women react by creating and caring for social networks.

The study, led by Cristina Gonzalez-Liencres of Ruhr-University Bochum, involved 60 healthy participants (30 women and 30 men), half of which were exposed to short-term social stress. To measure empathy, researchers recorded the electroencephalography (EEG: which detects electrical brain activity) of the participants, while they observed photographs of hands in painful and neutral situations. Participants also had to fill in an assessment of their empathy in response to the photos and had their cortisol response to stress measured (via saliva samples).

Results revealed that different effects of social stress on the brains of men and women were related to their response to the pain empathy task. The late brain activity, associated with cognitive evaluation, was uniquely associated with a change in cortisol in stressed males. This was despite similar empathy ratings reported by all participants. This suggests that men used more cognitive processes in response to social stress and provides evidence that each sex may engage in distinct mechanisms to cope with stress.

The findings are useful to help understand the unique effects of social stress in men and women, as well as for the separate mechanisms that each sex undertakes to cope with socially stressful situations. This may be useful for understanding psychopathological conditions which are influenced by high levels of social stress.



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