Study of Emotion: Women's Brains Are Wired for Compassion

Brain-scan research from Mexico suggests women’s neural systems respond more robustly to images that evoke compassion.
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Brain-scan research from Mexico suggests women’s neural systems respond more robustly to images that evoke compassion.

Nearly everyone agrees that women, on the whole, are more compassionate than men. In a 2008 Pew research poll, 80 percent of Americans expressed that view.

Is this a sexist stereotype? Apparently not. Newly published brain-imaging research suggests that, in this case, conventional wisdom is correct.

It finds women’s brains process compassion differently than men’s, apparently due to the distinctive way our respective neural systems evolved.

“Our results suggest that compassion mechanisms evolved differentially in women, probably in connection with social skills including maternal preverbal communication and emotional responses to helpless offspring,” a research team led by Roberto Mercadillo of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Neurobiology writes in the journal Brain and Cognition.

Mercadillo and his colleagues describe an experiment featuring 12 women and 12 men. As the participants viewed a series of 100 photographs, their brains were scanned using fMRI technology. Every second image was one that evoked compassion (according to previous research). Examples included sad human faces, war scenes and depictions of famine.

“No gender differences were observed in the frequency of reported compassionate experiences,” the researchers report. However, what was happening in the participants’ brain told a different story. As the compassion-evoking photos were viewed, activity was observed in two areas of the brain — the thalamus and the putamen, part of the basal ganglia — in women but not in men.

“Also, women showed a greater activation in the cerebellum, a structure governing fine movement control that is also involved in judgment, selective attention and affective experiences,” they report. “The cerebellum may play a role in the decision to execute helping actions.”

Like, say, reaching for one’s checkbook in response to an appeal for donations.

“The present findings indicate that women accomplish the complex emotional-cognitive process defined as compassion through a more elaborate brain processing than men by engaging prefrontal and cingulated cortices,” the researchers write. “The results agree with gender differences reporting a greater emotional sensitivity in women when viewing aversive and suffering situations.”

So ladies: When the men in your life seem insensitive to suffering, try not to respond with scorn. The problem, according to this study of emotion, is one of brain circuitry. It shouldn’t be hard to take pity on them; after all, you have an enormous capacity for compassion.

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