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Study: Men and Women Differ in How They Anticipate Unpleasant Emotional Experiences

In a new study, supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust, women showed “heightened neural responses” when anticipating negative experiences, whereas they didn’t experience said heightened neural responses when anticipating positive experiences; men, on the other hand, didn’t show any neural signature when anticipating a negative or positive experience.

Due to the higher neural response when anticipating an emotional event, the study finds that women are likely to remember said emotional event differently than men would.

In an experiment, researchers showed a series of images to fifteen men and fifteen women, and before each image, a symbol was displayed that indicated what kind of image was coming up next — a smiley face for a positive image, a neutral face for a non-emotive image, and a sad face for a negative image. The positive images consisted of “attractive landscapes” and couples holding hands, the neutral images consisted of objects, such as kitchen utensils, and the negative images consisted of violence or disfigurement.

In the time period between the symbol being displayed and the actual image being shown, scientists measured the participants’ electrical brain activity, and after a twenty minute delay, the participants performed a memory task about the images shown. The scientists found that, in women, when a symbol signaled a negative image, brain activity following the cue could predict if the image would be remembered or not.

Doctor Giulia Galli, from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and lead author said:

“When expecting a negative experience, women might have a higher emotional responsiveness than men, indicated by their brain activity. This is likely to then affect how they remember the negative event.

For example, when watching disturbing scenes in films there are often cues before anything ‘bad’ happens, such as emotive music. This research suggests that the brain activity in women between the cue and the disturbing scene influences how that scene will be remembered. What matters for memory in men instead is mostly the brain activity while watching the scene.

This finding might be relevant for psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, in which there is excessive anticipation of future threat and memory is often biased towards negative experiences.”

Doctor Leun Otten, also from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and senior investigator said:

“These findings suggest that women’s enhanced emotional responsiveness extends to the anticipation of unpleasant events, affecting their encoding into long-term memory. Upon anticipation of an unpleasant event, women may spontaneously engage strategies to counter the impact of negative emotions.”

(via Science Daily)

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