Brain takes emotional sides for sexes

Men’s and women’s brains may adopt different approaches to fostering memories of emotional experiences, according to a report in the January Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

The amygdala, an almond-shape structure found on each side of the inner brain, appears to handle emotionally charged memories exclusively in the right brain side for men and solely in the left brain side for women, says a team of neuroscientists led by Larry Cahill of the University of California, Irvine. The researchers plan to look for additional neural structures and connections linked to emotional memories in each sex.

In the new study, 11 men and 11 women watched two documentary films, one containing emotionally neutral images and the other showing material meant to elicit fear and other negative feelings. During each viewing, a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner tracked brain activity by measuring how much sugar was consumed by cells throughout the brain.

While the location of amygdala activity differed for men and women, the sexes reported comparable emotional reactions to each film and showed similar memories for film content 3 weeks later.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.