Photo: Flickr/Siggi Churchill
Psychiatrists have concluded that males take longer to assess facial expressions as their brains have to work twice as hard to work out whether another person looks friendly or intelligent.Researchers from Edinburgh University said that it confirmed the “old folk wisdom” about the abilities of both sexes to “empathise, emote and process social stimuli”.
“Our findings suggest that men have developed strategies to cope with their lesser natural empathy by over-activating the parts of the brain that understand social cues,” said Prof Stephen Lawrie, who led the study.
“As this pattern is also seen in people with autism-linked conditions, it suggests we could devise new tools to help patients learn social rules and enhance their skills for engaging with other people.”
Researchers used brain scans to study an individual’s reaction while several expressive faces were flashed before them.
Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), participants were split into three groups; women, men, and men with Asperger’s syndrome, a disorder that makes understanding others more difficult.
In the study, published in PLOS One, brains were scanned as they came up with their answers and their responses were timed.
Prof Lawrie, the university’s head of psychiatry, said it was designed to give the men enough time to come up with the correct answers.
But, faced with snap decisions in real life, they might start misjudging others’ thoughts.
“We chose relatively strong expressions so slowish blokes could do it,” said Prof Lawrie.
“If we had been more subtle, some of the men might have started going wrong.”
The MRI scans suggested which areas of the brain were activated when the volunteers were asked to decide whether the faces they were shown looked trustworthy, approachable or intelligent.
Both groups of men experienced increased blood flow to the part of the brain responsible for social function.
They concluded that women reacted more quickly than men to the feelings on show, and autistic men had to work hardest to “read” the emotions.
Prof Lawrie said that for men to achieve the same results as women in social situations, they probably had to think harder.
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