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Mindful : February 2016
Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, right? Maybe not. Research suggests these differences are overstated. Most of us think women’s brains are geared for empathy while men’s brains play dead when they have to interpret and process emotions. But the truth is, in fact, quite a bit messier—despite what some of the research claims. The ability to feel what others feel and intuit their emotions from their body language, tone of voice, and other indirect clues is not only something that women are suppos- edly better at than men, but one that reflects (some researchers contend) hardwired sex-based differences in the brain. Among the cadre of scien- tists who study this, the empathy gap is considered strong evidence for “the essential difference” between female and male brains, namely, that female brains are good at sympathizing and male brains at using logical thinking to classify and analyze the world. Here’s the first mess: measures of empathy are as hard to pin down as a puddle of mercury. When questions are obviously about empathy (can you easily tell if someone is unhappy but putting on a brave face?), women score themselves much higher than men do. But when researchers ditch self-re- port questionnaires and put subjects in situations that actually test their empathizing and logic abilities, men and women score about equally. Why the different results from different experimental set-ups? Pink Brains, Blue Brains? Psychology researcher Cordelia Fine of the University of Melbourne suggests that because we’re all steeped in society’s image of our sex, a well-established phenomenon called “stereotype threat” kicks in: When reminded of stereotypes about our sex, race, or nationality, we generally conform to them. (Women asked to think about their gender—“girls can’t do math”—before a math test, for instance, do worse than otherwise.) That may be happening with mea- sures of empathizing: when women are reminded that their sex is reputed to be empathic, and men that they’re emotional clods, both sexes are unconsciously motivated to say they meet that expectation. Motivation, too, has a bigger effect on many abilities than sex. When men were told that women are sexually → Sharon Begley is a senior science writer with The Boston Globe Media Group, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. 18 mindful February 2016 brain science Illustration by Sébastien Thibault