Male And Female Brains Just Aren't In Sync, Stanford University School of Medicine Study Reveals
Studies have long shown that when faced with a problem that must be solved by cooperating with others, males and females approach the task differently. Now, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered how those differences are reflected in brain activity.
When the researchers asked people to cooperate with a partner and then tracked the brain activity of both participants, they found that males and females had different patterns of brain activity.
The new findings, published online June 8 in Scientific Reports, could offer some clues into how cooperative behavior may have evolved differently between males and females, and could eventually help researchers develop new ways to enhance cooperative behavior.
“It’s not that either males or females are better at cooperating or can’t cooperate with each other,” said the study’s senior author, Allan Reiss, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of radiology. “Rather, there’s just a difference in how they’re cooperating.”
Women vs. men
Cooperation — between family members, friends, coworkers and even governments around the world — is viewed as a cornerstone of human society. But not everyone cooperates equally, as anyone who’s worked on a group project knows. And one factor shaping a person’s approach to cooperation: sex. Previous behavioral studies have found that women cooperate more when they’re being watched by other women; that men tend to cooperate better in large groups; and that while a pair of men might cooperate better than a pair of women, in a mixed-sex pair the woman tends to be more cooperative.
Theories have circulated about why this is, but the brain science behind them has been scarce. “A vast majority of what we know comes from very sterile, single-person studies done in an MRI machine,” said Joseph Baker, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford and a lead author of the study. The other lead author is research associate Ning Liu, PhD.
To figure out how cooperation is reflected in the brains of men and women who are actively cooperating — rather than just thinking about cooperating while lying in a machine — the Stanford researchers turned to a technique called hyperscanning. Hyperscanning involves simultaneously recording the activity in two people’s brains while they interact. And instead of using an MRI that requires participants to lie perfectly still and flat, the scientists used near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS, in which probes are attached to a person’s head to record brain function, allowing them to sit upright and interact more naturally.