Men Are Wired To Shut Down During Fights

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Clamming up during an argument may be a guy thing after all and could be tied to a dip in activity in the empathy regions of the brain, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of Texas found that men under stress who were shown pictures of angry faces had reduced activity in the parts of the brain that handle understanding other people's feelings.

The brains of women, on the other hand, had the opposite response: heightened activity in the brain regions responsible for empathy and processing other people's facial expressions.

"Experiencing acute stress can affect subsequent activity and interactions in brain regions in opposite ways for males and females," lead author Mara Mather, director of the Emotion and Cognition Lab at USC, said in a statement. "Under stress, men tend to withdraw socially while women seek emotional support."

AOL's mental health expert Dr. Daniel Carlat cautioned against making too much of the findings.

"I tend to be extremely skeptical of these functional imaging studies," he told AOL Health. "We have only the vaguest idea of what it actually means when specific brain regions light up, and the research is in its infancy. So I generally ignore these kinds of studies."

In the article, to be published October 6 in the journal NeuroReport, Mather and her colleagues describe several tests suggesting that under extreme stress, men's brains responded much less to certain facial expressions, namely those of fear and anger, than women's brains did.

Both males and females showed activity in the fusiform face area of the brain, which processes basic visual stimuli, when looking at images of faces. Men and women also registered a response in the regions used for interpreting facial expressions.

But when they were in an acute state of stress, men's brains had diminished activity both in the fusiform face region and in the portions that help people understand what facial expressions mean.

The same brain regions became more responsive in women who were under severe stress while looking at the pictures of faces.

"These are the first findings to indicate that sex differences in the effects of stress on social behavior extend to one of the most basic social transactions—processing someone else's facial expression," said Mather.

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The scientists manipulated participants' levels of the stress hormone cortisol using a measure known as the cold pressor stress test. Stressed men and women were as skilled as the subjects in the control group at remembering the faces, according to the authors.

Though Carlat takes issue with the scientists' methodology, he said the results confirm what previous research has shown.

"We have known through other psychological studies that men, on the average, are less empathic and less emotionally tuned in to others than women," he said. "This study appears to reinforce this well-known finding."

Written by Catherine Donaldson-Evans for AOL Health.