A team of researchers from the University of Montreal has revealed that emotional responses differ between men and women, and that a woman’s memory of an experience is less likely to be accurate than a man’s if it was unpleasant and emotionally provocative.
In the study, published online in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, the researchers compare electrophysiological responses related to emotional memory of photographic material observed in men and women.
“Very few studies have looked at how ‘valence’ and ‘arousal’ affect memories independently of each other, that is to say, how attractive or repulsive we find an experience and how emotionally provocative it is,” said Dr. Marc Lavoie, a co-author on the study and a researcher at University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry and the Fernand-Seguin Research Center of the Louis-H Lafontaine Hospital.
“Our test relied on photos – we found firstly that highly arousing pictures blur women’s capacity to determine whether they’ve seen it before, and secondly that women have a clearer memory of attractive experiences than men. Arousal has an enhancing effect on the memory of men however, as does ‘low valence’ or unpleasantness.”
17 men and 17 women were shown a variety of images on a computer screen that fell into four categories: ‘low-valence and low-arousal’ such as scenes of babies crying, ‘low-valence and high-arousal,’ for example, war photos, ‘high-valence and low-arousal,’ which included pictures of kittens, and finally, erotic photos for the ‘high-valence and high-arousal’ group.
They were then shown a second round of photos that included the same images as the first round and some new ones. The participants had to push buttons to indicate whether they had already seen it or if it was new, and the speed and accuracy with which they responded enabled the researchers to gauge which factors had the most influence. They were also connected to EEG, a system for measuring the brain’s neuron activity, which enabled the researchers to see how their brain was working as they completed the task.
“Interestingly, the scans revealed more activity in the right hemisphere of women’s brains for the recognition of pleasant pictures – the opposite of what we witnessed in men”, Dr. Lavoie said. “This challenges earlier studies using unpleasant pictures that revealed more activity in the left hemisphere for women and in the right hemisphere for men. Our findings demonstrate the complexity of emotional memory and underscore the importance of taking valence, arousal, and sex differences into account when examining brain activity.”