8/8/2012 1:55 PM
Men and women have a few mental, emotional and physiological differences that can cause minor disagreements to turn into major fights.
Guys, have you noticed that, when you fight, your girlfriend stays angry longer than you do? The difference in your tempers is, in part, physiological. (Fellas making guesses: no, it’s not because she has her period, but I triple dog dare you to try sharing that theory the next time you and your girl have a row.)
Our emotions are largely dictated by physical sensations. This was the theory of psychologist William James, who worked in the early 20th century. The example that he gave was the emotion fear: you see a bear in the woods, and your body tenses and releases adrenaline as much as two seconds before your brain registers the visual information (bear!) that would lead to fear. He says that our bodies lead when it comes to telling our brains to feel an emotion.
In an argument, we hear something that in some way threatens our standing in a relationship, our self-esteem or some other factor, and it triggers physiological responses: our stomach clenches, our hearts palpitate. As Robert Sapolsky told listeners on an episode of Radiolab, “our brain picks up these signals and says ‘anger, feel angry!’” And, we do. He noted that, in men and women, this start of this response occurs at the same rate. But, he says, “where there’s an interesting gender difference is in how long it takes to turn off the system.” Men lose the physical sensations associated with anger more quickly than women do, and will seek to end the argument. However, she still feels angry, which can make it harder for her to end the dispute. Often, this can lead to her brain casting around for other things to be mad about, since her body still feels really angry.
But, it gets more complicated than that. Ladies, do you ever feel that your guy turns clueless during an argument? It may not be your imagination. According to Richard Driscoll, who wrote about male and female interactions in You Still Don’t Understand, men become unnerved when faced with female anger and get easily confused during arguments. Researchers at UCLA subjected both men and women to stress and found that, in men, the area of the brain that deals with recognizing emotion in others slowed or shut down. When shown pictures of faces, they were had more difficulty identifying both fear and anger. Women show more activity in that area of the brain while under stress. The researchers theorized that this is because, earlier in our evolution, situations males faced that provoked stress were usually handled by fighting or fleeing, while women’s stressful situations had more to do with preserving community.
Luckily, understanding the flaws in our overlarge brains can help us avoid them. Next time he doesn’t get it or she can’t seem to calm down and let it go, remember that biology is a big factor. Just remind each other, as Sapolsky and his wife do, “Honey, don’t forget what the half-life is on the autonomic nervous system!”