The sex of memory

A ground-breaking new study has found that men and women are different! OK, so “ground-breaking” may be overstating it slightly. Perhaps “interesting” would be the mot juste? Oh alright then, it’s a study which has discovered the bleeding obvious but actually, it has found an interesting difference between men and women not previously realised: that memory works in a very different way between the two sexes.

For the research male and female subjects were shown a series of images on a computer screen. The images were of varying intensity when it comes to what psychologists call “valence” (what reasonable folk would call “attraction” [positive valence] or “repulsion” [negative valence] – someone should really do a study into why various academic disciplines need to justify their existence and expertise by appropriating obscure words to describe everyday phenomena…I think I just answered my own question!) . There was also variation in arousal levels of the images, meaning how emotionally provocative they were.

Some of the images were “low valence, low arousal” (like scenes of babies crying), others were “low valence, high arousal” (eg. war photos), some were “high valence, low arousal” (like pictures of kittens), and others were “high valence, high arousal” (such as erotic photos).

The subjects were shown these images and then shown a second round of images which included the same images as the first round plus some new ones. Participants were instructed during the second round to press buttons to indicate whether they had already seen the image or if it was a new one. Their speed and accuracy in doing this was measured and they were also connected to an EEG to measure brain activity and see how their brain was reacting to the task.

The results showed that women found it difficult to remember if they had seen highly arousing images before. However, women found it easier to remember attractive images. By contrast men were better able to remember high arousal images and also “low valence” or unpleasant images such as war photos.

The brain imaging showed that women processed pleasant images in the right hemisphere of the brain whereas men processed those images in the left hemisphere. As a gross simplification, the left side of the brain is deemed the seat of logical operation while the right side is the more creative and intuitive side. So maybe this indicates men are more systematic in their approach to pleasure while women have more emotional attitude? Again that is simplistic so we’ll leave further interpretation of this for dinner table conjecture.

What the overall results do seem to indicate is that women are better disposed to remembering the happy, pleasant times while men are more likely to have an accurate memory of events that are emotionally provocative or unpleasant. There are probably evolutionary roots here in men needing to encode knowledge of enemies and women providing cohesion to the social group. It also might explain why a man’s clicker finger will linger over a Schwarzenegger film while a woman’s tends to stop at Jennifer Aniston or Ashton Kutcher. Mind you, don’t get your hopes up, it just offers an explanation, not a solution to the “clicker wars” which are bound to continue.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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