Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Nov 12, 2011
Simultaneous imaging of neural activations of women and men in real-time conversation using fNIRS. Society for Neuroscience, November 12-16, 2011, Washington, D.C. Kaja Jasinska, Gelareh Jowkar-Baniani, Faiza Ahmed, Eve Forster, Shaaista Bhasin, Anthony Naimi, Laura-Ann Petitto* (Gallaudet University) and Kevin N. Dunbar* (University of Maryland) * = Principal Investigators and Corresponding Authors Unless otherwise noted: University of Toronto Scarborough
The idea that “Men are from Mars” and “Women are from Venus” when communicating with one another is an often expressed adage in popular culture. Such gender differences are assumed to be the result of basic brain differences between men and women when communicating. Do men and women communicate and think in fundamentally different ways?
Using a modern brain imaging systems, called functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (or fNIRS), researchers took on this question. The group was led by Cognitive Neuroscientists, Dunbar and Petitto (formerly at the University of Toronto, and now at the University of Maryland and Gallaudet University, respectively), and conducted with their University of Toronto graduate students, led by Kaja Jasinska. In this first-time study, they asked whether the brains of women and men are similar or different while engaged in face-to-face conversation with a rare technological twist: The researchers used not one, but two fNIRS systems, one attached to the female participant’s brain and the other attached to the male participant’s brain.
fNIRS measures changes in the brain’s blood flow in response to different types of experiences and its small size (similar to a desktop computer), silence, and toleration for movement, makes it ideal for studying natural conversation. Eighteen men and eighteen women (3 groups: 9 male-male, 9 male-female, and 9 female-female pairs) first viewed out-of-sequence video clips from an unfamiliar cartoon, and then conversed to place the events into a plausible story.
In terms of building a basic conversation, women’s and men’s overall conversational structures were similar. Also, women’s and men’s brain activity while they reconstructed a story were similar. Both men and women show similar activity in the left and right sides of the brain’s frontal lobe (underneath the forehead)—the heart of human thinking and reasoning—particularly the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC). The DLPFC supports our ability to pay attention to, and maintain, information that we are presently “working on,” termed “working memory,” and the RLPFC supports our ability to integrate and reason about different sources of information.
However, gender did matter! Same-gender pairs (be they male and male or female and female), interacted in more similar ways than mixed gender pairs (a male and a female together). Thus, different brain activity was observed depending on whether men were conversing with men, as compared with men conversing with women. The same held for women when talking to another women, as opposed to talking to a man. Men and women showed different activity in the DLPFC and RLPFC depending on whether they were conversing with a same or opposite gender partner.
The findings suggest that the context of an interaction (same- or mixed-gender) has a major impact on the ways that women’s and men’s brain are activated during conversation. To be sure, whether “Men are from Mars” and “Women are from Venus” appears only to be true when each gender dares to try to reach across the planets and communicate with the other!