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Women and men anticipate negative experiences differently, study suggests


New research suggests that men and women differ in the way they anticipate an unpleasant emotional experience, and that this influences the effectiveness with which the experience is committed to memory.

In the study, supported by the Wellcome Trust, women showed heightened neural responses in anticipation of negative experiences but not positive ones. The neural response during anticipation was related to the success of remembering that event in the future. No neural signature was found during anticipation of either positive or negative experiences in men.

Dr Giulia Galli, lead author from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said: "When expecting a negative experience, women might have a higher emotional responsiveness than men, indicated by their brain activity. This is likely to then affect how they remember the negative event.

"For example, when watching disturbing scenes in films there are often cues before anything ’bad’ happens, such as emotive music. This research suggests that the brain activity in women between the cue and the disturbing scene influences how that scene will be remembered. What matters for memory in men instead is mostly the brain activity while watching the scene.

“This finding might be relevant for psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, in which there is excessive anticipation of future threat and where memory is often biased towards negative experiences.”

Researchers showed a series of images to 15 women and 15 men. Before each image was revealed, the participants were shown a symbol that indicated what kind of image they were about to see: a smiley face for a positive image, a neutral face for a non-emotive image and a sad face for a negative image.

Examples of the negative images shown to the study participants include severe disfigurement and extreme violence. Positive images included depictions of attractive landscapes and couples holding hands. Neutral images were mainly of objects, such as kitchen utensils.

In the time between the participant being given the cue and being shown the image, the researchers measured their electrical brain activity. After a 20-minute delay, participants’ memories of the images were tested. The results showed - on women, but not in men - that when the cue had signalled an imminent negative image, brain activity following the cue could predict whether the image would be remembered. Neither women nor men showed any difference in electrical brain activity before seeing neutral or positive images

Dr Leun Otten, senior investigator, added: “These findings suggest that women’s enhanced emotional responsiveness extends to the anticipation of unpleasant events, affecting their encoding into long-term memory. Upon anticipation of an unpleasant event, women may spontaneously engage strategies to counter the impact of negative emotions.”


Gall G et al. Sex differences in the use of anticipatory brain activity to encode emotional events. J Neurosci 2011 [epub].


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