When facing a dangerous situation, do you react emotionally or jump to action? The answer may depend on your gender.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study activity in the brain. They uncovered different types of brain activity between men and women when viewing a standardized set of images designed to provoke an emotional response.

“Men may direct more attention to sensory aspects of emotional stimuli, and tend to process them in terms of implications for required action, whereas women direct more attention to the feelings engendered by emotional stimuli,” said Andrzej Urbanik, M.D., Ph.D., chair of Radiology at Jagiellonian University Hospital in Krakow, Poland.

For the study, Dr. Urbanik and colleagues recruited 40 right-handed volunteers, 21 men and 19 women, between the ages of 18 and 36. The volunteers underwent fMRI while viewing pictures from the International Affective Picture System (IAPS), a widely used, standardized testing system comprised of several thousand slides of various objects and images from ordinary life designed to evoke defined emotional states. The images were displayed in two runs. For the first run, only negative pictures were shown. For the second run, only positive pictures were shown.

While viewing the negative images, women showed decidedly stronger and more extensive activation in the left thalamus, which relays sensory information to and from the cerebral cortex, including the pain and pleasure centers. Men exhibited more activation in the left insula, which gauges the physiological state of the entire body and then generates subjective feelings that can bring about actions. Information from the insula is relayed to other brain structures involved in decision making.

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