Gender Differences in Empathy

This post is about the neurobiological gender differences in empathy. For a description and definition of empathy which isn’t always strait forward please read about it in this previous post: Patient Doctor Relationship Series: Empathy. This post is one of many on the subject.

A number of studies suggest that women may be more empathic than man, on average this is obviously true. From experience alone this statement seems reasonable. Nevertheless, some men can be more empathic than women but overall women are more empathic.
A number of brain regions have been suggested to be involved in empathy. Two recent studies were published on brain regions and gender differences in empathy.

Many brain regions are involved in empathy. The strongest evidence suggests the involvement of the medial frontal lobes. Involvement of the right parietal region is also suggested. That’s why some researchers believe that the right hemisphere is more involved in empathy than the “cognitive” left hemisphere. Left versus right brain discussions are summarized in this statement:

And while brain research confirms that both sides of the brain are involved in nearly every human activity, we do know that the left side of the brain is the seat of language and processes in a logical and sequential order. The right side is more visual and processes intuitively, holistically, and randomly. Most people seem to have a dominant side. A key word is that our dominance is a preference, not an absolute

But is this left right brain discussion also involved in gender differences in empathy. Is the right hemisphere more involved in empathy compared to the left hemisphere? Moreover, does this explain that women may be more empathic than man?

While some previous studies have suggested a special role for the right hemisphere in empathy, others have not found this asymmetry. Given the fact that many studies have reported gender differences in empathy, it is quite possible that the relative role of the right hemisphere could differ by gender.

One study examined individual differences in right hemisphere activation and empathy in a large sample to test for possible gender differences. Besides using empathy scales to score the amount of empathy the researchers also used the Levy Chimeric Face Task to measure right hemisphere activation. This test requires participants to choose the happier of two chimeric faces (faces with one side smiling and the other side showing a neutral expression). Previous studies have demonstrated that right-handed participants (regardless of gender) tend to chose the chimeric face with the smile to their left more often than the chimeric face with the smile to their right. The right hemisphere is more susceptible for faces and emotional expression. This causes a bias in attention to the left side of space. This test measures the involvement of the right hemisphere in emotion.

In this study participants tended to pay more attention to the left side of chimeric faces comparable to previous studies and women scored higher in empathy than men. Men and women did differ in the correlation between that task and empathy, as measured
by the empathy scale (MEEQ), suggesting a correlation between right hemisphere activation and empathy in women.

Two difficulties arose during this trial. There was also a significant effect on the testing format. Participants tested in the paper and pencil format showed a stronger leftward bias than those completing the task with the faces projected on to a screen. It’s also possible that the empathy scale used or right hemisphere specialization influenced the outcome.

Another study looked at brain activation during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In short, subjects viewed synthetic emotional faces expressing either fear or anger. They were asked to either concentrate on their own feelings that emerged when they were looking at an emotional facial expression (SELF-task), or evaluate the emotional state expressed by a stimulus face (OTHER-task). After the presentation of each face, a list of four one or two word descriptions appeared on the screen. The task of the subjects was to choose from this list of words the description which best depicted either the emotional state expressed by the preceding face (OTHER-task) or the own emotional response of the subject to the stimulus face (SELF-task)

This was done during fMRI in two separate runs. The data suggest that the mirror neuron system is activated during tasks in both males and females. However, activation was stronger in females in the right inferior frontal cortex. This region is also one of the regions with mirror neurons. Females recruit regions containing mirror neurons to a higher degree than males. Males rely more on the left temporoparietal region.

In conclusion females use different strategies for assessing emotions than males. It could be that men more often use the left cognitive hemisphere in empathy and women the more emotional parts such as the mirror neurons in the right hemisphere. Again on average. These are correlation studies not causation studies. What do you think?