A new study explains why women are more likely to feel things intensely (and shed more tears) than men do
Okay, be honest: Do you ever cry when you're stressed at work? Have you wept any time in the past month after hearing any of the terrible stories on the news? Do you have a two-pack minimum for tissues anytime you're watching a Nicholas Sparks movie? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be a woman—at least that's how the stereotype goes. We're the sensitive sex, we wear our emotions on our sleeves, we cry for no reason other than we need a good cry. But while we'll be the first to say that there are plenty of women who don't meet this mold, science has discovered that our brains are actually wired to have us react this way.
Canadian researchers had healthy people look at a set of pictures and say whether each image made them feel positive, negative, or neutral emotions, all while recording brain scans and tracking hormone levels. They found that women often ranked a negative image as being much more distressing than the men did. And the higher the testosterone or estrogen levels each had, the more intensely they felt about their rating.
And the difference showed up on the brain scans. In men, communication between he dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC)—which controls how we interpret social situations—and the amygdala—responsible for alerting us to threats—was stronger. The scientists speculated that the stronger the connection, the more the rational dmPFC could talk down the fearful amygdala, resulting in less emotion. And it appeared that testosterone greatly increased that connection. (Find out more about Your Brain On: Crying.)
"It is possible that women tend to focus more on the feelings generated by these stimuli, while men remain somewhat 'passive' toward negative emotions, trying to analyse the stimuli and their impact," said Stéphane Potvin, Ph.D., a researcher at the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale and co-author of the study. (You can seem most of them coming—except these 19 Weird Things That Can Make You Cry.)
So what does all this have to do with your crying jag during The Fault In Our Stars? (Okay, okay, and ours too!) Basically, the researchers said, women are biologically more sensitive to situations that are scary or sad and so we're more likely to feel those emotions—and to feel them more intensely—than men. And the higher your estrogen levels the more emotional you'll feel. (Hello PMS!) This may also explain why women are more likely to have certain mental health issues than men, as women are twice as likely to struggle with depression as men, according to the Mayo Clinic.
However, while many people may think of being overly emoitonal as negative—and certainly there are times when uncontrollable water works aren't appropriate—we'd like to point out that being sensitive and empathetic are good things and there are lots of ways to use them to your advantage. For instance, accepting your emotions and feelings, instead of trying to suppress them can help you Overcome Life's Toughest Situations. Call it a female superpower: We may be sensitive but that doesn't mean we're not tough too!