Sex differences in the neural correlates of affective experience

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Abstract

People believe that women are more emotionally intense than men, but the scientific evidence is equivocal. In this study, we tested the novel hypothesis that men and women differ in the neural correlates of affective experience, rather than in the intensity of neural activity, with women being more internally (interoceptively) focused and men being more externally (visually) focused. Adult men (n = 17) and women (n = 17) completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging study while viewing affectively potent images and rating their moment-to-moment feelings of subjective arousal. We found that men and women do not differ overall in their intensity of moment-to-moment affective experiences when viewing evocative images, but instead, as predicted, women showed a greater association between the momentary arousal ratings and neural responses in the anterior insula cortex, which represents bodily sensations, whereas men showed stronger correlations between their momentary arousal ratings and neural responses in the visual cortex. Men also showed enhanced functional connectivity between the dorsal anterior insula cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which constitutes the circuitry involved with regulating shifts of attention to the world. These results demonstrate that the same affective experience is realized differently in different people, such that women’s feelings are relatively more self-focused, whereas men’s feelings are relatively more world-focused.

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