According to a new study, supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust, the way men and women expect an unpleasant emotional experience differs, which affects the efficiency in which that experience is committed to memory.

The investigation revealed that in negative experiences women heightened neural responses in anticipation, but not in positive ones. The neural response during anticipation was connected to the success of recalling that event in the future. In men, no neural signature was discovered during anticipation in either positive or negative experiences.

Dr Giulia Galli, lead author from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience explained:

“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 memory is often biased towards negative experiences.”

15 women and 15 men were shown a sequence of images in an experiment by investigations. A smiley face for a positive image, a neutral face for a non-emotive image and a sad face for a negative image were shown to the participants before each image was revealed.

Positive images examples included illustrations of attractive landscapes and couples holding hands, while negative images shown included severe disfigurement and extreme violence. Neutral pictures were mostly of objects, for example kitchen utensils.

Investigators measured their electrical brain activity in the period of time between the participant being given the cue and the image being revealed. After a delay of 20 minutes, participants took a memory test about the images they had seen. The results indicated that when the cue showed a negative image, brain activity following the cue could predict if the picture would be remembered or not. This was seen in women, but not men. Before seeing a neutral or positive image electrical brain activity was not different in men or women.

Dr Leun Otten, also from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and senior investigator stated:

“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.”

Written by Grace Rattue