Tuesday, February 24, 2009

When it comes to appreciating art, men and women really do think differently, research shows

While women use both sides of their brain, men only use the right half to judge if a piece of work is beautiful, a team of scientists discovered. This may reflect the different ways men and women's minds have evolved - men tend to focus on the big picture while women take in "local" details too. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports the findings. Professor Francisco Ayala, from the University of California Irvine, and colleagues asked 10 men and 10 women to judge the beauty of artists paintings and photographs of urban and rural landscapes. At the same time, the researchers measured the magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brains of the volunteers. This revealed that both men and women were using a part of the brain associated with spatial awareness, called the parietal lobe. However, while women used both right and left sides, men used only the right parietal lobe. The researchers suggest that this is because women are contextualizing the information and thinking more about the details of what they are seeing, assessing the position of objects according broad categories, such as "above" or "below", or "left" or "right". The men, they say, are focusing on the overall image using a more precise form of mental mapping. And they say the differences may have evolved millions of years ago when early humans became hunter gatherers. Hunting, traditionally done by men, required a "co-ordinating" ability to track animals accurately while on the move. A "categorical" spatial awareness was better suited to foraging for fruit, roots or berries, a job mainly carried out by women. "Women tend to be more aware than men of objects around them, including those that seem irrelevant to the current task, whereas men out-perform women in navigation tasks," the scientists told PNAS. "Men tend to solve navigation tasks by using orientation-based strategies involving distance concepts and cardinal directions, whereas women tend to base their activities on remembering the location of landmarks and relative directions, such as 'left from', or 'to the right of'." The different ways men and women mapped the world appeared to influence their perception of beauty, they believe. Professor Friedermann Pulvermuller, an expert in brain studies at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, said: "This is an interesting study. We know for sure that there are differences between the male and female brain. The connections between the two hemispheres is better developed in females generally. So the findings are in agreement with what we know, but we would need more work before we could make any firm conclusions."

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