It may not provide an answer to why men refuse to stop and ask for directions when they're lost, but new research reveals that pre-pubescent girls and boys may use different parts of their brain as they navigate their way through life.
The new study also reveals that girls may not only be able to better detect small changes in expression but that the different sexes process facial expressions differently. It means, researchers say, that men and women who suffer brain injuries may benefit from being provided with more focused treatments.
While boys and girls performed equally well in identifying facial expressions, researchers found boys use more of the right hemisphere parts of their brain and girls use more of the left. The report will be published in the July issue of Neuropsychology.
Performed Equally, But Differently
"We know that the right brain processes things like special configurations and is responsible for grasping things like geography and knowing where you are — spatial configurations," said one of the authors of the study, Erik Everhart, assistant professor of Psychology at East Carolina University. "Boys and girls performed equally well in the test but boys showed significantly greater right- vs. left-hemisphere activity during the test."
"It's possible that boys process faces at a right-hemisphere level and girls process them at a more local level," Everhart said. "It suggests that girls may be better at making fine distinctions when it comes to processing emotions on face."
The study showed that the brains of boys and girls are organized differently prior to puberty. Earlier research had shown that the brains of adult men and women are organized differently, according to Everhart.
In the study, children viewed images of faces in a slideshow as researchers used an electroencephalograph to measure the children's brain waves in one part of the study. In another part of the study, researchers tallied children's accuracy at identifying the emotions portrayed on the faces and their response times.
Boys' right-hemisphere activity correlated with their accuracy in identifying facial expression, while that didn't hold true for girls.
"They may use differing, though overlapping, neuronal systems to complete the task," the authors wrote.
Does it mean girls are smarter than boys?
Not really, just that they process the world differently.
"The girls' approach could be more of an advantage in detecting the fine changes in affective expression, and they would then be better at reading people," the authors write in the study.
Devastating Effects for Stroke Victims
One practical application of this knowledge for physicians is that men and women who have suffered brain trauma, such as a stroke, could benefit from different therapy.
"If we can find out exactly what the brain is doing differently in men and women, then we can help victims of stroke who sometimes have a problem identifying people and expressions," Everhart said. "It can be really frustrating and incredibly disruptive for people after a stroke or brain injury to have this inability to recognize people or expressions."
The next step for researchers is to study facial recognition on adults to see if the same brain processes occur.