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At a press conference in Australia earlier this month, the Dalai Lama called for more leaders with compassion. The Dalai Lama is famous for engaging in dialogue with scientists and provoking them to study the impact of meditation on the brain.
But does science support his argument that women are intrinsically more compassionate than men? Psychologists generally tend to cringe at such strong black-and-white statements since we know that data usually do not support such claims. Although differences have been detected for example, women appear to make greater use of both hemispheres of the brain and therefore have a slightly thicker corpus callosum—the part of the brain that bridges the two hemispheresthe differences are subtle and there is no single area of the brain that we can say clearly distinguishes a male brain from a female brain.
Moreover, whether they are researching animals or humans, males or females, scientists find that compassion is innate and instinctual across the Compassion for woman. Research with both animals and humans shows that we naturally have an impulse to help others who are suffering.
In short, compassion is natural and no gender differences have emerged across these studies.
We might just be prone to seeing compassion through a feminine lens, and so miss the ways in which men try to alleviate suffering. In self-report questionnaires, women do, in general, report experiencing more compassion in their lives than men report doing.
This self-reported difference in compassion expression is probably due to different socialization processes. A large body of research has shown that men and women have very different experiences and that they are socialized extremely differently as of infancy.
Think about girls who are handed dolls and baby carriages to play with suggesting nurturing and caring behaviors and boys who are handed superheroes and toy soldiers suggesting fighting, and protecting behaviors.
Socialization may in turn have impacted how men and women learned to communicate emotions such as kindness and compassion. They were also asked to guess what emotion was being communicated when their partner touched their hand. When both partners were men, the odds of them guessing that the emotion being communicated was sympathy was no greater than chance. When at least one of the participants was a woman, however, participants were more accurate.
Another reason women may have learned to express compassion more easily emerges from the work of Shelley Taylorat UCLA, who found that men and women respond differently to stress. These differences may have certainly have trained women to express compassion more explicitly.
However, a new study by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans suggests that men, too, also can respond to stress through social bonding. Research does find neurobiological differences in the experience of compassion. Oxytocin is produced during sex for both men and women but is particularly important during childbirth. It is produced in women during labor and lactation in women and is believed to trigger bonding and nurturing behaviors.
One brain imaging study found that men and women appear to differ with regards to their Compassion for woman activation during compassion. He asked participants to lie in an fMRI scanner and showed them sad images meant to elicit compassion. Both men and women reported experiencing the same levels of compassion in response to the photographs. However, the regions of the brain activated in men were different than those in women. While this study does not suggest that one gender experiences compassion more than the other, it does suggest that the genders may differ in how compassion is experienced and expressed.
One reason we might think that women are more compassionate than men is that we think of compassion in only one way: nurturance, kindness, softness, gentleness, and emotional warmth. We think of compassion in mostly feminized terms. However, expressions of deep compassion are not always nurturing or Compassion for woman. Think of the many heroic acts that happen daily in which people throw themselves into dangerous situations to help others.
These are fierce, courageous, and even aggressive forms of compassion. Rather than suggesting that women are more compassionate than men, I would argue that they can differ in their expression of compassion. Generalizations are generally never accurate.
We all engage in both nurturing and fierce expressions of compassion. Think of a mother who yells and roughly pulls her child away from oncoming traffic fierce compassion or male military service-members who hold each other in grief after the loss of a friend nurturing compassion. Love, compassion, kindness are natural to all of us, men and women, in their varied forms of expression. Rather than asking whether men or women are kinder or compassionate, the question should rather be: What are the myriad beautiful forms in which compassion expresses itself?
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Study of Emotion: Women’s Brains Are Wired for Compassion