2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Cofounder and Director, The Science Network; Neuroscience Researcher, Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD; Coauthor, The Origin of Minds; Creator PBS Science Programs
Cofounder and Director, The Science Network; Neuroscience Researcher, Center for Brain and Cognition, UCSD; Coauthor, The Origin of Minds; Creator PBS Science Programs

The Women of the 110th Congress

I am optimistic about the record number of women who will come to Washington in January 2007 as members of the 110th Congress —16 Senators and 71 Representatives. Only 20 years ago, there were just two female Senators and 23 Representatives. Now, the Speaker of the House is a woman, second in the line of succession to the Presidency. Why do I think this Ascent of Women is cause for optimism? Because I believe we need a lot more social smarts—particularly empathy—in the corridors of power and the brains of our political leaders; and current evidence indicates that, in general, the female brain is intrinsically a more proficient empathizing device.

One example. About a year ago, Tania Singer (then at University College London, now at the University of Zurich) published a study on the neural processes underlying empathy. As one rather lurid headline described the work: "Revenge Replaces Empathy in Male Brain. Watching bad guys suffer lights up the mind's reward centers for men." The experiment involved imaging the brains of a group of male and female volunteers while they played a monetary investment game based on trust. A few of the players were actors, planted to play fairly or unfairly.

Subsequently, the actors were zapped with a mild electric shock, while the other players watched. When an actor who had played fair was shocked, both female and male volunteers felt their pain: fMRI images showed empathic activation of pain-related areas of their brains—specifically in the insular and anterior cingulate cortices. But when the unfair actor was shocked, the sexes reacted differently. The females still showed a surge of empathy; the males didn't. Instead, their reward areas lit up. The German word for this feeling—schadenfreude—roughly translates as taking pleasure in the misery of others. The researchers' conclusion, based on the scanning and on the comments from post-experiment questionnaires, was that "men expressed a stronger desire for revenge than women".

Twenty years ago, in a PBS program called The Sexual Brain, I explored male-female differences. It was quite clear then (and has since become even more evident) that anatomically, chemically and functionally the brains of men and women have some significant differences. To what extent these variations drive or map on to differences in cognition and behavior remains controversial (ask Larry Summers). But we know, for example, that men have a proportionally larger amygdala than women  and women have a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex.

There's evidence, too, that women have a proportionally larger anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula than men. From quite recent brain imaging studies, we now know that these areas are important components of the circuitry that underpins our ability to process complex social emotions, ‘read' the faces and minds of the people we encounter as we navigate through social space, understand and predict their behavior, make moral judgments and empathize. (Of course, everything I am saying should have the usual scientific safety net of caveats—the differences exist at the level of populations, not individuals; cultural factors play an important role; etc.)

So what does this have to do with my optimism about the women of the 110th Congress? Would women govern differently than men?

That's exactly the question that Geneva Overholser posed in The New York Times in 1987 just after Margaret Thatcher won a new term as British Prime Minister. Overholser noted that Thatcher —like the few other women who were national leaders—operated in a male-dominated political arena and basically behaved no differently in office from men.

"Would that be true," Overholser asked, "if the number of women in high office better reflected their share of the population? Would they then govern differently, feeling more comfortable and secure as women?" She turned to the example of Norway, where the Prime Minister—Gro Harlem Brundtland—was a woman (and, incidentally, a physician). Of 17 Cabinet ministers, seven were women. And the consequences were dramatic. One example: Despite huge spending cuts, the Norwegian government actually increased child care subsidies and paid parental leave. In Norway's case, the answer to Overholser's question was: "Probably, if enough came to power."

In The Sexual Brain, I asked: "Is it wise for males to confront each other across an arms control negotiating table? Is global security enhanced in an atmosphere charged with testosterone?" Today, more women have had seats at that negotiating table—think of Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice in the United States, Margaret Beckett (first female Foreign Secretary) in the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel (first female Chancellor and, incidentally, a physicist) in Germany. But the questions remain. Is it inherently bad that males experience schadenfreude—or is a taste for revenge a valuable prerequisite for dispensing justice?  Is it admirable that females have more empathy for a cheater in pain  —or a regrettable sign of weakness? Kinder maybe. Gentler maybe. But the best way to run a country?

I am optimistic that the answer to questions like these will eventually emerge from the synergy of science and society. Our relatively recent ability to image activity inside the human brain is a giant step forward and will allow us to better understand individual differences. I view a science of empathy as a realistic prospect: data will replace simplistic slogans (like Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus) as a basis for making social decisions. And I am optimistic that the social sophistication that a larger number of female legislators can bring to the 110th US Congress can help create "a more perfect union, insure domestic tranquility and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity".