If you ever have arguments with people of the opposite sex, the following may be the most valuable advice you will receive all year.
In humans, strong emotion starts with physiological changes in your body, not with an awareness of the emotion in your brain. So when somebody pisses you off, your heart rate increases, your adrenaline surges, and your muscles tighten up even before you realize that you’re angry. Or, as William James wrote, “we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” not the other way around.
According to neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, men and women are about the same in the speed with which their physiology gets engaged in strong emotions. However, in women, the nervous system takes a bit longer to “settle down” and return to normal than it does in men.
What this means is that as an argument winds down, a man will start feeling calmer relatively quickly — while a woman’s body remains in an agitated state even after the apparent resolution of the argument. Because everyone’s brain takes cues from the body, her brain realizes it’s still angry. So it starts casting about for other things to be angry about. Bam: Suddenly the argument flares up again, about a new subject.
Sound familiar? Fortunately, once you know about this, it’s not too hard to figure out how to handle it, whether you’re male or female. If you’re a man arguing with a woman, once the argument seems to be winding up, it’s time to say something funny, switch the subject to a completely different (non-controversial) topic, or do something nice for her. If you’re a woman, you need to remind yourself to go chill out, step into a different room, or do something to calm down before you reignite the argument.
Or, as Sapolsky and his wife do, you can just remind each other, “Honey, don’t forget what the half-life is on the autonomic nervous system!”
All this, and even more fascinating neurobiology, can be found in this highly entertaining episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab: Where Am I? The explanation of emotion and physiology is in the first segment, “Phantom Limbs.” Some of the best science radio ever.