In my experience, when it comes to emotional intelligence women are naturals. This is not only a widespread cliché; it can also be explained biologically.
In the human brain there are specific regions for emotions and rational thinking in each hemisphere of the brain. Among women, the two halves of the brain are better connected, which enables women to quickly translate emotions into purpose-driven, rational action. Vice versa, a rational thought can more easily lead to strong emotions among women. For example, a woman is much more likely to stop eating meat after seeing an appalling TV documentary about the conditions of slaughterhouses in Germany (emotion leads to rational action). On the other hand, the news that ones best friend is pregnant or finally got a higher paying job can elicit tears of joy (rational information leads to emotion). Among prototypical males, this type of behavior isn’t as common or pronounced.
It is not only the better cooperation of the two brain hemispheres which enables women to develop emotional intelligence, it is also thanks to the network of “mirror neurons”, which are located throughout the brain. These neurons have only one task: recognizing the emotional messages expressed by your communication partner and eliciting the same emotions in your own mind. However, normally there is “affective resonance”; i.e. you don’t just recognize the emotions of your vis-á-vis, you also feel the emotions yourself – sadness leads to empathized sadness, and anger leads to anger (sometimes we get angry in solidarity with the other person; sometimes our anger is directed towards our vis-á-vis). This is a biological mechanism which is responsible for the social phenomenon of empathy.
This system of the mirror neurons is trained through intensive social interaction with other people and in particular by interacting with small children and babies, who initially communicate almost exclusively with non-verbal, emotional messages. Young girls seem to often intuitively prefer social games (dolls, playing “house”), which train their mirror neuron systems; while boys, at least in our patriarchal world, frequently prefer technical toys or games based on movement, which train other brain skills. Empathy is the possibility to understand the needs of others without words. It is the trigger for understanding, compassion and the ability to consider things from a different perspective. It motivates us to help, protect, care for and to trust others.
Among other things, empathy explains why there is such a high percentage (over 90%)of women in social professions such as nursery school teachers, nurses and carers for the elderly. At the same time, in our patriarchal world, these career groups are among the lowest paid. What a telling symptom of the patriarchy, that the ability to operate and maintain machines and technical equipment is considered to be more valuable than the ability to care for people and look after their well-being. This is enough to make me sad, but it is only one of many unbelievably misanthropic symptoms of the patriarchy.
Is it simply a lack of empathy and affective resonance which prevents men from standing up against these forms of injustice towards women?
Robert Anatol Stein
(c) all rights reserved by Robert Anatol Stein, 2013