Is attention in women different from attention in men? Leiden researchers and their colleagues in Toronto investigated the effects of the hormone estrogen on spontaneous attention. They were hoping in this way to explain differences between the sexes. Women turned out to only be different from men when they had a high level of estrogen during their menstrual cycle.
Difference in sex, difference in attention
Cognitive psychologist Dr Lorenza Colzato and her colleagues from Leiden University and the University of Toronto had men and women carry out an inhibition task: the subjects had to react as quickly as possible to a stimulus which appeared immediately after a short film on the edge of their field of vision, every time in a different spot. The reaction time normally increases as the interval between the film and the stimulus lengthens. This is due to the fact that the visual attention system gives priority to new locations over old ones, and the return of attention to the old location is inhibited.
Three phases in the menstrual cycle
Women performed the task in three different phases of their menstrual cycle. Men performed the task with the same time intervals. The result turned out to depend on the phase in which women were in their cycle. Women scored in the same way as men when in the luteal phase (after ovulation) and in the menstrual phase. But they differed from men when in the follicular phase, the first half of the menstrual cycle. This is the phase of the menstrual and ovulation cycle which is characterized by a higher level of estrogen.
Difference not structural but dependent
On the basis of these findings, the researchers concluded that differences in random attention between the sexes are not structural, but variable and dependent.
- Lorenza S. Colzato, Jay Pratt, Bernhard Hommel. Estrogen modulates inhibition of return in healthy human females. Neuropsychologia, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.11.003
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