This USA Today headline is one of the most annoying I’ve seen in a while:
It’s true: Menstruation does affect women’s emotions
And no, I’m not irked because I’m PMSing. In fact, if it’s not TMI, I’m in the “follicular phase,” which the study cited in this article claims is the least emotional phase of women’s cycles!
Here’s what the study actually found.
Researchers used MRI to study the brains of women who viewed a series of pictures and rated them as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. This test was repeated at different stages of the women’s menstrual cycles.
In the early follicular stage of the menstrual cycle, no areas of the women’s brains showed significantly increased activation while viewing the pictures. But during the midpoint of their menstrual cycle, when hormone levels were higher, the women had increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain involved in processing emotional information, the researchers found.
So no, it’s actually not menstruation that makes women more emotional, assuming the study’s findings turn out to be valid. It’s ovulation! And the hormones that accompany ovulation! Because that’s what happens at the “midpoint” of the cycle.
In fact, the article says nothing whatsoever about what happened in the brains of women who were actually menstruating or on the verge of it. The headline nonetheless preys shamelessly on the stereotype of the moody menstruating woman. Some of us do get moody, and that’s okay – but all women are not the same. (Also, this may be pedantic, but it’s sort of simplistic to say that “hormone levels were higher” at mid-cycle. It depends on which hormones you mean. First estrogen peaks, then progesterone hits its maximum several days later.)
Apart from the misleading headline, the study itself makes me wonder if function MRI technology is feeding into a kind of “physics envy” among psychologists, biologists, and biomedical researchers. Biologist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky offers my favorite explanation of physics envy:
This is a classic case of what is often called physics envy, a disease that causes behavioral biologists to fear their discipline lacks the rigor of physiology, physiologists to wish for the techniques of biochemists, biochemists to covet the clarity of answers revealed by molecular geneticists, all the way down until you get to the physicists who confer only with God. Recently, a zoologist friend had obtained blood samples from the carnivores he studies and wanted some hormones in the samples tested in my lab. Although inexperienced with the technique, he offered to help in any way possible. I felt hesitant asking him do anything tedious, but since he had offered, I tentatively said, “Well, if you don’t mind some unspeakable drudgery, you could number about a thousand assay vials.” And this scientist, whose superb work has graced the most prestigious science journals in the world, cheerfully answered, “That’s okay. How often do I get to do real science, working with test tubes?”
Obviously, MRI is way cooler than test tubes! It’s no wonderful that researchers would rather get big grants and fiddle with fMRI, because it not only seems like “real science.” Grants and equipment tend to impress tenure committees, as well. While we actually know very little about what – if anything – fMRI actually tells us, it makes for cool pictures of the brain and imposing CVs.
But surely I’m not the only person who read about this latest fMRI study and wondered: Golly, couldn’t the researchers just ask the women how they were feeling?