Group projects like office presentations often involve us working well with others. We can all cooperate, but the approaches we use aren't always the same, especially when it comes to gender. According to a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports, different parts of men and women's brains are activated when working on a simple task, suggesting there are gender differences when it comes to cooperation.

"It's not that either males or females are better at cooperating or can't cooperate with each other," said Dr. Allan Reiss, senior author of the study and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and of radiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in a statement. "Rather, there's just a difference in how they're cooperating."

Previous research has shown there is no difference in the intrinsic ability of males and females, but there is a difference in the way the two genders go about solving problems. In terms of spatial abilities, especially when it comes to mental rotation of an object, it has been found men use a holistic approach, like visualizing the entire object at once, whereas women use a point by point feature comparison. Moreover, women are more likely to use equations, where men will use strategies such as Venn diagrams for standardized math tests.

Reiss and his colleagues sought to analyze the brain signature of cooperative behavior in pairs; how the brain responds to a cooperative task. “The primary goal is: how do two brains in a pairing correlate with one another under these circumstances?” Reiss told Medical Daily.

Reiss and his colleagues recruited a total of 222 participants to determine how cooperation is reflected in the brains of men and women who are actively working together. The participants were placed in pairs, consisting of two males, two females, or a male and a female. They were told to perform a simple, cooperative task that involved pushing a button simultaneously, without speaking to their partner. After each try, the pairs were told which partner had pressed the button sooner, and how much sooner. They were given 40 attempts to get timing as close as possible. 

"We developed this test because it was simple, and you could easily record responses," said Reiss. "You have to start somewhere." This isn’t modeled after any particular real-world cooperative task.

The researchers used hyperscanning — a technique that simultaneously records the activity in two people's brains while they interact — and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS), in which probes are attached to a person's head to record brain function, allowing them to sit upright and interact more naturally.

The findings revealed gender influences both behavior and brain activity when it comes to cooperation. On average, male-male pairs performed better than female-female pairs at timing their button pushes more closely. However, brain activity in both same-sex pairs was synced during cooperation, meaning they displayed high levels of “interbrain coherence.” This correlated with better performance on the cooperation task. Surprisingly, the location of coherence differed between male-male and female-female pairs.

In males, parts of the brain in the right prefrontal cortex — involved with multitasking — received more oxygen from blood. Contrastingly, in females, activation happened in the right temporal region, which is involved in recognizing social body cues. Meanwhile, male-female pairs did as well as male-male pairs at the cooperation task, even though they didn't show coherence.

The researchers note they did not measure activity in all parts of the brain.

"There are a lot of parts of the brain we didn't assess," said Reiss. This suggests interbrain coherence may have been present in other brain regions that weren’t observed during the task.  

The exact role of the brain regions observed in the study during the simple task is unknown, but these scans do provide insight into the neurological mechanisms that influence how the sexes work together.

However, the findings are too preliminary to suggest either gender is better or worse at cooperation. Rather, they imply there's just a difference in how they're cooperating.

Reiss believes the differences in brain activity in males and females during cooperative tasks is both a biological and environmental influence.

“It’s not surprising that you see differences in how the brains of males and females respond to different types of tasks. Different brain circuits are used to get the same outcome” he said.

He believes the only way we’re going to know how much of these differences are biological rather than environmental will be by studying younger populations. It’s a process that gets more and more crystallized.

The study could help improve group dynamics by identifying the most effective pairs of people together. This could also be useful for patients with autism who have problems with social cognition. Reiss and his colleagues believe further research on brain patterns during cooperation can help in the advancement of treatments for patients with disorders like autism, as it'll help them develop better techniques for interacting with others.

“There are ways to give feedback to a human being having this type of scan or imaging, or even interacting with another person could allow them to change the effectiveness of coherence” said Reiss.

Typically, people with autism have difficulty expressing themselves during social interactions. They may appear to be uncooperative because they haven’t learned the appropriate behavior for different social situations, according to Autism Speaks. They may also encounter problems managing strong or difficult feelings, such as anger, frustration, or anxiety.

Effective therapies using similar approaches in study, can help those with autism “learn how to synchronize their brain activity to a person they’re interacting with” to help bridge the social cognition gap that exists, according to Reiss.

“Cooperation is the primary way of interacting with another person,” he said.

Furthermore, a 2013 study found the anatomy of the brain of someone with autism depends on whether the patient is male or female. The researchers noted autism affects different parts of the brain in females than in males with autism. Females tend to show neuroanatomical “masculinization,” meaning regions of the brain that were atypical in adult females with autism were similar to areas that differ between typical developing males and females. The brain difference was not seen in adult males with autism.

Understanding how autism affects the brain of males and females, and exploring the brain activity of both genders, and how they cooperate, can lend itself to refine autism treatments.

Source: Baker JM, Liu N, Ciu X et al. Sex differences in neural and behavioral signatures of cooperation revealed by fNIRS hyperscanning. Scientific Reports. 2016.