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Sex differences in memory

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Although there are many physiological and psychological gender differences in humans, memory, in general, is fairly stable across the sexes. By studying the specific instances in which males and females demonstrate differences in memory, we are able to further understand the brain structures and functions associated with memory.

It is within specific experimental trials that differences appear, such as methods of recalling past events, explicit facial emotion recognition tasks, and neuroimaging studies regarding size and activation of different brain regions. Research seems to focus especially on gender differences in explicit memory. Like many other nuances of the human psyche, these differences are studied with the goal of lending insight to a greater understanding of the human brain.

History of research

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Perceptions of gender differences in cognitive abilities date back to ancient Greece, when the early physician Hippocrates dubbed the term 'hysteria' or 'wandering womb' to account for emotional instability and mental illness in women.[1] This diagnosis survived up until the mid-19th century and the beginning of the women's suffrage movement, and was used as evidence for women's inability to handle intellectual work.[1] Prominent physicians of this era, including neurologist Sigmund Freud, argued that women were biologically suited to homemaking and housework, as they did not have enough blood to power both the brain and the uterus. When women began attending university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, opponents asserted that the high demands of post-secondary education on the female brain would render women sterile.

The mass entrance of women into the workplace during World War I to replace the conscripted men fighting overseas, provided a turning point for views on women's cognitive abilities. Having demonstrated that they were capable of functioning in the workplace, women gained the right to vote in post-war United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Though women were able to vote and hold paid employment, they were still not regarded as intellectually equal to men. The development of the encephalization quotient by Harry Jerison in 1973 seemed to confirm popular beliefs and about women's cognitive abilities; this quotient was one of the first means of indirectly measuring brain size, and it demonstrated that women have, on average, smaller brain areas than men.[2]

Specific areas of memory

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The results from research on sex differences in memory are mixed and inconsistent, as some studies show no difference, and others show a female or male advantage.[3]

Sex differences in specific domains of memory
Memory domain Better-performing sex Ref.
Episodic memory (overall) Female [4][page needed]
Episodic memory for masculine events[clarification needed] Male [citation needed]
Memory for faces Female [3][4][page needed]
Memory for names Female [3][4][page needed]
Olfactory memory Female [3][4][page needed]
Rate of age-related memory decline No difference [3]
Semantic memory based on general knowledge in different areas Male [5]
Short-term memory No difference [3]
Memory for sounds Female [3][4][page needed]
Spatial memory (overall) Male [6]
Spatial memory for location of objects (overall) Female [3][4][page needed]
Spatial memory for location of distant objects Male [7]
Spatial memory for location of male objects[clarification needed] Male [7]
Verbal memory Female [8]
Memory of visual stimuli (overall) No difference [3]

Short-term memory

Women have consistently demonstrated a stronger short-term memory than men on tests.[9] This is supported by data that gauges learning ability in terms of word lists and the development of strategies that improve the ability to learn new things and impede interference;[9] however, there is also data that indicates that men are better at short-term memory tasks than women when visual stimuli is a factor, but this research lacks consistency.[9]

Autobiographical memory

Women on average report more memories in the observer perspective than men.[10] A theory for this phenomenon is that women are more conscious about their personal appearance than men.[10] According to objectification theory, social and cultural expectations have created a society where women are far more objectified than men.[10]

In situations where one's physical appearance and actions are important (for example, giving a speech in front of an audience), the memory of that situation will likely be remembered in the observer perspective.[10] This is due to the general trend that when the focus of attention in a person's memory is on themselves, they will likely see themselves from someone else's point of view. This is because, in "center-of-attention" memories, the person is conscious about the way they are presenting themselves and instinctively try to envision how others were perceiving them.[10]

Since women feel more objectified than men, they tend to be put in center-of-attention situations more often, which results in recalling more memories from the observer perspective. Studies also show that events with greater social interaction and significance produce more observer memories in women than events with low or no social interaction or significance.[10] Observer perspective in men was generally unaffected by the type of event.[10]

Memory loss

Research suggests that there may be gendered differences in rates of memory decline. While research on the subject has not always been consistent,[clarification needed] it's clear that men and women experience significantly different rates of memory decline throughout their life.

It was once decided that the difference in memory decline between genders was due to the typically longer lifespan of a woman,[citation needed] however, this has since been disproven. The difference between the lifespan of a male and female is not great enough to explain the additional onset of memory decline from disease that woman experience.[11]

Alzheimer's disease

As men and women age, dementia become more likely to manifest. Dementia has been reported to affect up to 5% of people over the age of 65. Of the different types of dementia, Alzheimer's disease is the most common, accounting for up to 65% of dementia cases.[12][better source needed] Research into the disease is ongoing, but there appears to be evidence supporting the claim that Alzheimer's manifests differently between the sexes. There is also evidence that Alzheimer's disease is more common in women than in men.[13][better source needed][14][15]

Multiple studies have found that there is a significant difference in the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease that affect the sexes. Some of these behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) include depression, anxiety, dysphoria, nighttime disturbances, and aggression. Several recent studies have found that women tend to exhibit symptoms such as depression and anxiety more often than men.[16][17] One study has even gone as far as to suggest that having depression at any point during midlife increases chances of Alzheimer's Disease developing later by up to 70%.[16] Men, on the other hand, exhibit symptoms such as aggression and other socially inappropriate behaviors more often. In addition, it has been found that men are more likely to have coronary artery disease which has been known to damage the blood brain barrier (BBB) by causing micro vascular lesions. Damage to the blood brain barrier seems to be connected to cognitive decline and several forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease.[17] Women with Alzheimer's disease also have more serious cognitive impairments in many indicators compared to men.[18][19] Also, a number of studies of people with Alzheimer's disease have found a greater brain or cognitive reserve in men.[19][20]

Another contributing factor to differences in Alzheimer's progression between the sexes may be socioeconomic status (SES). Men, historically, have had better opportunities to obtain an education and increase their SES. In recent years, women are being afforded many of the same opportunities, which may explain why there appears to be a decrease of instances of dementia in women related to SES factors.[16]


  1. ^ a b Tasca, Cecilia; Rapetti, M; Carta, MG; Fadda, B (2012). "Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health". Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health. 8: 110–9. doi:10.2174/1745017901208010110. PMC 3480686. PMID 23115576.
  2. ^ Carne, Ross P.; Vogrin, Simon; Litewka, Lucas; Cook, Mark J. (2006). "Cerebral cortex: An MRI-based study of volume and variance with age and sex". Journal of Clinical Neuroscience. 13 (1): 60–72. doi:10.1016/j.jocn.2005.02.013. PMID 16410199. S2CID 20486422.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ellis, Lee, Sex differences: summarizing more than a century of scientific research, CRC Press, 2008, ISBN 0-8058-5959-4, ISBN 978-0-8058-5959-1[page needed]
  4. ^ a b c d e f Halpern, Diane F. (2012). Sex differences in cognitive abilities (4 ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 9781848729414.
  5. ^ Tran, Ulrich S.; Hofer, Agnes A.; Voracek, Martin (27 October 2014). "Sex Differences in General Knowledge: Meta-Analysis and New Data on the Contribution of School-Related Moderators among High-School Students". PLOS ONE. 9 (10): e110391. Bibcode:2014PLoSO...9k0391T. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110391. PMC 4210204. PMID 25347190.
  6. ^ Voyer, Daniel; Voyer, Susan D.; Saint-Aubin, Jean (April 2017). "Sex differences in visual-spatial working memory: A meta-analysis". Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 24 (2): 307–334. doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1085-7. PMID 27357955. S2CID 37931791.
  7. ^ a b Voyer, Daniel; Postma, Albert; Brake, Brandy; Imperato-McGinley, Julianne (February 2007). "Gender differences in object location memory: A meta-analysis". Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (Meta-analysis). 14 (1): 23–38. doi:10.3758/bf03194024. PMID 17546728. S2CID 44658445.
  8. ^ Li, Rena (1 September 2014). "Why women see differently from the way men see? A review of sex differences in cognition and sports". Journal of Sport and Health Science (Review). 3 (3): 155–162. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2014.03.012. PMC 4266559. PMID 25520851.
  9. ^ a b c Nadal, Kevin L. (2015). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Psychology and Gender. Routledge. p. 342. ISBN 9781483384276.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Huebner, David M.; Fredrickson, Barbara L. (September 1999). "Gender Differences in Memory Perspectives: Evidence for Self-Objectification in Women". Sex Roles. 41 (5/6): 459–467. doi:10.1023/A:1018831001880. S2CID 141065483.
  11. ^ Small, Gary W (2002-06-22). "What we need to know about age-related memory loss". BMJ: British Medical Journal (Review). 324 (7352): 1502–1505. doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7352.1502. ISSN 0959-8138. PMC 1123445. PMID 12077041.
  12. ^ Ritchie, Karen; Lovestone, Simon (November 2002). "The dementias". The Lancet. 360 (9347): 1759–1766. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(02)11667-9. PMID 12480441. S2CID 21404062.
  13. ^ Viña, Jose; Lloret, Ana (2010). "Why women have more Alzheimer's disease than men: gender and mitochondrial toxicity of amyloid-beta peptide". Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (Review). 20 (Suppl 2): S527–533. doi:10.3233/JAD-2010-100501. ISSN 1875-8908. PMID 20442496.
  14. ^ Podcasy, Jessica L.; Epperson, C. Neill (2016). "Considering sex and gender in Alzheimer disease and other dementias". Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience (Review). 18 (4): 437–446. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2016.18.4/cepperson. ISSN 1294-8322. PMC 5286729. PMID 28179815.
  15. ^ Niu, H.; Álvarez-Álvarez, I.; Guillén-Grima, F.; Aguinaga-Ontoso, I. (2017-10-01). "Prevalencia e incidencia de la enfermedad de Alzheimer en Europa: metaanálisis". Neurología (in Spanish). 32 (8): 523–532. doi:10.1016/j.nrl.2016.02.016. hdl:2454/25704. ISSN 0213-4853. PMID 27130306.
  16. ^ a b c Nebel, Rebecca A.; Aggarwal, Neelum T.; Barnes, Lisa L.; Gallagher, Aimee; Goldstein, Jill M.; Kantarci, Kejal; Mallampalli, Monica P.; Mormino, Elizabeth C.; Scott, Laura; Yu, Wai Haung; Maki, Pauline M. (2018-09-01). "Understanding the impact of sex and gender in Alzheimer's disease: A call to action". Alzheimer's & Dementia (Review). 14 (9): 1171–1183. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2018.04.008. ISSN 1552-5260. PMC 6400070. PMID 29907423.
  17. ^ a b Toro, Carlos A.; Zhang, Larry; Cao, Jiqing; Cai, Dongming (2019-09-15). "Sex differences in Alzheimer's disease: Understanding the molecular impact". Brain Research (Review). 1719: 194–207. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2019.05.031. ISSN 0006-8993. PMC 6750802. PMID 31129153.
  18. ^ Laws, Keith R.; Irvine, Karen; Gale, Tim M. (2018). "Sex differences in Alzheimer's disease". Current Opinion in Psychiatry (Review). 31 (2): 133–139. doi:10.1097/YCO.0000000000000401. ISSN 1473-6578. PMID 29324460. S2CID 20810478.
  19. ^ a b Laws, Keith R; Irvine, Karen; Gale, Tim M (2016-03-22). "Sex differences in cognitive impairment in Alzheimer's disease". World Journal of Psychiatry (Review). 6 (1): 54–65. doi:10.5498/wjp.v6.i1.54. ISSN 2220-3206. PMC 4804268. PMID 27014598.
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Sex differences in memory
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