stress. Exactly the same stress regimen in female rats profoundly suppresses conditioning. These results can be reversed by manipulating hormonal sex early in development. More recently, Shors has shown that giving the male and female rat control over the amount of shock makes the sex differences disappear.

How might some of this translate from animals to humans? McEwen suggested the key may lie in behavioral strategy. Research on rats in a water maze, where they have to swim and find a hidden platform to rest on, shows that the male and females tend to use different exploratory strategies. Without spatial cues, male rats reach the platform faster. When spatial cues are provided, females decrease the time it takes to reach the platform and do as well as or better than males. Karyn Frick and colleagues put student volunteers into an outdoor spatial maze tested memory of local contextual cues.17 Men and women did not differ in their performance in the spatial maze but women had a better memory of objects and their location than men did.

Arguments go back and forth, and the data makes it much more complicated to reach some simple generalizations.

—Bruce McEwen

In summary, McEwen explained there are sex differences that are products of genes, of hormones, and of experience throughout the life span. Males and females do respond differently to stressors, although the differences are complex and depend on the kind of stressor and the circumstances. There appears to be modulation by circulating sex hormones, at least in the animal models. What is described in the animal literature, and also perhaps in some of the human literature, is that there are differences in processing—maybe in priorities and strategies—that are far more important than what are commonly called “abilities.”


Diane F. Halpern

Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children, Claremont McKenna College

Diane F. Halpern began her presentation referring to a paper she had written several years ago, entitled, “What You See Depends on Where You Look.”18 Whether male and female cognitive abilities seem similar or different depends on


LJ Levy, RS Astur, and KM Frick (2005). Men and women differ in object memory, but not performance of a virtual radial maze. Behavioral Neuroscience 119(4):853-862.


DF Halpern (1989). The disappearance of cognitive gender differences: What you see depends on where you look. American Psychologist 44:1156-1158.

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