In 2000, Shelly Taylor, a social psychologist at UCLA proposed an alternative model to the well-known fight-or-flight response.
Based on an analysis of a wide range of research by others, Taylor hypothesized that women faced with threat might have evolved a different response, something she called "tend and befriend." The idea is that females in ancient times had to protect the children while the men fought off the danger. So, they gathered together in groups to defend the youngsters.
This tendency would likely be influenced by oxytocin, the neurochemical that, among other things, drives us to connect with others. Sue Carter of the University of Illinois, has done work with prairie voles showing that when they're isolated and stressed, their oxytocin levels rise. She thinks this causes them to seek out others -- in human terms, you could say, for support.
Many have pooh-poohed Taylor's ideas, possibly because she's a psychologist, not a neuroscientist, possibly because she's a woman.
But now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have done a brain imaging study that supports her hypothesis.
In the study led by J.J. Wang, men and women were stressed by being asked to do arithmetic in front of a panel of strangers who constantly asked them to go faster or start over if they made a mistake. According to Science Daily:
The researchers measured heart rate, cortisol levels (a stress hormone), subjects' perceived stress levels throughout the experiments, and regional cerebral blood flow (CBF), which provides a marker of regional brain function. In men, it was found that stress was associated with increased CBF in the right prefrontal cortex and CBF reduction in the left orbitofrontal cortex. In women, the limbic system -- a part of the brain primarily involved in emotion -- was activated when they were under stress.
In other words, under stress, the men got busy thinking harder, while the women increased their emotional activity. The hypothalamus, producer of oxytocin, is part of the limbic system. It's possible that these women's brains secreted extra oxytocin, which may have calmed them.
Taylor, S.E., Klein, L.C., Lewis, B.P., Gruenewald, T.L., Gurung, R.A.R., & Updegraff, J.A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review,107, 411-429.