What if your birth control could be partially to blame for relationship problems? A German study suggests it’s possible factor. In a study between women who use oral contraceptives and women who do not, they found oral contraceptive users were slightly worse at correctly perceiving complex emotions.1 The inability to perceive emotion through facial expressions can hinder the ability form and maintain interpersonal, especially intimate, relationships.
Growing up my parents would say, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” which used to sound so silly to me, but it’s true! It’s amazing how much can be tacitly understood just from someone’s facial expression; the words aren’t always necessary for one to intuit the needs or feelings of a loved one or even a stranger. It’s an ability women are inherently better at than men, and mothers are even better at than non-mothers.2,3
When there is a sexual dichotomy like this, it is a reasonable bet that sex hormones may be involved.
They compared women on oral birth controls (some of which had androgenic properties and some of which had anti-androgenic properties) to women who were in the luteal phase (pre-ovulatory) of their menstrual cycle and women who were in the follicular phase (post-ovulatory).
Before ovulation, estradiol levels are higher, corresponding with low progesterone levels; after ovulation, estradiol levels drop off, followed by a comparatively small increase that coincides with a large increase in progesterone. As menstruation approaches, both of these hormones plummet. By comparing them to women in either phase of their cycle, they check that the phase of a woman’s cycle is not the cause of any variation.
While there was no difference in ability to correctly recognize emotions between women in their follicular phase and women in their luteal phase, they found women who used oral contraceptives were worse at recognizing complex emotions, irrespective of where non-users were in their cycles, and irrespective of which kind of oral birth control the users took.
Interestingly overall both users and non-users were slightly worse at recognizing negative emotions, but the ability to read faces among oral contraceptive users was worse for both negative and positive emotions. In psychology, emotions are classified by their “valence” – their intrinsic positivity or negativity. Anger and fear are negative valences, while serenity and happiness are positive valences. So they found women who use birth control are not as good at reading emotions in general, regardless of the valence of the emotions presented.
Prior studies have shown there is no such disparity between oral contraceptive users and non-users. The difference between this new study and the old ones is the complexity of the emotions examined. Earlier studies used more basic emotions, whereas this study increased the complexity and intensity of the emotions presented to participants. Anger and happiness are basic emotions, which have universally recognizable expressions, whereas grief would be considered a complex emotion because it can be a mixture of several emotions including shock, fear, anger, sadness, and incredulity.4 Therefore this study finds that, while basic emotions are well-read by both users and non-users, the users have a higher degree of misperception of the more complex emotions.
The prefrontal cortex and temporal regions in your brain – behind your forehead and above and around both your ears respectively – have a role in processing the emotional expressions. The temporal lobe is involved in long-term memory formation and commits to memory the facial expressions accumulated over your lifetime, giving your brain a massive databank of expressions with which you hone your ability to read faces accurately.
In the middle of each of your temporal lobes is a small almond-shaped cluster of nuclei, called the amygdala (from the Greek word for almond, amugdálē), which regulates this function of the temporal lobe. The connection between the amygdalae and the prefrontal cortex is a crucial for recognizing complex emotions. Consequential changes in estrogen and progesterone levels due to oral contraceptives have been found to correspond to changes in this amygdala-prefrontal cortex connection and the activity of the amygdalae. The researchers hypothesize the impairment in emotion perception may lie in one of these two places.
So next time you have a hard time understanding what a facial expression means, remember: maybe it’s not you; maybe it’s your birth control.
1Pahnke, Rike, et al. “Oral Contraceptives Impair Complex Emotion Recognition in Healthy Women.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 12, 2019, doi:10.3389/fnins.2018.01041.
2Wingenbach, Tanja S. H., et al. “Sex Differences in Facial Emotion Recognition across Varying Expression Intensity Levels from Videos.” Plos One, vol. 13, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190634.
3Matsunaga, Michiko, et al. “Maternal Nurturing Experience Affects the Perception and Recognition of Adult and Infant Facial Expressions.” Plos One, vol. 13, no. 10, 2018, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0205738.
4Brogaard, Berit. “Basic and Complex Emotions: Cultural Variation and Evolutionary Advantages.” Psycology Today, 30 June 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201806/basic-and-complex-emotions.