Debunking “Period Brain”

Michael Larson, BYU associate professor of psychology, presents his research on the menstrual cycle and mental health for the women’s studies colloquium.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 28, 2017)—“I recently asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said she wanted to be a dancer. I was very proud,” said Michael Larson, BYU associate professor of psychology. “It got me to thinking, what did I want to be when I grow up? The answer was very clear. I wanted to be someone who could present research on the menstrual cycle to large groups of women,” he joked. Presenting for the women’s studies colloquium, Larson’s lecture titled Error Monitoring Across the Menstrual Cycle: The Role of Dopamine and Association with Mental Health sought to measure how error monitoring in women varied at different points in the menstrual cycle. In his research he found there was no significance difference in error monitoring no matter which point a woman was at in her cycle.

For decades women have assumed that their poor brain activity before or during their menstruation is the result of various hormones that are released in high levels before and during ovulation. Colloquially called “period brain,” the physiological changes in hormone levels are believed to change brain activity, particularly cognitive control, which is Larson’s specialty. “Cognitive control refers to our ability to guide our thoughts and actions in accord with our intentions,” he said. In other words, our brain recognizes an error, like passing a ball to a wrong team member or incorrectly remembering information, and takes steps to correct it the next time we are faced with the same situation.

Larson and his student researchers, one male and one female, tested 20 women on their error processing, anxiety, and depression at different points of menstruation using congruent and incongruent questions. When he and his research assistants looked at the data, however, they found only one significant difference—and it had nothing to do with menstruation. The only difference they could consider scientifically was that incongruent questions took longer to answer than congruent. “We found absolutely nothing compared to the factors we were hoping to encounter.” Larson continued, “So the question then becomes, should we publish it? I say ‘absolutely!’ With studies like this, we are one step closer to finding significant data. That is science.”

If Larson’s research and the work of others unearthed no significant differences, then why is “period brain” such a pervasive myth? Larson highlighted one main reason. There are seemingly logical explanations by evolutionary psychologists that explains how heightened error response would have been valuable to the continuation of the human race. “From an evolutionary perspective you would expect increased vigilance and a hyperactive response to errors [in an ovulating woman] compared to a woman who is not ovulating because there is reproductive significance at that time,” said Larson. Women would have a greater response to mistakes while ovulating because during that time there is the chance they can reproduce, meaning they must be hypervigilant for dangers to the creation of a new child.  Their data, however, suggested that women’s brain activity is not significantly different during ovulation or menstruation, debunking this preconceived notion.

When Larson began presenting his research, he did experience some backlash from women who wanted to use their menstrual cycle as an excuse for not performing their best. He also acknowledged that since his sample was small and included only women with no mental health issues, there might be larger studies that find a difference he did not, though it is doubtful. Obviously some conditions like Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) may cause significant debilitations, but for the majority of women this is not the case. Studies like this help to combat harmful stereotypes about female menstruation that can degrade and disenfranchise females. Women are human, they make mistakes, and there is no need to find an alternative explanation based on female physiology.  Larson acknowledged that “individual differences really drive this field” but he still stands by his research and is looking forward to publishing it at the beginning of next year.

This research and others is an important contribution which scholars of all backgrounds can use to help combat gender inequality. The long-held belief that a uterus makes a human a less intelligent creature is directly contradicted, empowering women to take control of their mental faculties and be liberated from the constraints of widely believed menstruation-based stereotypes. Rather than being a limiting factor to women, debunking “period brain” can be an important step towards respecting all humans as intelligent and capable regardless of their biological sex.  

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Women’s Studies Program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Image courtesy of Jesse Orrico from Unsplash