updated 4/30/2010 5:09:43 PM ET 2010-04-30T21:09:43

It is a common experience for many men: A girlfriend or wife starts crying out of nowhere and suddenly the guys are being accused of being insensitive.

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Women are whizzes at reading, and even predicting, emotion in others. And they often expect their partners to be, too. Scientists, however, have joined the men's side, saying such expectations are unreasonable for the male kind.

A nasal spray that works like a performance enhancer for empathy brain circuits could render the bickering unnecessary, a new study suggests.

Its key ingredient is oxytocin, a hormone known to promote social bonding. Men and women both have endogenous levels of oxytocin naturally created by the body — it likely helps them fall in love, spurs parenting instincts and makes orgasms, well, more orgasmic.

But women tend to have a special relationship with the hormone. It reaches particular highs during pregnancy and lactation, cementing the mother-infant bond. It might also help women be so adept at reading social cues.

To see whether men could acquire this same emotional expertise, the researchers gave 48 men and 26 women two empathy tests. One required using social cues (happy, angry or neutral facial expressions) to figure out the right answers in a game. The second test used pictures of various scenarios and asked subjects to rate how much the scene emotionally moved him or her (considered a test of "emotional empathy"). Participants were also asked to name the primary emotion of the main character in the scene (a test of "cognitive empathy").

As expected from previous studies, the women excelled at both tests. The men did well when it came to identifying the emotions of others, but not so hot at tasks that involved responding to, or learning from, emotional displays.

That is, not unless they had been sprayed with the empathy enhancer.

After being given oxytocinthrough a nasal mist, write the researchers this month in the Journal of Neuroscience, "emotional empathy responses in men were raised to levels similar to those found in untreated women." Not only were the men more affected by emotional scenes, but they also were better at learning tasks that required social cues.

The effects didn't last long though. The men needed another squirt two hours later.

Currently only available in lab settings, women can't exactly use the spray like feel-my-pain mace. But someday, write the researchers, "[oxytocin] may be a useful therapy in enhancing socially-motivated learning and emotional empathy in men."  

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