Brain Waves: Differences in Males, Females Can Be Frustrating
By Lisa Martin
DALLAS – A few years ago, at the urging of his wife, Greg Johnson scheduled the first checkup of his adult life. "I didn’t even have a doctor," says the 49-year-old Corinth, Texas, businessman, who describes himself as a weekend athlete. When test results came back, the physician recommended Johnson follow up with a gastrointestinal specialist.
But two months later, upon realizing that the appointment would conflict with his surfing trip to Costa Rica, Johnson canceled it and never rescheduled.
Fast-forward to January 2006.
"I noticed significant changes in my health, but I blamed it on just getting older," says Johnson. "Then I remembered that canceled appointment."
This time, he met with the doctor, had a colonoscopy, and five days later underwent surgery to remove a foot-long section of colon and half of his rectum. Because the cancerous tumor had metastasized in his liver, Johnson also needed radio-frequency ablation.
"The whole time, my mind kept racing back to that physical," he says. "I kept thinking about the what-ifs."
Then, "because I did too much afterward instead of just sitting around like they wanted me to, the incision got infected." Once the wound finally healed, he started chemotherapy. "By the third round, I felt like a walking, talking toxic dump."
Tell this story to a man and a woman, and the reactions will probably differ significantly. Guys can relate, at least on some level. Women, on the other hand, probably just shake their heads and think: typical man. Actually, that’s not far from the truth.
"There are anatomical differences between the male brain and the female brain that cause the two genders to react differently in many situations, including seeking help," says Dr. Malcolm Stewart, a neurologist at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.
"The differences, which are in the fight-and-flight part of the brain, have nothing to do with intelligence but everything to do with the way we function in our environment."
In the 1960s, scientists began detecting variations between the male and female brain in the area known as the limbic system, which dictates emotions, senses of pain, feelings of aggression, sexual drive, feelings of hunger and our social IQs. In the male brain, stronger connections in this system translate into increased and faster aggression in response to certain stimuli.
According to Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, even as children "males tend to show far more ‘direct’ aggression such as pushing, hitting and punching. Females tend to show more ‘indirect’ [or covert] aggression, like gossip and exclusion." Differences in the structures of the brains, he says, are largely responsible.
The stereotypical strong, silent guy isn’t far off the mark, either. Two areas in the brain that control language are significantly smaller in men than in women. "And because women’s brains have more connections between the right and left sides, they are better able to get in touch with their feelings and express them," says Stewart.
This also enables women to function better in social situations: "If they go to a party, a woman can listen to multiple conversations and figure out hidden agenda," he says. "When they talk to a guy later about it, she’ll realize he doesn’t have a clue."
As both genders age, however, their brains become more similar. "When you mature, you have to learn how to think both like a man and a woman," says Stewart. For men, that may mean a greater awareness of health issues.
They also tend to be more nurturing as a grandfather than they were as a dad, plus they mellow both in terms of anger and their risk-taking behaviors. In the case of women, they "become more confident, more internally driven, more like their husbands," says Stewart.
How does any of this matter? And is such knowledge in fact dangerous or potentially limiting? After all, it’s possible to find an extremely caring male nurse, a super-talkative guy, a brilliant female physicist and a woman lacking even the most basic social graces.
Consider this: The differences in the brains manifest themselves in generalized tendencies for men and women, never in absolutes in terms of behavior. And understanding these tendencies, says Stewart, can ease tension in relationships.
Adds Dr. Baron-Cohen: "We need to distinguish stereotyping from the study of sex differences. Males and females differ in what they are drawn to and what they find easy, but both sexes have their strengths and weaknesses. Neither sex is superior overall."
While Cathey Soutter, a clinical psychologist who also heads the Counseling and Testing Center at Southern Methodist University, agrees that the structure of the brain has "an enormous impact" on behavior, she believes that society and enculturation can play an even larger role.
"Particularly for boys, the gender roles are very rigid," she says. "Standards of how a girl should behave are more flexible until they hit their preteens."
She adds that even before birth, parents have an idea of what a son or daughter should be like, and this begins a cycle of pressure and influence that helps shape personality, thoughts and actions. Boys, she says, are every bit as vulnerable as girls, and yet their fears and vulnerabilities are often ignored.
"Yes, our brains are hardwired in certain ways, and you can’t change that, but we can provide different models for teaching and give boys permission in subtle ways to be more open and relationally oriented."
As for Johnson, who expects to finish his cancer treatments in July, he’s already altered aspects of his social behaviors as a result of his experience.
"I called all of my friends to tell them what happened," he says. "I think I’m single-handedly responsible for dozens of colonoscopies in Texas."
Bigger, not better
On average, men’s brains are about 10 percent larger than their female counterparts. Why? Most scientists believe that because the male body is generally larger, their brains have to be bigger to compensate for the extra mass. Yet during the aging process, men’s brains also tend to shrink faster than women’s.
He said, she said
Depending on whose research you’re quoting, men say anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 fewer words a day than women do. This so-called word gap is often associated with smaller frontal and temporal lobes in men, the brain’s center for language.
Cars vs. smiles
A Cambridge University study in 1-year-olds found that boys preferred watching films of cars (i.e., mechanical systems) and girls preferred films of people’s faces. Boys also tended to make less eye contact than girls, indicating less interest in social connections.
The testosterone test
According to a Harvard study, men’s testosterone levels drop when they’re holding a baby. Even cradling a doll can decrease the amount of the hormone linked with virility.
According to Stewart, anatomical differences in men’s and women’s brains account for increased physical and mental problems in each gender. Men, who tend to take more risks, are therefore more vulnerable to car accidents, illnesses as a result of smoking, and cardiovascular diseases.
Women, who tend to have lower serotonin levels in their brains, are more susceptible to related conditions such as migraines, fibromyalgia and depression.