Columns

2006.08.16 Fathoming the female brain

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

I suppose I’m just too dense to really understand it. My brain doesn’t work that way.

I’m talking about the differences in the male and the female brain. Very stark differences. Totally different approaches to life.

Neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine says that the sooner men and women accept and appreciate the neurological differences, the better we’ll all get along. No kidding. Reading through her findings makes you wonder how most couples have managed to stay together as long as they have.

Despite the gains that women have made over the past 50 years, Brizendine says, the human brain is still wired for basic necessities, as in Stone Age needs. The male and female brains are built a little differently, the chemical composition is not the same. It’s there from the start; boy and girl babies come packaged differently.

“Their brains are different by the time they’re born and their brains are what drive their impulses, values and their very reality,” Brizendine says.

As she puts it, women have an eight-lane highway for processing emotion while men have a small country road. To translate this into practical experience—

She: What’s wrong?

He: Nothing.

Or maybe something like—

She: How can you not see that I’m upset?

He: You don’t seem any different to me.

It’s not that men’s brains are incapable of heavy-duty thinking. Back to Brizendine. Men’s brains are like O’Hare Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex. For women, it’s more like that little grass-covered runway that used to be out on the west side of town.

Brizendine isn’t a man-basher—instead she celebrates the differences in the sexes—although some people might take her wrong when she says something like this: “The typical male brain reaction to an emotion is to avoid it at all costs.”

I take no offense. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite cartoons that I clipped from a magazine.

She: (looking exasperated)

He: Couldn’t we talk about this after we’re dead?

Here’s a sampling of Brizendine’s findings:

• Thoughts about sex enter women’s brains once every couple of days; for men, thoughts about sex occur every minute.

• Women use about 20,000 words a day; men use 7,000.

• Women remember fights that a man insists never happened.

• Women over 50 are more likely to initiate divorce.

• Women excel at knowing what people are feeling; men have difficulty spotting an emotion unless someone cries or threatens bodily harm.

Bodily harm? Listen to this tale of oxytocin, one of those brain chemicals that affect women.

Brizendine has done a lot of research on her own, but she examined more than a thousand studies from various fields to write her book, “The Female Brain.” From all of this she explains so many behaviors, such as why teenage girls love to talk on the phone or—to be more up to date—swap text messages.

“Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain,” Brizendine writes. “We’re not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge.”

Rushes of dopamine and oxytocin through the brain.

And speaking of oxytocin, Brizendine says that the female brain naturally releases the substance after a 20-second hug. The embrace bonds the huggers and triggers the brain’s trust circuits. She advises women that they shouldn’t allow a guy to hug them unless they trust him. And if they trust him, make sure it lasts 20 seconds.

I tried to explain that concept to my wife yesterday. After about 20 seconds, she said, “And now what, a fist comes rising up?” as she lifted hers, expecting that self-defense was in order.

I think a little more research is needed. Brizendine never wrote anything about the female fist.

   – Aug. 16, 2006

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