p.s. Let's hear it for the 22-second hug.
Femme MentaleVia Arts & Letters Daily
San Francisco neuropsychiatrist says differences between women's and men's brains are very real, and the sooner we all understand it, the better
Sunday, August 6, 2006
Louann Brizendine's feminist ideals were forged in the 1970s, so the UCSF neuropsychiatrist is aware that some parts of her new book, "The Female Brain," sound politically incorrect.
Such as the part about how a financially independent woman may talk about finding a soul mate, but when she meets a prospective mate her brain is subconsciously sizing up his portfolio. Or the part describing the withdrawal pains moms feel when they return to work and can no longer cop a hormonal high from breast-feeding their babies.
Women have come a long way toward equality over the past 50 years, but the Yale-trained Brizendine, 53, says her research indicates that human brains are still wired for Stone Age necessities.
Male and female brains are different in architecture and chemical composition, asserts Brizendine. The sooner women -- and those who love them -- accept and appreciate how those neurological differences shape female behavior, the better we can all get along.
Start with why women prefer to talk about their feelings, while men prefer to meditate on sex.
"Women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion, while men have a small country road," she writes. Men, however, "have O'Hare Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex, where women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes."
Untangling the brain's biological instincts from the influences of everyday life has been the driving passion of Brizendine's life -- and forms the core of her book. "The Female Brain" weaves together more than 1,000 scientific studies from the fields of genetics, molecular neuroscience, fetal and pediatric endocrinology, and neurohormonal development. It is also significantly based on her own clinical work at the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic, which she founded at UCSF 12 years ago. It is the only psychiatric facility in the country with such a comprehensive focus.
A man's brain may be bigger overall, she writes, but the main hub for emotion and memory formation is larger in a woman's brain, as is the wiring for language and "observing emotion in others." Also, a woman's "neurological reality" is much more deeply affected by hormonal surges that fluctuate throughout her life.
Brizendine uses those differences to explain everything from why teenage girls feverishly swap text messages during class, to why women fake orgasms to why menopausal women leave their husbands.
So the next time parents scold their daughters for excessive text messaging, consider Brizendine's neurological explanation:
"Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl's brain. We're not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It's a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm."
Part road map for women looking for scientific explanations for their behavior, part geeky manual for relationship woes, "The Female Brain" already has become fodder for the morning chat shows. On the "Today" show this week, one critic downplayed the book's explanation of gender differences, saying men and women are "more like North Dakota and South Dakota."
Brizendine's goal isn't man-bashing (despite snippets like "the typical male brain reaction to an emotion is to avoid it at all costs"). Instead, she celebrates the differences.
"There is no unisex brain," Brizendine writes. "Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys. Their brains are different by the time they're born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values and their very reality."
Brizendine's book offers a 2 1/2-page appendix on the female brain and sexual orientation, but she doesn't mention transgender folks. Sexual orientation, she writes, "does not appear to be a matter of conscious self-labeling but a matter of brain wiring." All women are wired for a sexual orientation during fetal development, and "the behavioral expression of her brain wiring will then be influenced and shaped by environment and culture."
That's not to say either sex is more intelligent. Just different, Brizendine said. Nor do she or other scientists who study the brain, like Bruce S. McEwen, a Rockefeller (N.Y.) University brain researcher, dismiss the role that parenting and environment and experience play in shaping a person.
"The basic idea is that men and women approach the same problems in somewhat different ways, at least in part because of the biological differences in the brain, which in turn interact with experience -- the nature-nurture story," said McEwen.
"This does not imply whether either sex is superior ... but it does provide the basis for such cultural sayings as 'Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus.' "
Indeed, "The Female Brain" covers ground that has been tilled, to various degrees, in books from 1993's "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus" to 1999's "The First Sex," to last year's "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter." Brizendine takes the research a step further and stretches it to cover a female's life from womb through menopause.
Katherine Ellison, author of "The Mommy Brain," said Brizendine represents a trend among neuroscientists who have been inspired by their experiences as parents to investigate what scientists have recently dubbed "the maternal brain."
"It has become more OK to talk about brain differences between genders over the past few years, whereas before, if you said men and women were 'different,' it seemed to imply women were at a disadvantage," said Ellison, who lives in San Anselmo. "Now scientists are pointing out some clear advantages of the female brain, and in particular the 'mommy brain.' "
Among the more controversial subjects addressed in Brizendine's book is: Can new mothers successfully juggle career and family life?
Perhaps not, writes the onetime single mother. And that's OK, Brizendine said, if the workplace can be reshaped to better accommodate new mothers.
"This book is a call-to-arms for women and society to rework the social contract that women have with employers throughout their childbearing years," said Brizendine, while sitting in the Sausalito home she shares with her second husband of 10 years and teenage son. "We cannot afford to lose half the brainpower in this country. Our intelligent women are getting completely out of the loop for five to 10 years, and they cannot get back in.
"The message is that women can't stay at home 100 percent of the time and cut themselves off from their careers. The workplace should realize that women are wired to take care of children, and they want that time and need that time."
It is a sentiment that wasn't around when she was born in Hazard, Ky., a poor Appalachian mining town, where her parents, Protestant missionaries, were stationed. Her father, a minister, was active in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, often appearing as a guest preacher in African American churches throughout the South. Despite Brizendine's mother being the valedictorian of her high school class, Brizendine's maternal immigrant grandparents believed that women should not be educated and refused to give their daughter any money for college.
"One of the things that has been passionate in my life is to have a profession that would allow me to support myself," Brizendine said. "Watching my mother, an intelligent woman, have limited choices because of the culture -- and because she was married to the typical male of that time in the 1950s in this country -- it was clear to me that I had to find a different way myself."
She attended UC Berkeley on an academic scholarship, initially in the nearly all-male world of architecture majors. But in her junior year, she switched to neurobiology, fascinated by experiments where manipulating the hormones of an animal produced different behaviors.
"To me, that hit pay dirt," Brizendine said. "To have that kind of explanation for behavior that wasn't based on how your family raised you -- or how the stereotypes of society were set on you."
From there she went to Yale Medical School, less than a decade after the undergraduate campus went coed. One day in class, Brizendine asked the professor why females weren't used in the study they were reviewing. She recalled him saying, "We don't use females in the study because their menstrual cycles would mess up the data."
"To be honest with you, the reason that this astounds me to this day," said Brizendine, "is because I didn't argue with him." But back then it was unthinkable to say, "Well, how can you then make medications, and how can you make assessments that you'll apply to female patients when you don't really know?"
Next, Brizendine hopes to expand her clinical work.
In the next month, she will open a satellite branch of the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, which will focus on issues of most concern to African American women, Latinas and lesbians -- a further attempt to see how cultural issues affect the female brain.
For all women -- and those who love them -- she offers a tip.
Research shows that the female brain naturally releases oxytocin after a 20-second hug. The embrace bonds the huggers and triggers the brain's trust circuits. So Brizendine advises, don't let a guy hug you unless you plan to trust him.
"And if you do," she said, "make sure it lasts 20 seconds."
A few neurological differences between women and men from Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain":
- Thoughts about sex enter women's brains once every couple of days; for men, thoughts about sex occur every minute.
- Women use 20,000 words per day; men use 7,000 per day.
- Women excel at knowing what people are feeling; men have difficulty spotting an emotion unless someone cries or threatens bodily harm.
- Women remember fights that a man insists never happened.
- Women over 50 are more likely to initiate divorce.