Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Female Brain: A Book Review

Louann Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco. Her book, The Female Brain, is a must read for every female and any male who wants to understand women. As most of you know, all babies begin life as females and remain that way for eight weeks. At that point if the female brain gets flooded with testosterone the baby gradually turns into a male.

This excessive male hormone has an immediate impact on the developing brain. The part of the brain that processes sex doubles in size. But that is not the only change that takes place. The communication center in the new male brain begins to shrink along with the part of the brain involved in hearing. I can hear most of you women saying, "That makes sense why he never listens to me, can’t carry on a decent conversation and thinks about sex all the time." As Dr. Brizendine puts it,

Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road, men have O’Hare Airport as a hub for processing
thoughts about sex whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and
private planes.
Dr. Brizendine wrote this book to explain why a women’s brain has an impact on what she values and thinks about, how she will communicate and who she decides to fall in love with. This is not only a book for women but men need to understand why women are not just male brains in a female body. Daniel Goleman emphasizes this point when he says, "Louann Brizendine has done a great favor for every man who wants to understand the puzzling women in his life. A breezy and enlightening guide to women — and a must-read for men."

To those people who would rather believe that the real differences between men and women are minor, Dr. Brizendine offers some interesting tidbits. Some of these may ring a bell with you. Women are good at remembering fights with their mates that are totally forgotten by the male. Talk about communication — men typically use about 7,000 words each day while women use almost three times as many (20,000). There is also an enormous gap between how often men and women think about sex — women think about it every couple days while the thought enters a man’s brain about once every minute. Women are highly tuned to the feelings of others. Men are also aware of feelings but only if someone cries or if they are physically threatened.

The Female Brain covers the life cycle of women from conception to after menopause. Dr. Brizendine names these cycles fetal, girlhood, puberty, sexual maturity/single woman, pregnancy, breast feeding, child rearing, perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. In each of these phases she explains the hormonal changes, specific brain changes, and how reality changes as women move from phase to phase.

Woman’s intuition is real in the sense that women have brain circuits wired for decoding the smallest detail in other people’s reactions. To the dismay and confusion of men, women’s brains are expert at determining emotional nuances. The brain can automatically interpret facial expressions and find meaning in a person’s tone of voice. Research has shown that men are not that good at picking up on emotional nuances. Is this why women are so adept at being psychics? What they do is not supernatural but their success is completely understandable when we comprehend how the female brain works.

Many of my therapy clients tell me about being frustrated in trying to tell males how they feel. When I ask them to give me an example of what they say exactly, it comes across as vague, like a hint. I explain that men’s brains don’t do well at decoding hints. Women who have a lot of girlfriends are surprised to hear this because hinting works so well with their women friends. Then I give my client an example of what they could say to make a male brain hear and understand their message. My example is often met with surprise and disbelief because it seems so obvious. The next step for them is to learn how to talk "male" talk if they really want to get a man to hear them. It’s the opposite for men — I have to teach them "female" talk which is a much harder task.

Because of this male-female emotional disconnect, women are often disappointed when they "expect" men to respond like their women friends. When they don’t get the response they expect they will continue to send out subtle signals (for hours if need be) until there is an explosion. Either she will break down and cry or exhibit some other emotional response. Before this happens, the male may begin to complain about nagging.

For years, people thought these differences were the result of cultural influences and the dissimilar ways we raise boys and girls. Recent research shows these differences with newborns. Day old girls are more responsive to human faces and the crying of other newborns much more than baby boy. Little girls, only a year old, are much better at responding to sadness. This doesn’t change much with age. Another study found that adult women can identify faint signs of sadness in others nine times out of ten while men can only do this four times out of ten. Women are more than twice at good at this skill than men.

Men tend to do things they are good at; since we don’t do the emotional piece very well, we avoid emotionally charged situations when we can. When we go through difficult times, we often process our emotional pain by ourselves. We are puzzled that women don’t do the same and then want and expect the comfort of as many friends as possible for as long as possible.

Some women have objected to this emphasis on gender differences because it can be the basis for hurtful and unfair discrimination. The research that Dr. Brizendine and others are doing is showing that differences are a biological reality. Women need not be afraid of these differences.

But pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women. Perpetuating the myth of the male norm means ignoring women’s real, biological differences in severity, susceptibility, and treatment of disease. It also ignores the different ways that they process thoughts and therefore perceive what is important.
I have covered a very small fraction of the information in this book. I hope you can get a copy and read this most important book to fill in the large gaps left by this short article.


Frans said...

I have started reading this book and I find it rather fascinating. However being rather sceptical I like to read reviews of books as well. I found the rather worrying criticisms by Young and Balaban whoe reviewed the book in Nature at the Wikipedia entry for the book (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Female_Brain_(book) and http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/YoungBalabanBrizendine.pdf). Are you aware of this? What is your opinion on it?

Dr. Terry Sandbek said...

Thank you for your comments. I'm glad you checked out other perspectives on Dr. Brizedine's book.

Drs. Young and Balaban appear to have some legitimate concerns about her book. The journal "Nature" is one of the top scientific journals in the world and any article that appears in it must be respected. Dr. Peterzell also expressed concerns in the Wikipedia article.

Since neruo-psychology is not a field of competency for me, I can only respond with my opinions from a more general vantage point. I found their critiques a bit one-sided in that when they pointed out errors in the book, they didn't spell out an alternative to these "errors." Another concern is that often the author of a critical book review is given the chance to respond to the criticism. I don't know if this has happened in "Nature" or not. It would be interesting to find out how Dr. Brizendine would respond to the review. Then the information would not be so one-sided. Dialogue between dissenting views remains the life blood of science. Thanks again for bringing this to our attention.

paschalbread said...

It's good to appreciate sex differentiation. But there is the extreme we must guide against: that of making it seem as if we are talking of two different species, as Dr. Brizedine's book suggests.

I would have appreciated the book even more if it showed more evidently how the male and the female brain constitution are complementary

Dr. Terry Sandbek said...

You are so right about extremism in thinking about men and women. Some straight men are effeminate and some straight women have masculine characteristics. Then we have our gay friends who were born with a combination of male and female characteristics. We need to honor differences. As to the notion that men and women are different species, this is always a tongue-in-cheek comment. Nobody believes this literally. All humans are members of the same species.

If you are interested in reading more about the evidence for differences (statistically) between the brains of men and women, here are some references you may be interested in. A few of these books were written for graduate school and are very expensive.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The Essential Difference. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.

Becker, J., Berkley, K., Geary, N., Hampson, E. & Herman, J. (Eds.). (2007). Sex differences in the brain: From genes to behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blum, D. (1998). Sex on the brain: The biological differences between men and women. New York: Penguin.

Darlington, C. (2009). The female brain: Conceptual advances in brain research. CRC

Hines, M. (2005). Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Key, M. (1996). Male/Female language. Scarecrow Press.

Moir, A. & Jessel, D. (1992). Brain sex: The real difference between men & women. New York: Delta Publishing.

Thanks for your comments. I, and hopefully my readers, appreciate your helpful remarks.

Elizabeth H said...

As a woman about to go into the "workforce," the concern for discrimination is very real. I've been told how I should dress and behave in interviews to make it clear that I'm not about to run off and get married and have children (and therefore disappear from the workplace). Frustrating, and a bit offensive.

I think it is equally important for men to not be afraid of the biological differences and learn to value them as well.

Diane said...

As a woman with a "post-menopausal" brain who has lived through the entire women's movement, raised some children and known a few "male brains" and is, by profession, a lactation consultant who works with new families dealing with nurturing new life, I find this information very confirming. To Elizabeth I want to say that she may feel quite differently once she has a baby and feels the very female brain pull to love and nurture her baby and realizes the significance of this over professional life.