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Male and Female Brains

Are they wired differently?

In a previous article, we talked about how men and women have distinct perspectives and often approach and interpret events differently. It's not that one is better than the other; they’re just different. This is certainly no earth-shattering revelation.

Just to continue on this theme, we decided to take a look at the research as to what might be underlying these differences. There's a debate going on in the scientific community as to whether or not the unique characteristics of men and women have a physiological basis.

The male brain is about 10 percent larger on average, but size doesn't matter here. After all, elephants have brains that are three times larger and have more neurons than humans, but we don't see them doing brain surgery, and it's not just because they don't have fingers.

Some researchers argue that the brains of men and women are wired differently. The male brain is wired from front to back, with few connections across the two hemispheres. Women, on the other hand, have more wiring from left to right, so the two hemispheres are more inter-connected.

Without getting into the neurological details, researchers propose that these wiring differences result in men and women having different strengths. So, while we mentioned that one sex is not better than the other overall, each is better, on average, in certain respects. Here are some of the findings:

  • Men are better at performing single tasks; women are better at multi-tasking.
  • Women are better at attention, word memory and social cognition, and verbal abilities.
  • Men are better at spatial processing and sensorimotor speed
  • Women are better at fine-motor coordination and retrieving information from long-term memory
  • Women are more oriented toward and have better memories of faces, men of things.
  • Men are better at visualizing a two- or three-dimensional shape rotated in space, at correctly determining angles from the horizontal, at tracking moving objects, and at aiming projectiles.
  • In finding their way, men rely more on dead reckoning – that is, they determine their position from the direction and distance traveled. Women tend to rely more on landmarks.

Unfortunately, there are also gender-specific tendencies that are not so good. Women are more prone to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Men are more likely to suffer from schizophrenia, dyslexia, and autism, and to become alcoholic or drug-dependent. These are proposed to result from their distinctive wiring patterns.

We know that men and women react differently from an emotional perspective, and that, researchers argue, may also have to do with brain issues. The female brain has greater blood flow in the cingulate gyrus, the part of the brain that's involved in processing emotions, resulting in more intense emotional reactions and stronger emotional memories.

There are also some sex-specific behaviors that seem to be innate, not learned. Since behaviors are initiated by our brains, this suggests there some hard-wiring going on. Female mice, for example, have a trait not found in males of protecting their nests from invaders. In monkeys, males prefer toys with wheels while females prefer plush toys. Moving up the ladder, human toddlers show a preference for sex-specific toys, before they know they're a gender, and show some of the perceptual differences found in adults that are mentioned above.

The female brain also has more wiring in the areas that play a role in social cognition and verbal communication. That may be why they're better at empathizing with others, have a better sense of what is happening around them, and are richer in their verbal descriptions.

Because there's less connectivity in the male brain between their verbal centers, and their emotions and memories, they're not as effective as communicators, and that may be why they also tend to have less interest in conversations.

During activities, the male brain uses much more gray matter while the female brain uses more white matter. This difference is believed to account for the greater ability of males to focus on a specific task to the exclusion of what's happening around them, while women are better at switching between tasks.

This sounds pretty convincing, right? Well, not to everyone. There are researchers who argue the other side—even if the adult male and female brains are wired differently, it's a huge leap to say that these differences are programmed in at birth. There are socio-cultural factors at work.

Brain connections change as a result of experience and learning. When the same signals are processed over and over, those neural networks get stronger, just as muscles or skills develop with usage and practice. Male and female brains may start out similar but become different over time as boys and girls are treated differently, and for whom there are different expectations. How we're brought up plays a major role in how we act, think, and believe and our brains may adapt accordingly.

A reasonable conclusion is that it's both—there may be neurological differences, but there are also cultural influences. The percent of differences that are neurological vs. societal/cultural (i.e. nature vs. nurture) is anybody's guess at this point in time.

This debate is likely to continue for quite some time. At least that gives researchers something to do.

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