Mind & Spirit

The female brain: How it really works

By: Julie Beun-Chown

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

The female brain: How it really works

By: Julie Beun-Chown
This story was originally titled "The Female Brain Unplugged" in the November 2007 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

It’s 9:30 a.m. and Mauri, a girlfriend, and I are laughing, as we do most mornings, over the minutiae of our lives. Funny, but not fascinating – until we hit the topic of irritating things men do.

It’s a big subject to tackle before a second coffee, but Mauri is fearless. “We’re going on a trip,” she starts off. “We have 50 million things to cover: laundry, emptying the dishwasher, watering the plants, getting snacks for the car. And where is my husband while I’m running around, turning off the lights and locking the door?” she demands triumphantly. “In the car! Honking the horn, shouting, ‘What the hell are you doing? Hurry up!’”

Why are we so different?
I laugh out loud – it has happened so often to so many friends, it’s like a communal memory. But it made me wonder: Why do men and women think so differently?

The answer is in our head, says Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco and author of The Female Brain (Morgan Road Books, 2006). Locked away in the skulls of both sexes are organs that, despite having the same structures and general functionality, are nevertheless unique.

Brain scans from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveal that this diversity is “complex and widespread,” says Brizendine. (MRI uses radio waves and a magnetic field to provide detailed pictures of internal organs and tissues; fMRI uses MRI to measure quick, tiny metabolic changes in active parts of the brain.) “The principle hub of both emotion and memory formation – the hippocampus – is larger in the female brain, as is brain circuitry for language and observing emotions in others,” says Brizendine. She adds that women have 11 per cent more neurons governing language and hearing than men do.

Embracing the differences
These observations go a long way toward explaining why no two humans – male or female – are alike, says Jennifer Burkitt Hiebert, a psychology researcher at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “It’s important to remember that intelligence is the same between the sexes.” However, she says, there are sex-related variations, and “Our differences need to be embraced so we can benefit from each other.” To do that, we first need to educate ourselves.

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Linda, my stepmom, has what she calls the "50 per cent rule." It goes like this: men hear half of what you tell them, remember half of what they hear and repeat half of what they remember.

Cathy Campbell, 43, a career counsellor and mother of two in Halifax, can vouch for that. She recalls when she and Mike, her husband, bumped into an old friend. Cathy asked about the friend’s sister, who had cancer. "[The friend] looked at me funny and said, 'Well, I told Mike last week that she’s terminal now. Didn’t he tell you?' It was terrible news. Why didn’t Mike remember to tell me?"

Maybe he couldn’t because his brain, like most male brains, doesn’t attach the same degree of meaning to emotional information. Whether it’s distressing news or an exhilarating moment, women are able to recall emotional details more vividly because their amygdala – the brain’s mistress of emotion – is more sensitive to emotional nuance and more likely to send messages to be tagged as a memory by the hippocampus. "The biggest sex difference is what the male and female brain is paying attention to," says Dr. Stephan Hamann, a University of Toronto–educated cognitive neuroscientist now at Emory University in Atlanta. "Men do hear the message but they just don’t attach as much emotional meaning to it."

If there’s one thing that Chris Vacher, 30, a church music director in Orangeville, Ont., can’t tolerate, it’s gossip. So when he heard his wife Sonya, 27, discussing a friend’s divorce, he let her know how he felt about it.

Gossiping? More like empathizing, says Sonya. "Women need to have background information about each other," she says, "because we need to understand."

According to research, she’s right. Some scientists believe that women’s greater number of mirror neurons increases their empathy. In a British study at the University College London, researchers administered weak and strong electric shocks to female subjects and used an MRI to measure their brain’s response to the pain. Later, their partners received the same treatment. The women were told how strong the mens' jolt was. According to the MRI results, the women’s brains reacted to the knowledge of their partners’ pain as if it was their own.

Our daily talk-fests with female friends do something positive for us, too; we feel enjoyment, because when we communicate, the brain releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (better known as the bonding hormone). "We’re not talking about a small amount of pleasure," says Brizendine. "[Our hormonal response] is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside an orgasm."

Page 2 of 5Sex and the 20-second hug
I recently caught up with a university friend I hadn’t seen in 25 years. When I spotted him, my heart leaped and I hugged him. And hugged him. I felt reconnected. He looked a bit confused.

Little wonder. When it comes to men and women, not all cuddles are created equally. A 20-second hug floods the female brain with oxytocin, which creates such a sense of connection that University of New South Wales researchers in Australia are now using it to help troubled couples during therapy.

Men also release oxytocin through affection and tenderness, but their brains are more apt to link it to sex. In a recent fMRI study, Hamann showed university students sexually arousing pictures. Both sexes reacted, but the men’s amygdala and parts of the hypothalamus (parts of which govern sexual pursuit and which are twice as large in men as they are in women) lit up like Parliament Hill on Canada Day. In evolution, men had to have a quick response to visual stimulis. Males who didn’t have it also didn’t have the reproductive advantage, and they didn’t survive.

Spatial awareness
Jennifer Burkitt Hiebert tried – really tried – to give clear directions when her parents drove into Saskatoon recently to meet her for lunch. "I said, 'Go to the second McDonald’s on 8th St.' Mom was happy with that, but Dad? He wanted to know how many blocks and in which direction," she sighs. "I never know."

Funny, since Burkitt Hiebert’s University of Saskatchewan doctoral research deals with how testosterone affects spatial awareness. The male hormone "gives men an innate ability to find their way," she says. "They’re generally better at spatial tasks like map reading and using directions."

Women, on the other hand, navigate using visual landmarks. They tend to have better visual memory, verbal skills and fine-motor coordination, says Liisa Galea, associate professor in the department of psychology in The Brain Research Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "So a guy might notice he parked near the mall’s west entrance, but a woman will remember it was the entrance with the pink-shirt display."

Page 3 of 5Aggression
A car swerves dangerously in traffic, cutting off Pauline Barker, 48, of Winnipeg, and Peter, her husband. Pauline gasps and hangs on for dear life while Peter explodes, yelling expletives and shaking his fist at the departing maniac. "When he’s driving, he has zero patience for bad drivers," says Pauline with a laugh. "I might get scared, but otherwise, I don’t get upset about them."

Why the difference? "Threatening situations evoke primal feelings," which manifest differently in the two sexes, explains Tara Perrot-Sinal, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Men react with aggression because their hormones take a short, direct pathway through their brains. Women, on the other hand, respond with fear and feelings about protection. They feel anger as much as men do, says Brizendine, but their hostility goes through a weighing-up process aimed at self-preservation: anger in women can be better moderated because women’s brains don’t react to stress in the same way that men’s do.

It’s 3 a.m. and Lisa Robins, 36, a mother of two, is lying awake, the victim of too-much-to-doism and a great deal of stress. Dean, her husband, is snoring gently beside her. Although the couple work together at a small family business in Ottawa and share anxieties, they don’t share the same methods of dealing with them.

"How do I deal with stress? I talk to my friends and I have sleep disorders," says Lisa. "Dean will call a company and yell at them over an extra $3 charge on a bill. He vents, then he feels better."

Completely different reactions – but also fairly typical, says Perrot-Sinal. When a man is stressed, his heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket, and he reacts with a stronger fight-or-flight response. "Men have a higher physiological stress response than women," she says, "but they bottle it up and suffer more from atherosclerosis, hypertension and coronary disease."

Except for the high-hormone phase after menstruation when women are notably calmer than men, we feel pretty much the same amount of stress. But rather than lashing out, we tend and befriend – become protective or talk through issues with friends. The oxytocin we release as a result also keeps us in good health; a University of North Carolina study has found that the bonding hormone lowers women’s blood pressure and stress hormones.

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Three years ago, I broke up with Nathalie. We’d known each other across 20 years and three continents, but our values had radically changed. The decision to end our friendship didn’t come lightly. I fretted. I tried talking. Eventually, sick at heart, I wrote a letter, cutting her out of my life. Russel, my husband, didn’t get it. "Just tell her to get lost," he suggested helpfully. "That’s what I’d do."

Of course he would. Men will walk on hot coals to avoid a heated, drawn-out scene with those they know, but are happy to use a few blunt words to resolve conflict with anyone else, says Brizendine. That’s because their testosterone-driven mind focuses less on maintaining relationships than competing in the pecking order.

Women, on the other hand, hate a simmering, below-the-surface disagreement. "In women," says Brizendine, "conflict is more likely to set in motion a cascade of negative chemical reactions, creating feelings of stress, upset and fear." Faced with such situations, we do what our foremothers did for millennia: use affiliation circuits in the limbic system and cortex to confront a problem by talking it over with those we trust.

Reading faces
My dad is cursed with two lifelong problems: he can’t read faces and he has a memory like Swiss cheese. It drives Linda, his wife, crazy. Just before going to a cocktail party, for instance, she’ll work out a signal with him that means it’s time to go. "He’ll agree to it. Then, four hours later when I’m frantically winking and nodding from across the room, he’ll just look blank. I’ll ask him, 'Didn’t you remember?'" says Linda. "And he’ll say, 'Remember what?'"

Unlike women, most men can’t discern subtle facial signals, says Brizendine. This difference becomes apparent early on in life. According to a 2004 Canadian study, by the time she’s almost three months old, a girl’s ability to hold gazes – possibly an indication of her ability to read facial expressions – jumps 400 per cent beyond a boy’s, guided by the amygdala along with the hippocampus and insula, structures that rule memory and gut feelings.

Men, on the other hand, are guided by – you guessed it – testosterone, which means they can instantly read anger, threat or extremes like crying, but they’re less capable of interpreting subtleties. Some researchers believe Asperger’s syndrome (a high-performing form of autism, one characteristic of which is an inability to read faces) is an extreme male-brain phenomenon, possibly caused by an overabundance of testosterone.

All of this still doesn’t fully explain why Mauri can juggle snacks, dogs, laundry and kids, yet miss nothing in preparation for that family vacation. So I ask her husband, Dean, a broadcaster in Ottawa, for his side of the story. It’s simple, he says. Men are just better at focusing on one task at a time. "Give a guy a list and he’ll work through it," he says. "I was once asked why I hadn’t packed rubber pants for our baby daughter when we went out. Well, I was told to pack baby powder, diapers and a change of clothes. Not rubber pants." He sounds exasperated. "Was it on the list? No, it was not."

Turns out, this isn’t his fault, either. Brains are divided into two hemispheres; men use specialized regions in one side or the other to complete tasks sequentially. Women use both sides equally to complete multiple jobs. Even during sex, women must turn off their preoccupied amygdala before they "turn on" – which explains why women are three to 10 times less likely to reach orgasm than men. "Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road," remarks Brizendine, "men have O’Hare International Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex, whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes."

It’s a state of affairs Perrot-Sinal says exists to instruct us. "We complement each other because we’ve evolved in a dynamic relationship. Our roles are changing; we need to keep sight of the fact that we’re equal, but different."

Are you amused by the differences between men and women? Read about the things men want to tell women -- but don't.
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Mind & Spirit

The female brain: How it really works