For four years, I had the privilege of being a research outcomes coordinator for the executive team, at the Amen Clinics Inc., an agency focused on using brain scans and SPECT technology to provide accurate diagnosis and integrative treatment for mental health problems, poor nutrition, and other obscure conditions. Dr. Amen has been a guest on CNN, PBS, Dr. Oz, Entertainment Television, Dr. Phil, The View, TedX, Rachel Ray, Larry King, and more. Currently, he has a show called, Lying on the Psychiatrist’s Couch, on PBS.
Of all the amazing things I learned while working at the Amen Clinics, learning about the neurological differences between men and women, probably changed my life the most! It so deeply affected the way I saw myself and my behavior in the context of relationships, with both men and women. Men and women are not completely different, of course, but we are different in subtle ways that can have a big impact, and may be why we so often misunderstand each other.
It’s important to note, these five items we will examine below are measurable differences that always fall within a range of responses with a lot of overlap between groups. In fact, research shows that when comparing men and women, there are more differences within gendered groups, than between them. Not all women are the same. Nor are all men the same. Some women have low activity in their brains, some men have high activity. Some women’s brains act more like the average man’s, and some men’s brains act more like the average woman’s. There is evidence that the brains of homosexual or bisexual individuals may lie somewhere in between. Both men and women can be great mathematicians, engineers, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, cooks, real estate agents, parents, and caregivers. But overall, there are significant brain differences between the sexes that can be measured in a laboratory, seen on a brain scan, and observed in our everyday lives. Even when men and women succeed at the same task, they may call on different strengths and areas of the brain to do it (Amen, 2013).
Male brains tend to be larger than female brains, about 8% to 10% on average. This is not surprising since male bodies also tend to be larger, overall. But even when correcting for total body weight men have 4% more neurons or brain cells than women. The size difference is not consistent across the entire brain however, some brain parts in the female are larger than the corresponding parts of the male, and vice versa.
For example, Dr. Joel Goldstein of Harvard Medical School use MRI scans to compare male and female brains. She found that compared to men, women have a larger volume in the frontal cortices and limbic cortices; these are the areas involved in higher cognitive functions, including language, judgment, planning, impulse control, and conscientiousness, as well as emotional responses. Dr. Amen suggests this might explain why women tend to be less impulsive and more concerned with emotions than men, and also why they may struggle with worry. It could also explain some key strengths, including intuition, collaboration, self-control, and empathy.
Additionally, SPECT scan imaging consistently shows that the hippocampus is larger in women than men, which is a memory center. Men on the other hand have larger amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear and anger. This might explain why women may have a more accurate and detailed memory, while men tend to jump to fear and/or anger in a high stress situation.
Men also have a larger volume in the hypothalamus, which is associated with greater sexual interest and behavior.
2. Intelligence and Lateralization
Men and women are equally smart but each tends to use different parts of the brain to solve problems or achieve goals. For example, researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute found that male and female brains show different patterns of lateralization (which side of the brain they used more often), when performing different types of tasks. During a language task, men seem to rely almost completely on the left language side of the brain, showing more activity there (the more logical side). However, during a visual spatial task, like building blocks, men showed activity on both sides of the brain.
In contrast, women showed more activity on both sides of the brain during a language task and we’re more “lateralized” to the right, during a visual spatial task (the more expressive and creative side). This could explain why women tend to be more adept at language, while men tend to be more adept at visual-spatial tasks.
Additionally, women have a larger corpus collosum (the fiber band that connects the two sides of the brain), and this means they tend to use both sides more often, while men are more often using only the left side. For example, when it comes to language, men use fewer words, and are more to the point. Women use more words, and are overall more expressive. Because of this, men may become overwhelmed in arguments and say things like, “What’s the point?” or “Specifically, what do you want?” This might infuriate his partner who feels she is telling him exactly that, she just has more to say about it from all the extra input she is receiving.
3. Gray and White Matter
The percentage of gray matter versus white matter is another key difference between male and female brains. A consistent finding is that females have a higher percentage of gray matter compared to males, whereas males have a higher percentage of white matter. But does that matter?
Gray matter is composed mainly of brain cell bodies, while white matter is made up of brain cell tracks (communication cables) that provide connections between the cells. BUT, it turns out that in the parts of the brain that are related to intelligence, the proportions are reversed: men have more gray matter (6.5 times the amount found in women), whereas women have more white matter (10 times the amount found men). This means that men are likely to do more localized processing of information, using only a few areas to work through a problem or task, while women draw on many areas at the same time.
These findings suggest that “nature has created two different types of brains designed for equally intelligent behavior” (Haier, as cited by Amen, 2013, p. 36). It is the gray matter that “thinks,” but it is the white matter that connects different brain areas so that thinking can benefit from a wider range of information and the relationships between them. Basically, men find it easier to focus on one thing at a time, and they may have an easier time of finishing a task because they are not as easily distracted. Women are better multi-taskers, but they may struggle with task completion because they are so tuned into (and worrying about) a variety of things happening around them.
4. Sensory Perception
Women are equipped with more sensitive sensory equipment than men. Women are better at reading facial expressions and noticing the feelings of others. Additionally, mothers have been found to be able to quickly identify a range of emotions from hunger to pain to gas and tiredness, based on the recordings of an infant’s cry. When fathers have been put to the same task, less than 10% recognize more than two emotions (Pease & Pease, 2001).
Women also have better peripheral vision than men. From birth, girls are dramatically more sensitive to touch and as adults their skin is at least 10 times more sensitive than a man’s. Women also like and need to be touched more so than men; in one study, researchers found a woman is 4 to 6 times more likely to touch another woman in a social situation that a man would (Amen, 2007).
A woman’s sense of taste and smell is also more sensitive. And during times of ovulation, a woman is better at picking up male pheromones that cannot be detected consciously. Women are also much better at picking up on body language, which makes them better at spotting a lie.
Scans taken of over 3,000 “madly in love” college students reveal gender differences in brain activity. When asked to look at a picture of their lover, women showed greater activity in the parts of the brain related to memory, emotion, and attention, as well as in the septum—also called “the pleasure center.” Men showed greater activity in the visual cortex, including one area responsible for sexual arousal (Fischer & Brown, 2004).
Notably, men might have fewer illuminated areas than women, but when viewed in color, those areas are more intensely active. This could account for the propensity for men to fall “in love at first sight,” (perhaps more aptly described as “lust at first sight”). In general, these variations in brain activity across gender lines are supposed to aid humans in perpetuating the species. Men are better equipped to determine fertility by scouting an attractive hip-to-waist ratio, and women are more discerning of behavior and character, to determine if he would be a good father and provider.
Love and lust are also located in different areas of the brain, at least initially. A subsequent study in which individuals looked at erotic imagery while having their brains scanned, revealed none of the “in-love” brain activity. Activity was found in the hypothalamus and amygdala, part of the Limbic system of the brain involved with instinctual needs such as hunger, thirst, and arousal (Fischer & Brown, 2004).
In conclusion, male-female communication styles, bodily experiences, and ways of interacting are often different. We have a tendency to expect our partners to be mind-readers; women tend to think of men as selfish women, and men tend to think of women as emotionally indulgent men.
Many people attribute differences to cultural influences, yet similarities appear across cultures. In recent years, gender roles and expectations have become less rigid, and as a result we are witnessing just how far this hardwiring, in combination with cultural conditioning, extends.
Again, it’s important to remember, however, that not all women are the same. Nor are all men the same. Some women’s brains act more like the average man’s, and some men’s brains act more like the average woman’s. In fact, studies show greater variance among men and women, than between them. However, becoming aware of some of these differences between men and women may help you to recognize what fits or doesn’t fit, in your individual partnership. And this may help you to be more effective in interacting with your partner, and help you navigate relationships without feeling hurt or rejected.
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Amen, D. (2007) The Brain in Love. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press
Amen, D. (2013) Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. New York, NY: Harmony Books
Laskas, A. M. (2009) Bennet Omalu, Concussions, and the NFL: how one doctor changed football forever. GQ. Retrieved from http://www.gq.com/story/nfl-players-brain-dementia-study-memory-concussions
Pease, A. & Pease, B. (2001) Why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. New York, NY: Harmony Books
Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2009) Why men want sex and women need love. New York: Broadway Books
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