One of the reasons I’m excited and fascinated by research in social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology is because findings in these fields help me make sense of my experience – especially the challenging or troubling ones. Like for example, those allostatically loaded times in junior high that I’ve already written about when the teacher called on me and I sat there like a deaf mute, or when Martha Katz or Sara Cosgrove or Phyllis Granoff would speak to me in history class and I would act like I was retarded. I was retarded – neurologically not connected – the front brain not well-connected to the hind brain. Not to mention all the testosterone (which I’m sure will one day be empirically proven to be a radical neurotoxin) running wild in other parts of my body.


Outmanned by Women


Here’s what UCSF neuro-psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain has to say about me and my seventh grade brain:


Why do previously communicative boys become so taciturn and monosyllabic that they verge on autism when they hit their teens? The testicular surges of testosterone marinate the boys’ brains. Testosterone has been shown to decrease talking as well as interest in socializing … Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand.


So that’s nearly a three-fold difference. Women apparently not only have more neural real estate devoted to language-processing and expression, but they don’t have as much testosterone marinating their brains. Instead, girls’ brains march to the beat of estrogen’s drum, driving them more to “tend and befriend.” Theoretically, this affiliative capacity developed because it’s harder to engage in fight or flight in the wild when you have a child on your hip. (While these kinds of findings and speculations might seem to lend themselves to gender stereotyping, that’s not their intent. Men obviously have some capacity to “tend and befriend” as well. In my experience, however, it’s not my first impulse and it’s not something that comes with great neurobiological ease for me – I’m constantly on the lookout for that stone axe in the hand behind your back).


Requiring Reinforcements


So women’s general facility and grace with language is generally consistent with my experience. What they seem to do effortlessly – use language with great ease and fluency – I actually have to work at. And work pretty hard, at that. In fact, it often feels like I have to call up extra neural reinforcements in order to carry on a conversation of any significant duration. Sometimes it’s almost like I can feel “forced” connections taking place in my brain as I try to sustain an extended exchange. (Those forced connections often seem to be a requirement in writing as well – words do not simply flow with ease and grace in a perfectly integrated synchrony. Thank God for parentheses).


Estrogen Benefits


Where else do significant differences show up in the female brain? Estrogen, again. Girls’ brains and bodies have more estrogen running around inside them. Estrogen, it turns out, has profoundly positive effects on the brain, including the ability to stimulate new neurons to form new synapses and dendrites; it encourages neurogenesis, protects against free radicals and appears to help preserve memory. Estrogen also seems to account for the basic difference in hippocampal structures in men and women. Here’s our stress expert Bruce McEwen once again on the significance of this difference:


When it comes to homo sapiens, men are more likely to use global spatial cues and know approximately in which direction something is relative to where they are, whereas women tend to use “local” cues or landmarks, remembering to turn right at the church and left at the gas station, for example…the “masculinization” of both the structure and function of the hippocampus (in utero) doesn’t explain why men will do seemingly anything rather than ask directions (pp. 169-170).


Perhaps what does explain the reason for such reluctance is that men simply don’t have sufficient neural capacity to process language AND navigation cues AND devote sufficient attention to driving AND chewing gum all at the same time. I know I rarely do.


P. S. Many thanks to Marla Estes for reminding me about this very entertaining five minute monologue by Mark Gungor on further differences: Brain Differences.