How Are Men and Women’s Brains Different?
A look at gender based differences between our brains
Are men and women’s brains different? It’s a question that has puzzled science for many years. As men and women, we are aware that we have different physical capabilities. Men are usually much physically stronger than women, whilst woman are often more supple. We also appear to have differing emotional inclinations. Women seem to have a tendency to be more flexible in their opinions and have greater empathy. Whereas, many men naturally fall into positions of leadership and are seen as the protectors of those weaker than themselves. Traditionally, women are thought to prefer socialising with their counterparts more, whilst many men seem to prefer to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.
Over time, these differences have become less pronounced as our roles have merged, with both men and women taking on occupations and responsibilities traditionally thought to be outside of their gender specific abilities. However, the fact remains that we are very different animals who act and respond to situations, and other men and women, very differently.
So what causes these profound differences? Are men and women’s brains different? It’s obvious that nurture plays a large role in establishing who we are and how we act. Our childhood toys and activities are generally pretty gender specific, although many parents are trying to steer away from this in the current day. Girls are traditionally given dolls and teddies to look after and are encouraged to mimic caring roles. Boys are traditionally encouraged to play with toys that ‘make something’ or ‘fix something’ and have games that involve adventure and discovery. These differing starts in life lead to the sexes behaving very differently by the time we attend school.
However, despite society’s tendency to dictate our preferences in life, do the differences between men and women run deeper than simply the choices made for us by our parents and carers? Are there fundamental physiological differences that are hard-wired in our brains? In fact, recent research has discovered that there are indeed considerable differences between typical men and women’s brains. They studied four different areas of the brain: structure, chemistry, processing and activity, and found over 100 differences which point to different abilities. A sample of their findings follows:
It’s been found that women generally have a larger hippocampus with a higher density of neural connections within the structure. This means women absorb and react to more sensory and emotional input than men. Women act more on what they have ascertained from sensory and emotional information.
Women also have a verbal centre within both hemispheres of the brain whereas men usually have a verbal centre in one hemisphere only. This predicates women to use more words when discussing events and memories.
Combining these two important structural differences seems to indicate that women would be more naturally inclined to discuss their emotions and feelings using more words and descriptive phrases than men.
The same neurochemicals can be found in both men and women’s brains, however they are processed differently and found in different amounts. These neurochemicals include serotonin, oxytocin, estrogen and testosterone.
As males have more testosterone, which controls aggression and impulsive behaviour, they tend to be more physically impulsive and aggressive, as well as being less able to sit still for long periods of time. Men also make less oxytocin, which is the chemical that promotes bonding with fellow humans, this makes them less likely to find comfort from their relationships with other people.
Within a man’s brain, seven times more of the grey matter is used, whereas, in a women’s brain, ten times more of the white matter is used. This is a huge difference. Scientists believe that it translates to how we handle tasks and multi-task.
Grey matter is associated with action and information tasks. The enormous use of this type of matter when working allows men to remain very focused on the task in hand to the exclusion of many distractions.
Women, on the other hand, are using their white matter whilst engaged in a task. White matter is more of a networking grid that connects other areas of the brain. This is probably why women seem to be better at multi-tasking and can switch their focus between tasks with greater ease than men.
There are also considerable differences in the activity we can find inside the brains of men and women.
A woman’s brain has more blood flowing through it at any one time, as the white matter requires more blood to work effectively. This causes there to be more blood in the ‘concentration part’ of the brain, the Cingulate Gyrus. Because of this, women seem to be prone to revisiting and rethinking past emotional memories.
On the other hand, a man’s brain seems to be more likely to quickly examine a memory and then to swiftly ‘file it away’ and move onto the next task. This leads to the general conception that men avoid their feelings in preference for focusing on their tasks. It really isn’t a choice, it’s all about how their brain works!
So are men and women’s brains different? Well, yes and no! A 2015 study carried out by scientists at Tel Aviv University, used MRI to study the brains of men and women to look for differences between the genders. In general, it was found that most brains displayed a unique mix of different gender-specific features. Only 6 in 100 brains studied were found to be consistently typical of one gender. Most people had brains made up of a unique patchwork of both male and female characteristics.
So, while we may be inclined to act in a traditionally more male or female way, due to the physiological differences inside our brains, these differences are not cut and dried. It’s likely that our unique brain will give us a unique way of thinking and approaching life’s tasks and decisions. Whilst our behaviour can, in part, be influenced by our brains, the way in which we are encouraged to develop in childhood may play a much greater part in deciding who we are and how we act.
In fact, the truth of the matter seems to be that, while men and women are naturally inclined to be better at some things than others, this is only in part to do with our brain’s gender. The differences in our abilities have been exaggerated over the ages to fit with society’s idea of what we should or should not be good at doing.
As the parents and grandparents of future generations, it’s important that we remember each child is a complex and unique mixture of natural abilities and skills as well as those that can be learned and mastered. The future of our planet will see both men and women take on equally challenging roles outside of the traditional gender-specific expectation. It’s our job to ensure that both our boys and girls are equally prepared to excel in this exciting future.