The Female Brain
Author: Louann Brizendine
There are very few subjects that are as sensitive and contentious as the differences between the genders, and the author of this book readily admitted that her views may be considered by some to be politically incorrect. As she stridently argued that the differences between men and women are primarily biological rather than cultural, she also denounced the tendency to downplay these inherent gender differences, all ‘in the name of free will and political correctness‘. Indeed the author’s stated reason for writing the book was to enable women to have better control over their actions, and to better plan their future by understanding how their ‘brain chemistry‘ shapes their lives and drives their impulses (pages 205-208 and 29). The book traces the major differences between the male and female brains as they develop from birth through to old age, convincingly demonstrating that each gender is endowed with ‘powerful sex-specific strengths and talents‘ (pages 205-209).
In her examination of the book’s major theme, the author, a neuropsychiatrist, cites abundantly from the scientific literature, exploring diverse fields such as genetics, molecular neuroscience, neurohormonal development, and endocrinology (page 32). Using these as foundation, she dispels the blank slate concept of a prenatal unisex, asserting that boys and girls are born hard-wired with their sex-specific genders (page 34). Noting that the default gender at conception is female, she pointed out that the two brains diverge when a ‘huge testosterone surge’ at the eighth week of foetal life sets the male brain apart (page 36). Tracking brain development from this biological turning point, the author discusses countless differences between the gendered brains. She shows, for example, that the female brain matures much faster than the male brain, and that both female and male brains have the same number of brain cells, although the male brain is about 9 percent larger because its cells are more densely packed (pages 72 and 23).
A compelling feature of the book is its depiction of the differences between male and female behaviour as people advance through the different stages of life. For example, the author explained that female babies are better at mutual gazing and making eye contact than male babies, and that girls’ play is devoid of the stress, conflict, displays of status, and threats that typify boys’ play (pages 37-46). Females are also better at joint decision-making, and they display more advanced language skills and verbal agility than men, girls on average speaking ‘two to three times more words per day than boys’ (pages 31 and 63). Other intriguing gender differences described in the book, in favour of women, include better abilities at reading faces and states of mind, better skills at defusing conflict, better responsiveness to distress, and more sensitive gut instincts (pages 40, 161, and 166).
How do the observed behavioural differences between the genders correlate with brain anatomy? The author examines this important theme in detail, for example when she demonstrated how, by possessing a larger hippocampus, females are far better than men ‘at expressing emotions and remembering the details of emotional events’ (page 28). Females also tend to have a better memory for emotional details than men because ‘a woman’s amygdala is more easily activated by emotional nuance’ (page 170). Men on the other hand, by having a larger amygdala loaded with testosterone receptors, exhibit greater anger responses, and act more aggressively, than women (pages 28 and 171). Other gender-specific behaviours with anatomical correlates include a more heightened male interest in sex; this, the author proposes, is because males devote two and a half times more ‘brain space‘ to sexual drive than women (pages 28, 66-67, and 127-128).
A major part of the book is dedicated to exploring the biopsychosocial dimensions of female behaviours. For example, the author showed that sex hormones, by increasing the excitability of up to 25% of brain circuits, provoke the wide behavioural fluctuations that characterise the menstrual cycle (pages 76 and 35). These extreme behavioural variations, the author argues, go to show that ‘a woman’s neurological reality is not as constant as a man’s…constantly changing and hard to predict’ (page 26). The author also explored how women use a distinctive form of female aggression to protect their relationships, and this often manifests in the subtle and sophisticated use of language and emotion, something the author labelled ‘aggression in pink‘ (page 54). The book also discussed several gender-related health differences, such as a higher risk of anxiety and depression in females, and a higher risk of autism in males (pages 25, 83, 175, and 47).
Perhaps the most socially relevant arguments the book makes relates to gender roles in relationships and in society. For example, the author argues that ‘in every culture, women are less concerned with a potential husband’s visual appeal and more interested in his material resources and social status‘ (page 92). Males on the other hand are universally attracted to ‘strong visual markers of fertility‘ such as ‘clear skin, bright eyes, full lips, shiny hair, and curvy, hourglass figures’ (page 94). Similarly, she asserts that ‘during puberty, a girl’s entire biological reason d’etre is to become sexually desirable…because their hormones create the reality in their brains that being attractive to boys is the most important thing’ (page 57). With regards women’s preference for social over science professions, she argues that this is ‘shaped by hormonal effects on the female brain compelling connection and communication‘ (page 31). The author relied on several research studies to support these and other bold and provocative assertions she made on gender-specific social roles.
The range of topics the book addresses is quite exhaustive, covering related themes such as love, romantic rejection, infidelity, female orgasm, pregnancy, motherhood, the menopause, hormone replacement therapy, and sexual orientation (pages 95-122, 131-141, 179-205, 213-231, and 237-239). She also explored many related medical disorders such as cancer, stroke, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, and Couvade syndrome (pages 213-231, 50-51, and 141). There were several references to findings from animal research, and she cites many experts such as evolutionary psychologist David Buss, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, and neuropsychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen (pages 92 and 165).
This book addresses a subject that has wide ramifications across society and healthcare. The author’s arguments are well-made and appear grounded in scientific research. The author admits that many of her assertions are politically sensitive, but justifies them based on their factual basis. The text is complemented by helpful illustrations which simplified the rather complex architecture of the brain. Whilst many of her characterisations of male and female behaviour may appear stereotypical, and perhaps outdated, it was very difficult to fault the strength of her arguments.
This is an important book, addressing a subject that is relevant to society generally, and to medicine particularly. The diverse themes the book covers are relevant to many aspects of healthcare, public and personal. Understanding the influence of gender differences, and the effects of the brain on behaviour, should lead to a better appreciation of health related behaviour, and guide health interventions. I therefore recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Bantam Books, London, 2006
Number of chapters: 7
Number of pages: 352
Star rating: 4