Friday, August 04, 2006

Mens and Women's Brains are Different?

My morning paper tells me that one Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist, has declared that men's and women's brains are different and so we should cut each other some slack if we exhibit differences in our behaviors. Dr. Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown U linguist, has taken the position that men and women communicate differently. Like Dr. Tannen (a Ph.D.) before her, Dr. Brizendine (an M.D.) is getting a lot of press.

Dr. Brizendine's research interest is "women's hormonal balance and effects on mood, sex and anxiety" according to the UC San Francisco web site. She has an impeccable education -- undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, Yale Medical School, and a residency in psychiatry at Harvard. It is clear from her list of interests and activities, at the UCSF web site (click on her name) she has focused entirely on women so one wonders where her expertise about men comes from. I critiqued a prepress version of Deborah's most famous book and it was my sense then that it had been based primarily on anecdotes provided by women, rather than men (though I did supply a male perspective in my comments).

One of the real disgraces of medical as well as other kinds of research is that the focus used almost exclusively to be on males and, more than that, white males. As a result the medical needs of women and Blacks were largely ignored in medical research and drugs trials. Interestingly, after writing the previous sentence I picked up this quote from a short on-line review of her book, The Female Brain.
While doing research as a medical student at Yale and then as a resident and faculty member at Harvard, Louann Brizendine discovered that almost all of the clinical data in existence on neurology, psychology, and neurobiology focused exclusively on males. In response to the overwhelming need for information on the female mind, Brizendine established the first clinic in the country to study and treat women's brain function. At the same time, The National Institutes of Health began including female subjects in almost all of its studies for the first time. The result has been an explosion of new data on the female brain in recent years.
So, I shall presume that her inferences of differences between male and female brain differences is predicated on her comparing her research on women with the research of others on men. I might add that I believe children have also not been much studied in medical research and wonder about how the doses of medicines for children are determined.

In trying to get up to speed on this sort of research, I happened across a British study showing that sexual orientation seemed to be critical to performing certain mental tasks, with lesbians performing in much the same way as heterosexual males and gay men performing in much the same way as heterosexual women. This British study suggests that "varying levels of exposure to the male hormone testosterone before birth plays a role in "hard-wiring" the brain." I am of the opinion that testosterone is the work of the devil and is what what makes males behave so badly.

When I critiqued Tannen's book I urged her to consider the possibility that men and women form a continuum of tendencies in verbal behaviors with males tending to cluster more at one end and females at the other. As I read the interview of Dr. Brizendine, I was struck by the fact that my personal experiences with some woman most close to me in my life were inconsistent with the properties that she said women, but not men exhibit. I had the same experience while reading Tannen's book. It is this personal, purely anecdotal experience, of no real scientific merit other than providing a hint that there could be counter-examples to their theories, that leads me to think that there is a continuum between males and females in regard to brain differences. Of course the British study does confirm this but not in the way I am suggesting which is that there will be a continuum between heterosexual males and females.

Dr. Tannen early on took the "fair and balanced" view that boys and girls learn verbal styles primarily while engaged in same sex activities. Indeed, when I was a kid, I played exclusively with other males -- until I found out about the special delights female companionship provides. So, if males tend to dominate women verbally in different sex interactions then that merely reflected the fact that when boys are interacting with boys, skills in competition and efforts at domination are learned. Meanwhile girls are learning to be cooperative. Deborah took some heat from feminists who believed she was letting men off the hook for their competitive non cooperative verbal styles. I think they were right. I am still competitive and tend to try to dominate interactions I am in though not necessarily consciously but I also know better than to think that this is a right way to act.

Dr. Brizendine is likely to take some heat from feminists for letting men off the hook for their bad behavior as well, for she provides a biological basis for differences in male and female behavior rather than the explantorially weaker sociological basis Dr. Tannen provided. It would be nice to see confirmation of Dr. Brizendine's generalizations about male and female brain differences by those who have studied both, such as in the case of the British study referred to above. My money is on the existence of a continuum. Once our library gets in a copy I shall attempt to read it.

In a short review of her book, a troubling question ostensibly taken from her book is raised, namely "why are women more verbal than men? " I am not sure what facts are being presupposed by this question. Is it that women talk more than men or that women do better at certain verbal skills tests than men or what? In fact, men tend to dominate different sex interactions and though one keeps hearing abiout the greater verbal skills exhibited by females this is certainly not true on SAT and ACT tests. Indeed there have been calls for less biased pre-college testing. Obviously if a verbal skills tests involves, say, anologies using terms drawn from comman male experiences males are going to do better. In any event, I look forward to her book.

This is a bit of a rambling blog but I am desperately trying to get off the current wars as a topic.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

To the good doctor, I say, "Duh."

Of course there's going to be a continuum (which is just a construct, really), but it's obviously going to be weighted much more by men on one side and women on the other.

I don't think women are more verbal than men. Men do tend to put more emphasis on actions, but as Dr. Tannen said it's merely a difference in the way we use language. (Many people would be surprised to find that women interrupt other people more often than men do--but they do it to affirm and agree rather than to change the subject or disagree.)

LG, I'm troubled by your referring to testosterone as evil. Testosterone is a highly adaptive hormone. It allowed the human race to specialize between the sexes (although women have it too). It also fuels the competitive drive. Without the high levels of testosterone in men the human race would either be extinct or we would be technologically in the bronze age (although we might not have developed weapons to such a degree). Many people seem to forget that almost all of our major technological advances are military-related first and then are adapted for civilian life.

So perhaps your position is that testosterone is no longer a necessary adaptation, that it should become vestigial? I don't know about that. Yes, the drive to improve life has made some headway into developing technology for the betterment of life as an end in itself, but I wonder how much that would change without testosterone.

12:41 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The testosteroe "devil" bit was a joke. I thought it would be clear it was but I was wrong. Now everyone knows. I don't like to use smileys after jokes because I have seen too many people try to mitigate insults with smileys.

1:00 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Oh, I'm sorry. I think perhaps the tone of the sentence wasn't far enough removed from the tone of the rest of the post for me to catch that. Then again, your using the word "devil" should have tipped me off.

The question, then, is: What good is her research going to do? If all it does is point out differences between men and women, then it's a bad thing. If it shows us how we are different and explains how to deal with those differences effectively, then it's a good thing. Is she saying that perhaps brain-related medications (such as fluoxetine) need to be studied specifically by sex?

3:25 PM

Blogger Maureen said...

I have absolutely no scientific background for this, but my gut agrees with you that properly and thoroughly conducted research by Tannen, Brizendine, or anyone else will support a continuum of behavior patterns rather than a black-and-white differentiation. That was something that bothered me with Tannen's books; it's been years since I read the last one, but IIRC, it didn't address the possibility of women learning "men's" speech patterns or vice versa.

4:10 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Just in response to the paean to testosterone: If coming up with ever more clever ways of killing each other is the only way we can progress...we'd have done better staying in the pond. (Or up in the trees.)

7:20 PM

Blogger Larry007 said...

I think when it comes to male and female, nature and nurture we get hot and bothered because of the idea in this country of 'equality of all people'. It's as if any differences that would disadvantage one group of people or seem to disadvantage them is terrible.

Advantage or disadvantage is in the eye of the beholder and in the taste of the community. Males and females are different beyond their sex organs, though sexual organs is one demonstration of this difference. The medical community did not do an injustice to women because they did not include them in research - they were just ignorant about how significant the biolgoical differences were. The attitude before was that you would not sacrifice a woman on reserach since in society women are more valuale to a community - Yes I know you're going to point to all of the bad behavior against women. But who would be more devistating to lose in a community - a man or a woman? A woman - why? She carries the future of the community - the children. Men are more easily replaced. So some of the reason women were excluded was if you could find out the results of research using men, then you could transfer the knowledge you got to women.

Men and women talk differently because they are different - their brains are structured differently. This whole social psychology where we are taught by our cultures ignores some basic issues - in most cultures of the world even when they did not have contact with each other, developed similar male and female patterns and gender distinctions. Social training only has some impact - think of all the women who were trained a certain way by their WWII moms and in the 60s or 70s changed a lot of what they were taught - their own mothers and grandmothers were taught certain gender roles for centuries and in less than a generation, women changed some of the rules - though some of traditional patterns are returning.

Men are competitive, and so are many women - in different areas and some of the same. But men are usually more competitive for longer times more openly - look at animal research on pecking order and Alpha males. It's not that women are not similar to some of male patterns but it is not as ingrained in most women - the emphasis is on 'most' since some women are as competitive as men - the exception proves the rule - the fact that there is an exception proves that there is a rule from which to make an excetion.

Here are a few things most women have as patterns that most men do not (some men may but again, they are exceptions)
Women prefer men as tall or taller than they are
Women prefer men who have or potentially have the ability to support the woman and her chidren whether she has them now or not
Women prefer to use more accessories with the clothes she uses to dress in in public
Women more often use lipstick or face make up more regularly more often over time
Women show more skin and expose parts of their body when they dress in public
Women look at a man and his physical make up as 'part' of her decision to partner with him and have babies with him

Do we act this way socially because society tells us to do this or does society encourage or support these behvaiors because that is how humans 'generally' are? If it was only society forcing the issue then more people would follow what society says - teens would follow what parents said, women would act like how they were brought up, men womld not act badly against women since most men are taught to treat their wommen well, etc.

Genes and hormones still have power over our behavior - about 50% - and society still influences us with peer pressure but it is still us who act today. Human behavior can change quickly when things are right. We still live according to general human patterns - we think differently means we focus on different things first when we think. Men have feelings but in a response that is not what they often lead with. Women and men have qualities each other wants or finds facinating - but they are different because we are humans - society just shapes into one type of expression those human patterns.

7:26 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Ah, testosterone! I happen to like the stuff... in moderation of course.

7:44 PM

Blogger Mrs. Geezerette said...

A topic similar to this one was discussed on a radio talk show today. I agree with the host in some instances.

I know there are overlaps, but it seems to me that men and women often see things differently. Men seem to see the big picture. Women seem to focus on the details.

As a result of their looking at the big picture, men seem less inclined to worry about the small stuff. As a result of their attention to detail, women seem more inclined to anticipate how things might go wrong in a given situation. This might explain in part why men take risks more than women.

12:39 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

jeez, well I bet that distracts you a little from the war?
i wonder what key word prompted that.

Anyway, I wanted to say, I think this is an important area of research. Some of these questions need to resolved so men & women can see each other as just 'people'.
The trouble is that, it is so hard to do.

12:55 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Very interesting, Lobo. One small point. Ignorance or not, the failure to test drugs on women was an injustice but I take your point.

Your response reminds me of what my favorite professor at Rice, Trent Wann, often referred to in my blogs, asked one day. Suppose that we could prove that Blacks were on average ten percent less intelligent than Whites, what would be the policy implications of that? The answer, obviously, is none since there would be an intelligence continuum there would be Blacks sprinkled all through the ranges of scores of Whites. But, of course, no one has or will like show that. Please understand that that question was raised at a time when segregation ruled the land and Rice was lily white.

The point applies to men and women. There is a continuum of intelligence and one for every kind of skill or aptitude and so any differences there might be should lead to no policy changes.

I hope you will stick around and comment more frequently.

7:57 PM

Blogger abigail said...

I'm sorry, I'm terribly tired of the whole male/female/venus/mars line of thinking, especially since I think that most of the "findings" tend to be subtly (and not so subtly) perjorative towards women. I am female, and heterosexual and certainly never learned to "cooperate" through my interactions with girlfriends or women (quite the opposite in fact!). Nor did I learn to compete through interactions with men. The whole idea is so freakin reductionist it makes me cringe.

Your continuum theory is less reductionist, and makes more sense. I've always liked the quote from Terrence, "Nothing human is alien to me," kind of the polar opposite of the "men are from here women from there and never the twain shall meet" kind of thinking, and, much wiser, to my mind.

by the way, testosterone isn't all that bad. women have it too. If you want a *really* nasty hormone, try estrogen...grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

10:29 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Abagail, there is a simple logic to the male-female problem that supports your position completely. It goes like this:

1.Male behaviors differ from those of females.

2. When two things differ, one must be better than the other.

3. The male's way of behaving is better.

This is the essence of the male-female problem and it is predicated on male prejudice against women. These books deny premise 2 -- their position is that we have two ways of doing things, a male way and a female way, and both are good. Or they say there are two ways of acting and the male one is wrong -- you can't count on men buying that. Since I was mentioned in Tannen's preface as helping out, I got accosted a few times by men who said their wives took the book to them and demanded they read it. They weren't pleased to have to do so.

Overwhelmingly, when humans see a difference between things, they seem compelled to say one is better than the other. So, I think you are right. These books may do much more harm than good. Obviously, the middle premise is the problem.

Premise 2 underlies racism, sexism, ethnic prejudices, religious prejudices, etc. I think premise 2 is hard wired. Survival depended on people making right choices -- the dark shadow in the forest might just be a shadow of a bush or it may be a panther. The people who picked "panther" each time contributed to our gene pool. The others didn't. Or, take the difference between edible plants (tomato) and inedible plants (tree leaves) and between things that are poisonous from things that are not (blowfish vs. redfish, poisonous mushrooms vs. nonpoisonous ones, okay snakes and poisonous ones, etc.) So, we are always tempted to prefer one thing over another when they are different.

12:32 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

LG, did you get the impression that a certain 2 commenters, who appear to be quite attractive women, were just advertisements? I'm 99.9% certain you just got targeted, covert advertising on your site.

As for medical research being conducted on men only, I think part of the reason is that the researchers assumed men to be the "default" setting for humans (as if there really is such a thing) and that the research should be done on them first, and if anything different popped up with women it was due to the ways that they differ from the default. They're treated almost as a separate case, grouped with asthmatics, people with allergies, and people with high blood pressure.

As for your statement that no one will prove any such thing that one race is different from another--why not? As I've noted before, it's naive to think that the differences between the races are cosmetic only. If you could control for all variables, then I would posit that you would find such differences. But like you say, it would have no policy implications because it would still be a continuum. In fact it would probably be harmful to do that kind of research because people would take it as more probative than it really is.

1:28 PM

Blogger Mr K said...

Kelly, I think LG says this simply because most studies appear to have failed to do so so far- at least to a significant extent anyway.

All things are, of course, a continuum, usually something like a normal distribution (a line that curves upwards, peaks at the mean, and curves back down again, where higher means more people, and lowe means les). I wonder even if there are differences between women and men in manners of thinking, how significant these are at a genetic level. We have a problem thanks to culture having such a huge effect (and Lobo your 50% figure between biology is snatched from the air- it might be true, but it surely depends on what you are talking about). Ultimately, as you say, it cannot effect teaching that much, unless there are significant differences in the way men and women learn that there would be an advantage in teaching them in different ways. This has been claimed by some recently, I believe, although such things often ignore the other benefits of having boys and girls learn alongside each other.

5:09 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Am leaving this comment here because I couldn't find an email address.
LOVE your blog, and have talked about it to friends as well. I'm a copywriter in New Delhi, and stumbled across your blog while looking for blogs by *copywriters*...
So this was not what I was expecting :-)
What you say about advertising is so interesting, wish you'd write more on the subject.
You may be surprised to learn that direct mail greats like Drayton Bird have also talked about 'weasels' - and how disapoointing people damages credibility of the whole medium in the long run. People don't like it, or don't trust it or tune out altogether.
But since we *are* in the business of selling, I guess it's more problematic than, or not as simple as that?
Where does persuasion fade into manipulation... or is it purely subjective? I hope not.
Read a quote that said, "Unethical advertising uses lies to deceive people, ethical advertising uses the truth to deceive people."
In any case, now that I've bookmarked your blog I hope to come back often and read you.

Thank you for blogging!


2:46 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

govindmuku, if I can get over being so lazy, I will put up a pdf file of my book on advertising.

As for alleged differences between males and females let me add this. Tannen says that when women complain to others about difficult work situatios, they are looking for sympathy, commiseration, etc. but get advice from men. My wife, like I,, would tend to offer advice. Does that make her into a man? Indeed, she, like I, sees complaining about things one is unable or unwilling to change as simple whining, not an attractive property.

8:03 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I like to whine a bit and then get to work. (If you want something done right....)

I've never been much for exercise (waist [sic] of time!) and currently have manboobs bigger than those of most women I know.

Abby, should I be concerned?!

8:27 AM

Blogger Maureen said...

Re: complaining about difficult work situations: I do it only rarely, but when I do, it's usually just to get it out of my system before getting back to work. If I want actual advice, I specifically ask for it. My husband, on the other hand, offers unsolicited advice even when, for example, I mention something a friend or colleague is experiencing. "What he needs to do is...." It's kinda funny, given that I don't think he really expects me to relay the advice; just seems to be a kneejerk reaction on his part. Of course, he does have a mother hen streak a mile wide, and mother hens tend to want to fix people's problems. Wonder what Tannen would make of him...?

9:55 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Fortunately for Tannen, she had me as a critic and I gave her a way out of her original black and white generalizations. I am betting that 90% of Tannen's sources were female (her book is based on anecdotal evidence) and we know our brain lady has a hormone and mood clinic and I don't think she works on men. So, we are possibly getting very one-sided pictures of the worlds of men and women.

Let me add that in support of abigail's thesis that these books are subtly anti-female, the brain lady's clinic suggests that moods are things women have. What the hell is a mood anyway? I feel good, then I feel bad. Did my mood shift.

10:10 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

think about this language guy:
how often have you dismissed your wifes 'moods' because she was pre-menstrual, post menstrual, pre-post menopasual, That time of the month & all that?
"What's the matter Honey, is it that time of the month?"
We women have to listen to that shit all the time & you are asking what the hell is a mood?

10:57 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

My wife does not have moods and is not particularly sympathetic with mine. I am very moody. It doesn't take much to take me from placid to volcanic, but I quickly return to what passes as "normal" for me. I can sometimes be heard saying that life isn't worth living upon encountering even a minor setback. But, then, I become ebullient when my garden surprises me. Last evening I decided I better gather some tomatoes and water my plants and was rewarded with about 7 ripe cantaloupes, all at once it seems. Life became good again. Maybe our brain lady would take me on as part of a study of male moods.

8:39 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

well, hmmm. It sounds like your wife dismisses your moods.
What does she attribute your emotional state to, I wonder?

Does this mean she has more control over her emotions or that you are just 'moody'?

12:17 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Look out, it's a Styx redux!

Doumo arigatou, Mr Pregunto!
Mata hitotsu kiite! (Ask another one!)
Doumo arigatou, Mrs Pregunto!
Shitsumon ippai de! (Full of questions!)


3:42 AM

Blogger ramble said...

i guess all d problems arise cause
women r kinda ahead of men in the evolutionary race:-

2:12 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you for your comment. Its nice to know that the old blogs are being read.

9:22 AM


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