How Do Men And Women’s Brains Really Differ?

Many books have attempted to outline the way in which the MALE AND FEMALE BRAINS DIFFER, pointing to seemingly SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES between the sexes, but isn’t the truth about men and women’s minds a little cloudier than that, asks BRIDGET HOURICAN

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At certain strategic moments in childhood arguments, my brothers always played their trump card: “You’re getting hysterical” uttered in low rational male tones, immediately catapulting me and my sisters into, yes, foaming hysteria. Nothing anyone has said since has maddened me as much. We didn’t know that the etymology of “hysterical” was the Greek “hysterikos” for womb, but we knew the boys were dealing a low sexist blow, even if we couldn’t have defined sexism.

Other things we believed as kids: that boys were better at art and sport, had a better sense of direction, and knew about operating machines; girls were better at making up stories, were more responsible, and better at baking.

God knows where we got all this – not from my parents and not from example: my brothers were, and are, rubbish at anything mechanical; my younger sister could beat up most of the boys in her class; my older sister made bread you could break your teeth on. Now as adults, my older brother can’t find his way to the corner shop and has to rely on directions from his wife (who has the spatial awareness of a London cab driver). And, having spent my life overly compensating for that early accusation of hysteria, I tend to argue in an aggressive, rational, ordered way (which annoys the hell out of people and is far less fun than smashing plates and hurling wild insults).

Male infants are more likely than female infants to imitate rapid movements such as hitting a balloon. There is thus an early male advantage in some motor skills.

All this has left me highly averse to any suggestion of biological determinism. I am much less John Gray (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) than I am The Kinks (“Boys will be girls and girls will be boys/ It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world”). But there’s a whole publishing industry out there telling me different, ranging from the ditzy self-help (understand gender differences to build better relationships!) to sober neurology (men have four billion more neurons in the dorsal region of the cerebral cortex!)

According to two reliable tomes of biological determinism – Lewis Wolpert‘s Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man and Daniel G Amen’s Unleash the Power of the Female Brain – my childhood beliefs, far from being outworn stereotypes, were actually spot on: “Primary visual and visuospatial association areas of the parietal lobes, involved in spatial sense and navigation, are proportionally bigger in men.” “Male infants are more likely than female infants to imitate rapid movements such as hitting a balloon. There is thus an early male advantage in some motor skills.” Etc, etc.

Wolpert, Amen and all the other Mars/Venus books are very positive about this neurological determinism: neither gender is superior, just different! So why am I getting that sinking feeling familiar to me from reading bloodless pseudo-scientific 19th-century tracts on racial difference?

The times in my life I’ve been helpless with laughter – on the ground, tears rolling down my cheeks, sides hurting – have all been with women. I know it’s the same for men. How does enjoying your best laughs in single-sex company fit into humour being an evolutionary characteristic?

I got the same feeling reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 Vanity Fair article, “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. As a famously funny man, the Hitch felt qualified to write this. Except curiously on this subject, he wasn’t his usual funny self. Sample lines: “There are some impressive [funny] ladies out there. Most of them though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty, or dykey or Jewish.” (So fat Jewish lesbians aren’t women?) And: “Is there anything less funny than hearing a woman relate her dream?” (Because hearing a man relate his dream is so hilarious?)

And then – how could the Hitch be so predictable? – he plays the evolution card: apparently childbirth is so profound, it unfits women from making jokes; conversely, men have to be funny to attract women: humour is part of the mating artillery, like the peacock’s feathers and the stag’s antlers.

The Hitch may be right that there are more and better male comedians than female (for the moment!), and that men make women laugh more than women make men laugh. But here’s the thing: the times in my life I’ve been helpless with laughter – on the ground, tears rolling down my cheeks, sides hurting – have all been with women. I know it’s the same for men: the funniest jokes are when it’s all guys together. How does enjoying your best laughs in single-sex company fit into humour being an evolutionary characteristic? Well, it doesn’t.

But if the characteristics of “male” brains can’t encompass gay men, or female brains encompass lesbian women, where are we exactly? And what about tomboys and transvestites, who aren’t gay, but manifest atypical gender behaviour?

These books merrily catalogue the differences between male and female brains until they get to the sticking point: apparently the brains of homosexuals show some typically “male” traits and some “female”. So men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and gay people are from … Earth (the planet between Mars and Venus). But if the characteristics of “male” brains can’t encompass gay men, or female brains encompass lesbian women, where are we exactly? And what about tomboys and transvestites, who aren’t gay, but manifest atypical gender behaviour? (Not to mention the mysterious ability of Jews to incubate comedians from both sexes!). There is the exception that proves the rule, but how many exceptions before the rules start to look silly?

Women are getting funnier – or at least more of them are getting paid to be funny. There are also more women athletes, scientists, pilots, CEOs, and in all the traditional male professions. And these changes came about in a mere 100 years. So how significant can it be, really, that the primary visuospatial association areas of the parietal lobes are proportionally bigger in men or that they have more neurons? The most significant finding, for me, in these books was when Wolpert wrote: “Experience can change the brain throughout its lifespan, and the development of new connections between neurons continues into adulthood” – for example, at 40, you can take up a musical instrument and learn to play it well; by studying for “the knowledge”, London cab drivers actually grow the hippocampus area of the brain; women in high-powered jobs start manifesting classical “male” behaviour like aggression and risk-taking.

The brain is the most transitional organ in the body. So trying to analyse it is like Lloyd George’s definition of negotiating with de Valera: “Like picking up mercury with a fork.” A hundred years ago scientists thought it highly significant (and proof of superiority) that the male brain is larger than the female. Now size isn’t considered significant, it’s all about connectivity and functional activity and which areas of the brain we actually use (not enough, apparently). A hundred years from now, what will they be saying about the significance of “the heightened functional activity in the female left amygdala”? Until we know more, shouldn’t we hold our commentary? By all means keep measuring and observing, but let’s not leap to conclusions. We don’t know how to join these dots yet.

In The Importance of Being Earnest the men are fey and foppish and spend all their time draped over drawing-room sofas eating cucumber sandwiches, while the women are as organised and militant as field marshals.

The best thing I’ve ever read on biological determinism was written 120 years ago. In The Importance of Being Earnest the men are fey and foppish and spend all their time draped over drawing-room sofas eating cucumber sandwiches, while the women are as organised and militant as field marshals. The Wildean paradox still looks more provocative, more true, and, of course, funnier than anything said since about gender differences. We will leave the last word to Wilde’s woman: “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. It makes men so very attractive.” 

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man is published by Faber and Faber. Unleash the Power of the Female Brain is published by Piatkus.

Bridget Hourican

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our July/August issue, out Thursday July 7.

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