Understanding the Neural Marinade

Controversy over gender differences and the brain

Magazine Issue
January/February 2007
Understanding the Neural Marinade

The Female Brain
By Louann Brizendine
Morgan Road Books. 279 pp. ISBN: 0-767-92009-0

In The Female Brain, neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine has written a book that’s a publicist’s dream. Since it first hit the bookstores last summer, it’s been reviewed extensively and its author has been profiled in newspapers and magazines around the country. Conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times even devoted a full column to the book. Best of all, radio and television shows, where people get much of their information nowadays, have made Brizendine an instant mini-celebrity.

You may have already heard the roll call of the book’s catchy assertions (displayed prominently on its book flap): women use 20,000 words a day and men a mere 7,000. Men think of sex once a minute, women only every couple of days. And “a woman knows what people are feeling while a man can’t spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm.”

The book’s fundamental claim is women are different because they have different brains. As a result, they’re deeply sensitive to emotions and form strong relationship bonds, while men wouldn’t know a feeling unless it hit them in the face.

The popularity of Brizendine’s book is further testimony to the public’s growing infatuation with the new glamour-puss of knowledge: neuroscience. Less than a century ago, educated readers were enthralled by the mythic stories Sigmund Freud concocted about Oedipal Complexes and penis envy to explain how the mind worked. Now we have neurobiology and neuropsychiatry turning away from the merely metaphorical theories that have characterized the study of human psychology up to now. Today’s scientists can zoom in on the physical brain itself and map how it functions. It’s the new frontier in understanding human experience.

Brizedine has impressive credentials. She’s the founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco. She graduated from Yale Medical School, taught at Harvard, and has written for academic journals and lectured publicly. But this hasn’t gotten in the way of her writing what reviewers like to call a “breezy” book (perhaps “too breezy” according to Brooks, who loved it anyway). It’s certainly crisply written. And it’s short–fewer than 200 pages (plus 80 pages of footnotes and references).

Brizendine may be an expert, but she doesn’t write like most of them–which has its pluses and minuses. Her book’s readability may work against her with more scrupulous readers. In a Boston Globe article, Mark Liberman, a University of Pennsylvania professor, disputes Brizendine’s assertion that men use 7,000 words a day vs. women’s 20,000. He checked her notes on this point and, as far as he could tell, she got her figures from a popular psychology book, Talk Language, by the prolific self-help author Alan Pease. Liberman points out that many studies have been conducted to compare word use in the sexes, all yielding different results. Some studies even report that men use more words than women.

Much of blitzkrieg of information Brizendine unleashes is presented without qualification, as straight declarative fact. A typical example: “Just about the first thing the female brain compels a baby to do is study faces.” This ‘females do this and think that’ kind of writing is a big part of what makes The Female Brain such a zippy read. And it’s the opposite of the endlessly qualified tedium of much academic writing.

But, whether writing is enjoyable or not, the devil is usually revealed in the details, and the process of checking out all those details in Brizendine’s work has only just begun. She can expect a lot more skeptical scrutiny. Liberman, for example, also casts doubt on her claim that “girls speak faster, on average–250 words per minute versus 125 for typical males.” He examines her endnotes and their sources and then does some digging on his own. Thousands of studies exist, involving speakers of many ages, regions, languages, and cultures, including a 1993 review of the literature, which concludes there’s no difference between the speaking rates of men and women.

Brizendine admitted to The Washington Post that in the fight between her academic caution and her publisher’s wish for a book with broad commercial appeal, punchy simplifications generally triumphed. After all, this is a “trade” book for the general public. But when giving interviews, she’s more inclined to judiciously add qualifications and detail to otherwise bald statements.

Brizendine argues that women are inherently more sensitive to emotional cues–they’re more likely to read their mothers’ faces and emotions while boys are more inclined to ignore them, for instance. Also, a girl’s nervous system is more at risk from a stressed and less nurturing mother, according to animal studies. Says the author, “It appears that boys may not incorporate so much of their mother’s nervous system.” And this imprinting begins in the womb.

The book does add this unusual wrinkle to the nature/nurture debate: hardwiring, the biology of brain circuitry, is constantly being “marinated”–bathed and altered–by hormones. In fact, marinated seems to be Brizendine’s favorite word. It’s a memorable term right out of cookbooks, and it sticks to the reader like basting to a turkey.

If there are conflicting protagonists in The Female Brain, they’re the mighty male and female hormones. Estrogen is “the queen: powerful, in control, all-consuming, sometimes all business, sometimes an aggressive seductress.” Testosterone is “fast, assertive, focused, all-consuming, masculine: forceful seducer, aggressive, unfeeling, it has no time for cuddling.”

What makes this book such a compelling read is the gusto with which Brizendine captures the epic turmoil of our hormonal lives. Estrogen promotes the growth of nerve cells; testosterone kills them, especially targeting the communications and emotion centers. Marination takes place from inception and continues in cycles until menopause, when its cessation causes other problems. Reading these facts, you have to marvel at the Shakespearean drama taking place underneath your skin everyday.

And what’s the result of these different hormonal characteristics? Brizendine believes it accounts for much of the difference in behavior that distinguishes the sexes. Think giddy teenage girls huddling in groups and yakking into cell phones, talky wives trying to pry a response from silent husbands, women gabbing at coffee klatches, classic drama queens loudly emoting. According to Brizendine, not only are the old cliches true, but now, thanks to brain science, they’re also testable and measurable.

The predictable horror scenario expressed by bloggers is that Neanderthal males will find their old prejudices confirmed by this book: women are way too moody, too unstable to hold high government or corporate office or to have their delicate, nail-polish-tipped fingers poised above the nuclear trigger. Of course, men also have their hormonal problems–to which our murder rates attest. Testosterone is, after all, the fighting man’s hormone (and men secrete 10 times as much as women do). But, says Brizendine, that’s a story for somebody else’s bestseller.

So what are we to make of Brizendine’s provocative generalizations about the neurobiological differences between the sexes? It may be that (most) boys play with trucks and (most) girls play with dolls, that girls nag and boys command, and that many of our gender stereotypes are (largely) true. But I’d wager the average therapist sees enough crossover types that they recognize the danger of putting too much stock in stereotypes.

I work in a place with many women who typically speak less than the men do (and not because they’re ruled by men: we have plenty of women bosses). Many of these women workers are tight-lipped (unless they do all their talking in the washroom). Maybe they save their emotional need for connection for their friends and family, and modulate their behavior in the workplace. None of this would surprise Brizendine: her final defense of her vision is that human beings have a marked capacity for changing their behavior, when necessary. At the same time, though, the basic argument about ingrained sex differences works against the idea that our hormones and neurological wiring can be easily altered.

What does The Female Brain mean for those of us who don’t fit neatly into gender stereotypes? At work, I recognize that I talk more than most women I know. And my need for emotional connection is ferocious, in and out of the office. It may be the newly androgynous workplace is marinating our neural circuits and speeding up sexual evolution in ways we haven’t begun to investigate.

There must be millions of what Arnold Schwarzenegger called “girly men” out there, like me, who are strongly attuned to emotions, with the need for emotional contact that characterizes women. It’s a good thing the testosterone swishing around in our bodies has managed to miss killing more of our relationship-hungry neurons. It’s what makes us want to give our wives a hug and gives us pleasure partaking in office gossip and chit chat–that is, when we remind ourselves to take a break from staring into our computer screens.





Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.