Medical Tuesday Blog
The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, MD
I’ve found that I can change the conversation at any social gathering by mentioning
THE PHASES OF A FEMALE’S LIFE: Hormones can determine what the brain is interested in doing. They help guide nurturing, social, sexual, and aggressive behaviors. They can affect being talkative, being flirtatious, giving or attending parties, writing thank-you notes, planning children’s play dates, cuddling, grooming, worrying about hurting the feelings of others, being competitive, masturbating and initiating sex.
WHAT MAKES US WOMEN? More than 99 percent of male and female genetic coding is exactly the same. Out of the thirty thousand genes in the human genome, the less than one percent variation between the sexes is small. But that percentage difference influences every single cell in our bodies—from the nerves that register pleasure and pain to the neurons that transmit perception, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Girls are born with a highly tuned machine for reading faces, hearing emotional tones in voices, and responding to unspoken cues in others. If you can read faces and voices, you can tell what an infant needs. You can also predict what a bigger, more aggressive male is going to do. Since you’re smaller, you probably need to band with other females to fend off attacks from a ticked off caveman.
If you’re a girl, you’ve been programmed to make sure you keep social harmony. This is a matter of life and death to the female brain. We could see this in the behavior of three-and-a-half-year-old twin girls. Every morning the mother observed the sisters get their clothes from the closet. One girl had a pink two-piece outfit, and the other had a green two-piece outfit. “One would say, “Can I borrow your pink top? I’ll give it back later, and you can have my green top.” The twins did it without a fight. This would not be a likely scenario if one of the twins were a boy. A brother would have grabbed the shirt he wanted, and the sister would have tried to reason with him, though she would have ended up in tears because his language skills simply wouldn’t have been as advanced as hers. Estrogen-ruled girls are very invested in preserving harmonious relationships because discord puts them at odds with their urge to stay connected, to gain approval and nurture.
Deborah Tannen had pointed out the speech differences in studies of two- to five-year-old girls making collaborative proposals by starting their sentences with “let’s”—as in “Let’s play house.” Girls typically use language to get consensus.
Boys know how to employ this affiliated speech style, too, but research shows they typically don’t use it. Instead, they’ll generally use language to command others, get things done, brag, threaten, ignore a partner’s suggestion and override each other’s attempts to speak.
There is no unisex brain. Girls are born with a female brain which came complete with its own impulses. Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys. Their brains are different from the time they are born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values, and their very reality. Your immediate reality can change in an instant. The majority of the brain development that determines her sex- specific circuits happens during the first eighteen weeks of pregnancy.
Just about the first thing the female brain compels a baby to do is study faces. Girls do not experience the testosterone surge in utero that shrinks the centers for communication, observation, and processing of emotion, so their potential to develop skills in these areas are better at birth than boy’s. Over the first three months of life, a baby girl’s skills in eye contact and mutual facial gazing will increase by over 400 percent whereas facial gazing skills in a boy during this time will not increase at all.
We recently were able to observe this face gazing and eye contact on the Sunday after Easter at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco when they have a large number of babies and toddlers being baptized. The girls when they were picked up for their baptism would make eye contact and gaze into the face of the father or mother holding her and then the Priest who took her to the Baptismal Font. The boys would seldom look at the person carrying them but look off to the stained-glass windows, the altar, or the statues around the Nave.
Brizendine saw researchers paid little attention to female psychology, neuroanatomy, or psychology separate from that of men until the 1990s. She came to realize that the brain differences, although subtle, were profound. She observed that women had twice the depression ratio than men. Since she had gone to college at the peak of the feminist movement, her personal explanations ran toward the political and psychological. She then discovered this occurred in all cultures. She then discovered that the male versus female depression ratio didn’t start to diverge until girls started menstruating. She then considered that specific female brain chemistry might be involved. As she evaluated woman’s hormonal state, she discovered the massive neurological effects her hormones have during different states of life in shaping her desires, her values, and the very way she perceives reality. If a woman’s reality could change radically from week to week, the same would have to be true of the massive hormonal changes that occur throughout a woman’s life.
In 1994, Brizendine founded the Women’s Mood and Hormone clinic in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She found that the female brain is so deeply affected by hormones that their influence can be said to create a woman’s reality, a woman’s values and desires, and tell her, day to day, what’s important. Their presence is felt at every stage of life, right from birth through girlhood, to the adolescent years, the dating years, motherhood, and menopause. A woman’s neurologic reality is not as constant as a man’s. His is like a mountain, with imperceptibly movement by glaciers, deep tectonic movements of the earth. Hers is more like the weather—constantly changing and hard to predict.
Brizendine reports while teaching a class of fifteen-year-olds about brain differences between males and females, she asked the boys and girls to come up with some questions that they’d always wanted to ask each other. The boys asked, “Why do girls go to the bathroom together?” They assumed that the answer would involve something sexual but the girls replied, “It’s the only private place at school we can go to talk!” Needless to say, the boys couldn’t ever imagine saying to another guy: “Hey want to go to the bathroom together?” She explained this captured the pivotal brain difference between males and females. The circuits for social and verbal connection are more naturally hardwired in the typical female brain than in the typical male. It is during the teen years that the flood of estrogen in girls’ brains will activate oxytocin and sex-specific female brain circuits, especially those for talking, flirting, and socializing. Those high school girls hanging out in the bathroom are cementing their most important relationships—with other girls.
There is a biological reason for this behavior. “Connecting through” talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. Sharing secrets that have romantic and sexual implications activates those centers even more. We’re not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm. Dopamine is a neurochemical that stimulates the motivation and pleasure circuits in the brain. Estrogen at puberty increases dopamine and oxytocin production in girls. Oxytocin is a neurohormone that triggers and is triggered by intimacy. When estrogen is on the rise, a teen girl’s brain is pushed to make even more oxytocin—and to get even more reinforcement for social bonding. At midcycle, during peak estrogen production, the girl’s dopamine and oxytocin level is likely at its highest, too. Not only her verbal output is at its maximum but her urge for intimacy is also peaking. Intimacy releases more oxytocin, which reinforces the desire to connect, the connecting that brings a sense of pleasure and well-being.
Both oxytocin and dopamine production are stimulated by ovarian estrogen at the onset of puberty—and for the rest of a woman’s fertile life. This means that teen girls start getting even more pleasure from connecting and bonding—playing with each other’s hair, gossiping, and shopping together—than they did before puberty. It’s the same kind of dopamine rush that coke or heroin addicts get when they do drugs. The combination of dopamine and oxytocin forms the biologic basis of this drive for intimacy and with stress-reducing effect. If your teenage daughter is constantly talking on the phone or instant-messaging with her friends, it’s a girl thing, and it is helping her through stressful social changes. But you don’t have to let her impulses dictate your family life. . . Because the teen girl’s brain is so well-rewarded for communication, it’s a tough habit for you to curb.
This book was a revelation and presents compelling information every woman (and man) should know. It is well-written for the non-clinical person as well as the clinician. Everyone who is a woman, married to a woman, works with women, or has a female as a child, should read this book.
Brizendine has done a great service to the human population in the compiling and mastering the research, and then handing it on to us. She knows her field!
“[‘Brizendine’] seamlessly weaves together the findings of innumerable articles and books . . . along with accounts of patients she treated at her clinic . . . Given the character—and rancor—of our dichotomous approach to the influences of biology and culture, readers likely will be fascinated or angered, convinced or skeptical, according to the positions they have staked out already.”—Deborah Tannen, Washington Post
This book can be used as “self-help” books are budding adults, whether they are young men, young women or young couples. Long-term couples and their parents can benefit hugely from reading this book.
The epilogue: The Future of the Female Brain sums up very astutely how this research has now freed women in the 21st century as the age of Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato did for men when they had enough leisure for intellectual and scientific pursuits. Women can now choose when, if, and how to bear children over many more years of our lives. We are no longer economically dependent on men, and technology has provided the flexibility to toggle between professional and domestic duties at the same time and in the same place. These options give women the gift of using their female brains to create a new paradigm for the way they manage their professional, reproductive, and personal lives. This should free women of the unisex goal of the 1970s when it was politically incorrect to even mention sex difference. There are still those who believe that for women to become equal, unisex must be the norm. The biologic reality, however, is that there is no unisex brain. But pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women. Perpetuating the myth of the male norm means ignoring women’s real, biological differences in severity, susceptibility, and treatment of disease. It also ignores the different ways that they process thoughts and therefor perceive what is important. Assuming the male norm also means undervaluing the powerful, sex-specific strengths and talents of the female brain.
This book is well researched with 19 pages of additional notes, 59 pages of references and 9 pages of a detailed index. The epilogue is worth the price of the book and should be in every male’s personal library. This book review is found at http://www.medicaltuesday.net/book-reviews/ .
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