When it comes to driving, men typically have the advantage. Male brains tend to be better at thinking in three dimensions, so navigating and judging distances comes easier. Women are more skilled at locating specific items, such as a lost set of car keys. Studies have shown that both genders are about equal at performing different tasks in quick succession.
A recent study determined that men’s offices typically have 10 to 20 percent more bacteria than women’s offices, possibly due to men being larger and less hygienic. In early society, men hunted for food, while women kept the group healthy and safe; superior female hygiene may be a behavioral remnant.
Studies have shown that women are generally better at detecting subtle variations in color than men. Further, women are significantly less prone to color blindness. One theory suggests that the ability developed in women to aid in gathering food, while men developed stronger spatial reasoning for hunting.
Sex Isn't So Cut and Dry
For differences between genders, things actually get a little gray.
The contrast between men and women is something that’s spawned a library full of self-help bestsellers and provided material to Hollywood for countless romantic comedies. Yet gender differences remain a hotly controversial topic in our society. Are men and women really that different, and if so, to what extent is the difference an inherent part of their differing chromosomes, as opposed to upbringing and societal expectations and prejudices? And if there are inherent differences, how much do they really determine about our individual natures?
While modern neuroscience and psychology haven’t completely gotten to the bottom of those overriding questions, research does reveal that men’s and women’s brains are wired somewhat differently in some important ways, and have differing abilities. The two genders listen and respond to speech differently, and men tend to focus more intensely, while women may be better at quickly changing from one task to another. And men’s brains are more likely to be aggressive risk-takers, while women have more empathy and are inclined toward cooperation. In this article, we’ll look at how and why those changes developed and how they influence our daily lives.
Male and Female Brains Have Significant Anatomical Differences
For a long time, neuroscientists didn’t pay that much attention to gender differences, because they believed that the only big difference between them was in hormone regulation of the hypothalamus, a small structure at the base of the brain that controls mating behavior, among other functions.
But in recent years, thanks to the use of increasingly sophisticated brain scans, it’s become apparent that there are significant differences in brain structure and function between men and women. Scientists have found that parts of the frontal cortex, where a lot of our higher cognitive activity takes place, tends to be bulkier in women, compared to the rest of their brains. So do parts of the limbic cortex, which is involved in emotion. But men come out ahead in other areas. They’re comparatively bigger in parts of the parietal cortex, which is involved in space perception, and also in the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure that is the brain’s fear center and triggers the flight-or-fight physiological response to perceived danger.
Gender differences extend right down to the cellular level, where researchers have found that women have more layers of neurons in the temporal lobe cortex, a part of the brain associated with language processing and comprehension, and in the auditory cortex.
Multiple studies also have found that that men and women are wired very differently, with distinctive contrasts in how nerve fibers connect various regions of their brain. UCLA researchers who’ve studied male and female twins, for example, found significant variations in the area associated with activities such as decision-making and speech. Women in their twenties tend to have more connections between the two hemispheres of their brains, while men of the same age have more connections within each hemisphere, and from back to front.
What causes these differences is a little fuzzy. It could be that we pop out of the womb with our brains already formatted according to gender, after sex hormones in our fetal brains have shaped the structure and density of neurons in certain regions. Researchers, after all, have found that the brain areas that are most different are ones that contain the highest number of receptors to sex hormones during development. But when it comes to brain wiring, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that the connections between various brain areas seem to start out relatively gender-neutral, and then develop differently in boys and girls as they grow up, starting in adolescence.
Why We Communicate Differently
How those differences actually affect any particular one of us, though, is highly variable, because we have individual variations in brain shape and structure was well. But when scientists analyze larger groups of men and women or boys and girls, distinctive neural patterns start to emerge.
The differences in wiring—how women are wired to connect both halves of their brain, while men have more wiring in each section—may explain a lot about why Women seem to be from Venus, while Men are from Mars.
You’ve also probably noticed over the years that men and women have very different listening styles. In particular, women tend to pick up more personal facts about the speaker, while men are more likely to miss that information, according to research. That isn’t a matter of upbringing or societal gender roles, but instead is caused by actual differences in how their brains work. When women listen, the temporal lobe on both sides of their brain is activated, while men only use the left side. That means that more neurons in the female brain are firing, and more memories can be encoded.
"As scientists, we're figuring out what normal is, and more and more often it seems we're finding that normal for men may be different than normal for women," explained Indiana University medical researcher Dr. Micheal Phillips, who co-authored a 2000 study on the phenomenon.
Similarly, women also access both sides of their brain and experience more brain activity when they’re speaking, while men still use the left side and don’t activate as many neurons. It’s not surprising, then, that women tend to use more words and detail when they communicate. Men, in contrast, tend to use fewer words, and not just because they like Clint Eastwood’s laconic character in A Fistful of Dollars.
A study published in 2008 in the journal Neuropscychologia found even more complex gender differences in language processing and communication. The researchers, who studied boys and girls ages 9 to 15, found that top-performing girls at spelling and writing tasks utilized brain areas associated with abstract language thinking. Boys’ performance, in contrast, depended upon how well their brains accessed visual and auditory processing parts of the brain. One hypothesis developed by researchers was that males actually create visual and auditory associations with words—a characteristic which may have arisen from their ancient male ancestors’ need to quickly recognize danger-associated sounds and words when they were out on the hunt.
When it comes to math, you’ve probably heard that men are better at it then women. But a Chinese study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2012 actually found that elementary school-age girls actually were better at basic arithmetic tasks, such as subtraction and multiplication, than their male counterparts, who in turn performed better at mentally rotating three-dimensional objects in space, which requires the ability to visualize mathematical concepts. The reason for this difference, the researchers believed, was that basic arithmetic utilizes verbal processing and the ability to maintain numbers in working memory—skills for which the female brain seems to be better equipped. Male brains, in contrast, are better at working with imagery.
How Much Does Gender Matter?
Differences in structure and wiring offer convenient explanations for certain differences between men and women—why men tend to navigate by mentally picturing their destination, while women use verbal directions and landmarks, for example, or how the average male brain seems to be better at blocking out distractions and concentrating upon one particular task, while women tend to be born for multitasking.
Cambridge University researcher Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues also argue that men’s brains make them better suited to tasks that require analyzing, exploring and constructing systems, while women are better at identifying others emotions and thoughts and responding to them appropriately—the ability known as empathy. That difference in how we make sense of reality could go a long way toward explaining why men tend to compete aggressively and take bigger risks to win, while women tend to be more cautious, less aggressive and show more empathy to the opposition.
A study by Japanese researchers, published in 2006 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, found that female subjects playing a competitive two-person gambling game experienced a brain activity called medial-frontal negativity, indicating that they perceived another person’s loss as a bad thing, even when it resulted in their gain. Men’s brains, in contrast, didn’t show MFN activity when they won at someone else’s expense.
But it’s important to remember that brain structure and performance differences emerge clearly in the aggregate, across large groups of men and women. Each of us has a lot of other structural variations, some of which may cancel out larger gender tendencies. And experts such as biological anthropologist Greg Laden argue that there’s also plenty of reason to think that culture has a powerful influence upon how men and women think and act as well. “Sex differences are probably real and probably important, but they may not be hard wired as often as people think they are, or hard wired in the manner people think,” he writes. For that reason, it’s probably a good idea for us to regard each person as an individual, and not just form expectations according to chromosomes.
- Same size
- 2.5 times larger
- 3 times larger
- 5 times larger
- Answer: 2.5 times larger
- Reduced sleep
- Pheromones from the mother
- Increased dopamine production
- Answer: Pheromones from the mother
- Twice as much
- Three times as much
- Five times as much
- Seven times as much
- Answer: Seven times as much
How To Be A More Balanced Citizen
It is possible to sculpt your gender influenced social skills.
In the article "Sex Isn't So Cut and Dry" above, we learned that men and women, as groups, tend to have significant structural and wiring differences in their brains, which in turn cause us to listen, talk, focus, navigate and compete differently. But psychologists and other experts in human behavior say that biology isn’t necessarily destiny.
It is possible, for example, for men to work to develop abilities in areas where women seem to have an inherent advantage, such as feeling empathy.
Here’s some advice from the University of California-Berkeley’s Greater Good website:
• Have a conversation with a stranger. Make a point of having a conversation with at least one stranger each week.
• Practice the technique of “radical listening." That is, being present in the moment and listening carefully to what another person is saying, while trying to figure out what that person’s emotional state and needs might be.
For women, here’s some advice on how to be more aggressive and competitive:
• Start with easy, non-threatening stuff. Asking to be seated at a different spot in a restaurant, for example, is a good, low-risk way to practice going after what you want, according to Psychcentral.com.
• Learn to use your own self-doubts as motivation. “Everyone has doubts, but women have more,” advises economist Muriel Niederle. “Don’t quit before trying.”