Different gender, different brain

🕔Jan 27, 2010

The author would like to affirm that all following situations are strictly hypothetical. Or from someone else’s life. Like a friend. Or a book maybe. Because they are definitely not real. Ha ha—that would be too scary. And on some days, grounds for div…(cough). Oops. There I go again—exaggerating. How typically (annoyingly) female.

Well, guess what? Even though my main squeeze is proof of the sea change that has occurred with regards to men’s roles as husbands and fathers (i.e. more involved, self-aware, sensitive, lots of ponytail potential if you know what I mean), at times he is (still) The Quintessential Caveman.

The good news is neither of us is driving each other crazy on purpose. The bad news is we’re both operating according to some seriously hardwired, hormonal information that you can’t just turn off like one too many episodes of America’s Next Top Model.

I like to think that in the North, people are a little bit more real, so technically it shouldn’t shock too much when I assert that a testosterone-marinated brain is (wait for it) VERY DIFFERENT than one soaked in estrogen. Common sense (albeit politically incorrect), right?

The last decade of brain research has proven that although nurture plays a role, nature definitely has the upper hand. By the twelfth week in utero, hormones have determined whether Baby is going to stare endlessly into Mom’s eyes and make faces, or track the sound of an approaching diesel engine with fervour and squeals of joy. Creating a gender-neutral environment is admirable, but if your boy uses a doll like a sword and your girl cuddles a dump truck wrapped in a blanket, it isn’t your fault. As a fetus, his brain is wired for sex and aggression; hers for communication and emotion. And that never significantly changes.

So, in light of Valentine’s Day, spring fever, and all the boys or girls that we love and drive us crazy, read on to see how the male and female brains are likely to function in specific northern contexts.

Road Tripping: Heaven or Hell
Epic distances are a fact of life living in the north, and there’s nothing like backseat driving to really start a vacation off on the wrong foot.

Male eyes have a narrow field of vision (like binoculars) and are great at focusing ahead over long distances. As well, the male brain possesses excellent spatial abilities, which enables accurate gauging of the distance and speed of upcoming and oncoming traffic.

Women have a broader but shorter field (like a wide angle lens with good peripheral vision), and therefore see better up close; however, our spatial abilities comparatively suck. (I doubt I am the only woman who has snapped out of a road daze to shouts of “WHY ARE YOU TAILGATING?” just as I am about to drive up the rear-end of a vehicle that moments ago was miles ahead.)

Yet a narrow field of vision has significant disadvantages when a compulsive sightseer is at the helm. Men’s poor peripheral awareness means they have to turn their heads to see anything not directly in front of them. Road-drift (“Look at that couloir/eagle-nest/geologic-landform-thingy”) arrested by screams of “KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD!” is avoidable if you are in the know.

Gals, drive during the day – your man can survey, gawk and gaze all he wants from the safety of the passenger seat. Switch at night, when your eyes are at a disadvantage.

Tell us why you love to ski here and win a pass
No joke: females are born to talk. The female brain’s pleasure centres are stimulated, and feel-good hormones (dopamine and oxytocin) released, when connecting through talking. (FYI: cocaine and heroin addicts get a rush of dopamine when doing drugs; this small fact might explain why you can’t get your teenage daughter off the phone or your wife off Facebook.) Seen through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the speech areas in a woman’s brain are large and plentiful, located in a variety of places across both hemispheres, as opposed to a few tiny, tiny areas in the rear parts of the male brain. A woman on average speaks two to three times more words per day than a man, and is biologically impelled to do so.

If you want to score the free pass at après-ski, send up the girl to describe why said resort kicks butt. She will engage the audience using emotion, more tonal variations in her voice, more descriptive language, and more facial expressions than her brother (who would look impassive and monotonously say, “Yeah. It rocks. Uh, yeah. Where’s my beer?”).

Map reading
I remember driving around Vancouver with my quiz-happy grandfather and my little brother. I was seven, he was five. “Tanya, we’re on Cambie Street now. Does Cambie Street run north-south or east-west?” Shawn answered. He was right. “Tanya, we’re on 49th Ave now. Is Stanley Park north or south of us?” Shawn answered. He was right. I was mystified! Were they speaking secret man-code or something? If asked about Anne of Green Gables and Gilbert Blythe’s burgeoning romance, I could’ve talked the paint off the truck…but directions and relative locations…huh?

Men’s brains get off on maps; they light up like Christmas trees and fireworks on Halloween. Brain networks dedicated to spatial awareness (i.e. navigation and orientation) are plentiful and diverse. Abilities such as sensing direction, mentally rotating an object, seeing a two-dimensional object in 3D and measuring with a glance whether that dresser will fit through the door are a male brain’s forté. I love the outdoors; it’s why I live here. But after a busy work-week, the last thing I want to do is hurt my head trying to do something that feels as unnatural as map-reading (at least not with a man watching, who’s getting more and more impatient each second). Asking me to navigate is like asking a man to tell you why he loves you while he’s watching TV, or getting him to be eloquent on a birthday card. Of course it can happen…but it sure takes effort. Brains are inherently plastic and it is certainly possible (and even beneficial) to “pump up” our weaker areas. Just be smart about how you go about it and be forgiving when you see people trying to improve their obviously scrawny brain muscles.

Whether your brain is highly masculinised, highly feminised, anywhere in between, or a salt-and-pepper mix of the two, if you try to focus on synergistic complementary strengths (rather than individual weaknesses), things will be tickety-boo!