A controversy is raging in scientific circles.
It began a couple of years ago when a California neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Louann Brizendine, published a book titled “The Female Brain,” in which she claimed that women speak an average of 20,000 words a day, compared to men using a daily average of only 7,000 words.
The media immediately jumped all over the story, and she was quoted everywhere, from CNN, to USA Today to the New York Times.
However, recently an article in Science magazine by two male psychology professors disputed her findings, stating that in a study of 3,000 students there was basically little statistical difference in terms of daily word usage by men and women. (Although I am skeptical how relevant a study of college students is to the speech patterns of adults.)
But several studies are in agreement that female brains are wired differently than male brains, and that difference explains why many couples have difficulty communicating, especially during times of stress.
Brizendine reported that while a man’s brain may be bigger overall, the main hub for emotion is larger in a woman’s brain, as is the wiring for language and “observing emotion in others.” Also, a woman’s “neurological reality” is more deeply affected by hormonal surges.
As someone who has watched his daughter conduct instant message conversations on her computer with six friends simultaneously or swap three or four text messages in the time it takes me to back the car out of our driveway, such a statement comes as no surprise.
So, I feel compelled to jump in with my two cents. Of course my findings are much more anecdotal than “scientific,” nevertheless I did personally interview and/or listen to feedback from more than 25,000 men and women in the 23 years I ran a dating service.
First, let’s examine the initial intake interview we conducted. Within a relatively short time, I began to realize that interviews with women, especially women working in “people-oriented” professions, such as education, health care, social work, advertising and sales always took far longer than interviews with men, no matter what their occupation.
Ask a woman an open-ended question such as “what personality traits in men really turn you on or off,” and the answer sometimes would last longer than an episode of “American Idol.” Ask a man, especially a man who worked in a technical field, that same question, and the responses would range from just a few words to a sentence or two. Often the answer would be something like “Well, I don’t like women who talk too much.”
Overall, I found that interviews with women tended to last almost twice as long as interviews with men.
Even more relevant was the feedback we received from men and women following their dates. Probably the most common complaint we heard from women was that their dates were “too quiet, or “not expressive or talkative enough.”
Yet sometimes the same men, who were the subject of these complaints, would respond, “I thought the date went well.”
The difference in brain wiring between the sexes becomes more relevant when couples start having the inevitable arguments and disagreements that occur once the initial infatuation period of their relationship begins to ebb.
Anyone who has ever been in a relationship lasting longer than a few months has experienced the following scenario. A man is sipping his morning coffee, reading the sports pages and oblivious to the ensuing storm about to erupt.
Suddenly the woman in his life fires the first salvo. It might come in one or more of the following questions, peppered in the same staccato style as a prosecuting attorney in a Scott Turow courtroom novel: “Why did you say (blah, blah, blah) at the party last night? What were you thinking? How could you have …;? What was that look you gave my sister?” Of course the man’s first articulate counter response is usually something like “Huh?”
At the same time the poor guy is thinking “where is this coming from?”
According to Brizendine, the answer is the area of the brain called the “insula,” which is larger and more developed in female brains and which controls gut feelings and the brain’s “mirror neurons,” whose “job is to reflect someone’s hand gestures, body gestures and facial expressions unconsciously.”
With a smaller insula and fewer mirror neurons, men so often appear oblivious when it comes to reading women’s emotions and empathizing with them.
And, according to some, this is why women cry much more frequently than men.
Scientists have speculated that women evolved to shed tears far more frequently than men, because crying is the only sign of distress that many men notice!
Ultimately, this is also why women are far more perceptive in terms of identifying problems in a relationship. Women tend to worry more about such problems because, according to Brizendine, “the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is the worrywart center, is larger and more easily activated.”
So women tend to react more emotionally to perceived relationship problems, problems that many men aren’t even sure exist. “Don’t worry honey. Why are you so upset? It’s not that big a deal. Relax and take it easy.” These are common responses that men tend to use, in a feeble attempt to calm the storm. Of course, most of the time, these responses only add fuel to the fire.
(Then there is the most common yet incendiary question that panicked men use, “Honey, is it that time of month?” That’s usually the best time for guys to duck and cover.)
When couples break up, women tend to fall apart far more frequently than men, using up boxes of tissues, while often men carry on with their lives as if nothing happened. Again why does this happen? Brizendine explains “A breakup causes our (women’s) brains’ feel-good neurochemicals — dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin — to plummet.”
She adds that men do feel sadness following the end of a romance, but not as much as women. And, since the male’s emotional part of the brains is less developed, their rational side takes over and helps them focus on other matters, such as their job or the ongoing travails of the Red Sox or Patriots.
So, ladies, when you are fuming at your guy, who just doesn’t seem to “get it,” remember his wiring is different …; just like that broken toaster oven in your kitchen.