Differences Between the Sexes, Part 2
In Relationships, Women Are the Stronger Sex
When a man and a woman talk, he will tend to interrupt her more than she will interrupt him. There’s probably not a woman alive who would be surprised by that fact. Something you read in most books on human relations is that a good general policy when interacting with people is to try not to interrupt them. Women are better at it than men.
Anat Rafaeli, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, sent teams of observers to 600 convenience stores and observed over 11,000 interactions between the clerk and a customer. Female clerks smiled more, made more eye contact, and thanked people more than male clerks. In other words, the women practiced better human relations.
Men and women, ranging in age from 17 to 80, were given a questionnaire that asked each respondent what kinds of things he or she talked about when talking to someone of their same sex. Women spend more time than men talking about relationships and emotional issues. So not only are women generally better at human relations, they are more interested in relationships.
Women have a biological advantage when it comes to relationships. To be good at relating, you would need the ability to perceive well. If you can see and hear well, you are better equipped to perceive the feelings of other people. This would help you relate to them. And as I pointed out in the previous section, women visually notice more detail and hear changes in tone better than men.
To be good at relating, another extremely useful strength would be the ability to articulate your own feelings. And here again, women have a genetic advantage. Let’s take a look at some of the research.
Using what is called the PONS test (the Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity test), Robert Rosenthal and his colleagues at Harvard University found women to be consistently better at knowing what emotional situation they’re seeing when they view the short film clips that make up the test.
In the 220 two-second film clips, the experimental subjects see a person’s face only, body only, or face and body both. The woman is saying something, but the actual content of what she’s saying has been obliterated, while still retaining the tone of her voice and the rhythm of her speech.
After observing each film clip, the viewers are shown two written descriptions of the situation. The subject is asked to choose which description fits the segment they observed. Women did better than men.
There were some men who scored as well as the average woman. These were usually men working in theater or arts where selection for nonverbal sensitivity plays an important role (pardon the pun). But these exceptional men only did as well as the average woman.
At the time of the original experiment, the results were explained with the Socialization Theory: “Women are nonverbally more sensitive than men because of their upbringing.” But recent research shows the experiment in a whole new light.
Cecil Naylor of the Bowman-Gray School of Medicine gave experimental subjects a task, and then, using a radioactive tracer, watched to see what parts of the subject’s brain was active during that task. For example, in one task the subject listened to words, one after the other, and when he or she heard a word that was four letters long, they raised a finger. During this task, the women’s brains were active all over, and the men’s brain activity was compartmentalized.
Another task was singing Row Row Row Your Boat. Places on both sides of women’s brains showed activity, but for men, only one side of the brain was active.
During an oral spelling test, women and men did equally well. But during the test, the men’s brains showed an intense activity in two discrete areas: Wernicke’s area (in the left temporal lobe), and Broca’s area (in the left frontal lobe). Wernicke’s is known to play an important role in language comprehension and language creation. This is the place where language is assembled for outgo and understood when it is inflowed. And Broca’s area seems to play a part in controlling the mouth, tongue, face, jaw and throat.
In women, Naylor found blood flowed heavy, not only to those two areas (Wernicke’s and Broca’s in the left hemisphere), but also to the right hemisphere, in the same spot as Wernicke’s but on the opposite side, an area known to be involved in a particular aspect of language: emotional expression and emotional comprehension.
In men, when the communication is ready to be spoken, only Broca’s area is active. In women, says Naylor, “almost every area of the cortex, left and right hemisphere, has some unique relationship with Broca’s during the task, as if there were many independent things going on between Broca’s and lots of different regions.”
Women have more going on in their brains when communicating. They use more of their brains when talking to another person than men do. And they have a richer experience of the emotional reality of the relationship. And emotion is the foundation of closeness, bonding, affection, and love in relationships.
Women are the big, strong sex when it comes to relationships.
These findings might also help explain “women’s intuition.” Since she is perceiving more of what’s going on — nonverbal communication, small changes in skin color, facial expressions, body movements, and tone of voice — and her brain is more active, she’s perceiving things outside the man’s range of perception. It would look to a man as though she were psychic.
The Corpus Callosum
There are parts of the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain) that are up to 23% wider in women than in men. There are also thicker connections between the two hemispheres in other parts of womens’ brains. This is especially significant because men’s brains are bigger than womens’. Women have more gray matter too (the cells that actually perform thinking).
We’re looking at a structural difference in the brains of women and men, a difference that helps explain some common complaints of married couples, like why women seem to be more proficient at communicating their feelings. Emotions are processed in the right hemisphere and language is in the left hemisphere (I’ll explain that in more detail in a moment). More connections between hemispheres make it easier for women to articulate what they feel.
To add to men’s handicap in relating, their brains are more neatly compartmentalized than a women’s. If you give a man an abstract problem to work on, he will tend to use the right side of his brain. A woman, on the other hand, will use both sides.
Even in tests on children, it has been found that while a boy is engaged in some abstract problem (like trying to figure out what three dimensional objects can be made out of a flat piece of paper) the electrical activity of his brain is concentrated in his right hemisphere. In girls, again, the activity was in both hemispheres.
When the abstract problem was shown only to their left eye, the boys performed better on the test than when they saw it with both eyes (the left eye goes to the right hemisphere of the brain).
Girls got the same score with either eye.
Were boys taught to use only one side of their brains? Were girls taught to use both sides? For the hardcore Strictly-Socialization Theorists, they must have been.
But the evidence against that conclusion keeps mounting. For example, there is a malfunction of hormone production called Turner’s syndrome that gives us a unique look at the effect of hormones on the brain. Turner’s syndrome happens when girls are missing an X chromosome. In normal girls, their ovaries produce a small amount of male hormone, but girls with Turner’s syndrome have no ovaries and no testicles, so they have no testosterone whatsoever. When these girls are given the same brain-activity tests mentioned above, they show an even greater degree of uncompartmentalized electrical brain activity and blood flow (more than normal girls).
Studies of men who were underexposed to male hormones in the womb (less than normal males) show brain activity more like a woman’s (less compartmentalized).
While the brain is developing in the womb, sex hormones create what are called their “organizational effects” (the hormones permanently alter brain function). Then at puberty, hormones create their “activational effects” (affecting ongoing processes like aggressiveness, menstruation, voice deepening, muscle growth, hair growth, sex organ development, etc.).
Doreen Kimura (professor of psychology, and the chief researcher at the University of Western Ontario) tested women seven to ten days before the onset of menstruation (when they had high levels of estrogen and progesterone), and also 3 to 5 days after menstruation, when their hormone levels were low. She tested half the women in the first phase and the other half in the second phase so the results wouldn’t be influenced by learning.
The women performed better at articulation, manual dexterity and verbal fluency when estrogen and progesterone were high. And they scored better on spatial tests in the low phase.
This shows, not a difference in the sexes, but a difference in hormones. It just happens that this usually translates into a difference in the sexes.
Kimura and her colleagues also found that the parts of the brain related to grammar, spelling and writing are located close together in women’s brains, but are spread out in men (some in the front of the brain, the rest in the back of the brain). This makes a difference because the closer brain parts are to each other, the faster and more efficient their interactions are.
The Two Hemispheres
Your brain is divided into two halves, and each half specializes. The right hemisphere handles spatial orientation and music, recognizes faces, and deals with emotions. The left handles language. Most people have heard this much. But here’s something most people don’t know: This information came mainly from studies of war injuries. The problem with that is that it was all done on men. It was simply assumed that a brain is a brain is a brain, whether it was a man’s or a woman’s.
Men with injuries to their left hemisphere are unable to speak, but they can sing. Men with injuries to their right hemisphere are unable to recognize the faces of their own wife and children. They get lost in their own house, unable to find their way around. They can talk, but it’s an eerie monotone, completely devoid of emotion.
But that only applies to men.
At his research center in Maryland, psychologist Herbert Landsel studied epileptics who had part of their brain removed. He found that the same surgeries don’t impair women as much as men. Even with the removal of significant portions of their right hemisphere, women can still get around the house and recognize faces.
With the same surgery to the left hemisphere, men are three times more likely to suffer a language problem as women.
Research at the University Hospital in Western Ontario found the same thing with brain damage from strokes and tumors: Women don’t lose as many abilities from the loss of the same brain area. Both men and women suffer the loss of some ability from brain damage, but the loss shows up differently.
The brains of men and women are organized differently in a definite, measurable way.
A woman’s score on vocabulary tests goes down whether her brain injury is in the left or right hemisphere. But a man’s vocabulary score is only affected by an injury to the left hemisphere.
Experiment: Hook up electrodes to monitor brain activity, and then temporarily put a person’s left hemisphere to sleep. Then ask the person a logic question — the kind of question that requires significant language processing to solve.
When researchers do this experiment, here’s what they see: If the person is a man, he’ll have very little brain activity in his right hemisphere (the only side of his brain that’s awake), and he won’t be able to come up with an answer. If the person is a woman, she will have significant activity in her right hemisphere and she will come up with an answer.
Men favor their right ear when listening, women listen equally with both ears.
A woman once told me, “Men don’t try hard enough. They just need to try harder.” Yeah, that must be it. All men are lazy.
I don’t think so. We’ll have to come up with a better explanation than that. The truth is, there is a significant amount of evidence that a woman’s brain is organized differently than a man’s, and that this different organization has an impact.
Sandra Witelson (neuropsychologist) showed emotionally-charged photographs to men and women. She showed the photographs to either the left visual field (connected to the right hemisphere) or the right visual field (connected to the left hemisphere). Women recognized the emotional content of the pictures no matter what visual field they saw it with. But men (as you might be able to predict) only recognized the emotional content when the picture was shown to the left visual field.
According to marketing research at the University of Chicago, women are more comprehensive when they evaluate a product. They take more factors into consideration when making a decision. Advertisers have learned that if you want an ad to appeal to women, you have to give them several selling points, but if you want it to appeal to men, you should focus on only one good reason why the thing is worth buying.
We’ve seen that the brains of men and women are differently organized with regard to language and expressing feelings. But this doesn’t prove anything. It is possible that socialization could affect the way the brain grows. And socialization for sure can affect skills like language ability. So maybe adult brains are organized differently, but that doesn’t prove that those differences are determined by biology. So far, it might all be explained well enough by socialization.
Let’s look a little earlier, then, to a time before socialization has gotten such a strong foothold.
Researchers have found the following: infant girls are more sensitive to touch than infant boys; girls have a better sense of smell, smile more, are more patient and less easily annoyed than boys; girls begin speaking earlier than boys, enunciate more clearly, and develop a larger vocabulary.
Language problems are much more common in boys than in girls. Boys who stutter outnumber girls who stutter five to one. Autism occurs in four times more boys than girls. Boys with aphasia (an extreme difficulty learning to talk) outnumber girls five to one. Over 75% of those with reading difficulties are boys.
There are four times more boys who are emotionally disturbed than there are girls.
Witelson did an experiment on two hundred normal boys and girls between the ages of six and fourteen. Each child was blindfolded, and an object was placed in each hand. Then the researchers took the objects out of the child’s hands and put them in a pile of similar objects, and took the blindfolds off.
Asked to find the two objects they were just holding, the girls had no trouble finding the correct objects. The boys, however, were better at correctly identifying the object that had been in their left hand than they were at finding the objects in their right hand. Signals from the left hand go to the right hemisphere which is known to specialize (in males) in spatial information (like transferring physical sensations into visual information).
There are several possible explanations for the results of this experiment. It could be that girls’ brains aren’t as specialized as boys’, so they can process spatial information with either hemisphere. Or maybe the information travels between hemispheres more readily in girls. Or perhaps the girls don’t process kinesthetic information in the same way the boys do. Maybe a combination of these.
Any way you look at it, the experiment shows a difference in the way these children processed the information. Even at a young age boys and girls are using their brains in different ways.
Experiments have shown that parents treat different sexed children differently. Maybe it is the parents’ response to the childs’ interests.
These differences between the sexes are caused by the different levels of hormones each sex produces. As a fetus and in adulthood, males produce more testosterone. Females produce more estrogen. As a fetus, this causes the brain to change, and as adults, it keeps certain differences intact.
Beginning in the 1940’s and extending to the 1960’s, millions of women were given diethylstilbestrol (DES) to prevent miscarriages. DES is an artificial estrogen. Doctors stopped prescribing it when they found the drug had serious side-effects. Many studies have been done on the children who were exposed to DES in the womb. One of the things they found is that children — male or female — who had been exposed to extra estrogen in the womb were more group-oriented and more interested in communication and relationships than normal children of the same sex and age.
What About Interest?
The differences between women and men start in the womb and are produced by hormones. After children are born, masculine or feminine behavior is also affected by the child’s parents’ expectations and the role models they’re exposed to. But as we’ve seen, the differences were there to start with, and there are some differences that cannot be eliminated, no matter how children are raised.
A friend of mind told me the following story: Her son was playing his new Nintendo game, when her daughter came by and asked if she could play. He said, “You wouldn’t want to play it. It’s about war.” The daughter went to Mom and complained. Mom, of course, was outraged (as any politically correct woman would be), so she marched into the living room and scolded her son and said, “Girls should be able to play war games if they want to.”
At this point in the story, I asked her, “Did she want to?”
The woman said, “Yes.” But then she said, “Well, for a short time, and then she went in the other room to play with her jewelry. She doesn’t actually like to play the game.”
This kind of thing is going on all over the country. It happened to me when I was a kid, too. Well-meaning parents are trying to keep their children from sexual discrimination — either as the discriminatee or the discriminator. And that’s wonderful. The thing to watch out for is blinding children to reality. It doesn’t matter how good the doctrine is, it’s always better to see reality than to miss reality because you can’t perceive outside the limits of your doctrine. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
Women and men all over this country are running into difficulties in their relationships because they have been given false data: Namely, that there are no intrinsic differences between the sexes, and if there are any differences, they are learned and can be unlearned. It isn’t true. And when you try to make something go right using faulty information as your guiding light, you’re bound to run aground ... and in this case, you’re likely to be mystified about why it seems so difficult to understand your mate. It’s like someone built a lighthouse on the wrong part of the coast. When you try to steer your ship by it, you end up on the rocks.
Andro-genital syndrome (AGS) is a condition caused by too many androgens (male hormones) before or shortly after a girl is born. The girls’ genitals are partially masculinized, but this is often corrected with surgery. The changes to the girls’ brains, however, cannot be altered by surgery or any other procedure. They show no interest in playing with dolls as children. But their normal sisters (who do not have AGS), raised in the same socializing environment, are interested in playing with dolls.
An interest in dolls, and if we can extend that into an interest in relationships, or at least an interest in motherhood, is not lain on from outside. It comes from within, and apparently cannot be lain on from outside. You can affect, through socialization, the behavior of playing with dolls, but you cannot create interest in it through socialization. The interest is either there or it isn’t. Ask any parent.
There are differences between the sexes in animals, of course, and they are also caused by hormones. Two Oxford anatomists — Pauline Field and Jefferey Raisman — decided to see if there were brain structure differences between male and female rats. There are. Female rats have more synapses connecting two parts of their hypothalamus than male rats do, the right hemisphere of a male rat’s brain is measurably thicker than a female’s, and the female’s left hemisphere is thicker than the male’s.
When they deprive a developing male rat of male hormones, his brain ends up looking like a female rat’s brain.
Give a normal female rat a shot of testosterone, and she will start marking her territory with urine (something only males normally do). The same experiment done on dogs gets the same result. Testosterone-injected female dogs even lift one leg to pee.
Rats injected with estrogen are less nervous and less likely to engage in conflict with other rats. Among mammals, birds, lizards, and even fish, when you inject the animal with estrogen, it becomes less aggressive. This holds true whether the animal is male or female.
Female rats with pups lick them and keep them clean, catch them when they wander away and bring them back to the nest, defend the pups against attack by other animals, and of course, nurse the pups. Virgin female rats do none of these things. But when scientists give virgin female rats a shot of estrogen and progesterone, the virgins begin to take care of any pups in their vicinity in the same way as mother rats (except for the nursing).
Here’s an interesting experiment. Two researchers (Heidi Swanson and Richard Schuster) gave pairs of rats a task that required them to cooperate with each other. If they were able to cooperate and accomplish the task, they were rewarded with sugar water. Rats love sugar water.
They tested four kinds of pairs: pairs of females, pairs of males, pairs of castrated males, and pairs of castrated males who were given testosterone supplements.
The females cooperated and accomplished the task easily. So did the castrated males. The normal males and the castrates with the testosterone supplements learned more slowly, and some were unable to cooperate at all. They were too busy trying to dominate each other.
Our Closest Relatives
Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives. As a matter of fact, judging by the amount of DNA that matches exactly, chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to their next-nearest relative, gorillas.
In the Arnhem colony (of chimpanzees) in the Netherlands, chimps have been observed for many years. The males often fight. Every female of that colony has been observed to play a peacekeeping role between males. The females will get two males who are angrily ignoring each other to interact peacefully again. They are facilitating relationships. When fights break out and the males begin arming themselves with rocks (which they throw with a fair amount of accuracy and damage), the females gently pry open their fingers and remove the rocks. When a male grabs another rock, the female gently but firmly takes it from his hand again.
All over the world chimps have been observed. Adult males spend most of their time alone, and females spend most of their time in the company of others. Females seem more interested in relationships than males do.
Facing the Facts
Whether we look at behavior or brain structure of adult or young human beings, or we look at animals, the evidence points to a difference between males and females; a biological, genetic difference.
It is time to face the facts: Women are better at communicating than men, and more interested in doing so. It is inborn. Women are genetically superior communicators. Therefore, women are more competent at relating.
When a woman asks her mate to open a jar, she is acknowledging one of the man’s superiorities — in this case, he has more muscles in his arms and hands than she does. Men should understand that when he has any problem with a relationship, he ought to ask his mate to help him “open the jar.” Women are better at dealing with relationships, communication, and emotions — very real and important parts of every man’s life.
And if a woman expects her mate to handle relationship issues as well as she can, isn’t it like a man asking a woman to open a jar? What would you think about a man who insisted his wife open her “fair share” of jars? Yet this is what many women do. “Why” many women ask, “do I always have to be responsible for making sure we stay in good communication?” Maybe it’s because if you waited for him to even notice your relationship had a problem, it would be too late to do anything to save it!
We’ve talked about one important difference between men and women. In the next section, we’ll look at another big one.
This article was excerpted from the book, What Difference Does it Make? How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It?
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.