Friday, June 6, 2008

Why Men Need to Show Emotion

I think it's a huge step forward that Men's Health has posted a rather lengthy and intelligent article called Why Men Need to Show Emotion. Who knows if men will read it and take it seriously, but the mere fact that it is there, and that it looks at actual science to explain the differences between men and women when it comes to emotions, is rather progressive for a magazine more focused on helping men get laid than on accessing their emotions.

Of course, they treat the issue rather contemptuously to begin the article.

I'm not that crazy about the word "intimacy." I bet you're not, either. It's a department-store word. (Third floor: Intimate Apparel.) And, come to think of it, I'm never happy to hear the word "emotion." It means that pretty soon I'll be hearing the word "feelings," as in I've hurt her feelings, or I don't seem to have any feelings, unless team X comes from behind to beat team Y. When men hear about "emotion," we're usually about to be scolded.

I'm being more than a little defensive, but you and I both know that our apparent difficulty with the whole feelings thing bothers women. And, further, they grow testy over the fact that it bothers them more than it bothers us.
But the author, Laurence Roy Stains, quickly moves to a more objective positions, sort of.
But how's this for an idea? Men should stop being defined by what we lack. Instead, let's take a clear-eyed look at emotions, the unique ways in which we experience them, and their role in who we are today. Wouldn't it be cool if we understood that, and why we are the way we are? Wouldn't it be cool if we could finally explain ourselves to women? If only so they'd stop asking us?

Fortunately for all of us, some serious scientific and psychological discoveries of the past decade can help us do just that. So let's push beyond the gauzy metaphor of Mars and Venus. Yes, men and women are different, but it's no longer enough to categorize men by the words they fail to say.

And let's concede one point straight off: Men are not as emotionally articulate as women are. It's not out of spite; we don't stubbornly refuse to spend hours talking about feelings. We just can't do it. That is, the inner architecture of our brains just can't do it.

OK, so there is some mocking in there. But I suppose it's good that women who might read this know how much most despise anything having to do with feelings and emotions. Contrary to what they say here, a large part of it is social and cultural. I have no doubt that being raised without proper training for feeling and dealing with emotions creates the brain architecture that seems to suggest men are less emotionally developed.

But there is also research that suggests nature over nurture, and as usual it's testosterone that gets the blame.

Thanks to neuroscience, we now know that the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped region deep in the brain, plays a key role in both emotional reactions and emotional memories. And, wouldn't you know it, the female amygdala is far more efficient. That's why women can recall more emotional memories more quickly (have you noticed?), and their memories are richer and more intense. (No wonder she still remembers that hurtful remark you made last Christmas.)

The amygdala may also play a role in women's greater tendency to engage in what scientists call ruminative thinking, the repetitive focus on negative feelings and events. (You've noticed that, as well.) Psychologists now know that a lot of rumination actually confuses people about how they really feel -- but you won't want to tell her that when she's ruminating.

There are other key brain differences. The female brain has a better connection between its left hemisphere, which is involved in speech, and its right hemisphere, which is involved in emotion. (That connective tissue is called the corpus callosum, and females have more of it than we do, in relation to total brain size.) When most women talk, both sides of their brains are activated; men use only their left hemispheres for speech. It's emerging details like this that are leading scientists to theorize that, yes indeed, women seem to have a greater built-in facility for talking about their feelings.

By simply observing little kids' behavior, we get the picture that our differences are innate. A whole slew of psychological studies have gathered data on the habits of preschoolers, and here's a sampling: By age 1, girls make more eye contact than boys do. A couple of years later, the paintings of young girls will almost always contain one or two people; little boys' renderings commonly depict rocket ships, bicycles, and cars. At play, boys were 50 times more competitive over toy sharing, while girls were 20 times more likely to take turns.

Could a horribly sexist culture be to blame for those differences? No -- at least not entirely, says Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist at Cambridge University. In multiple studies, he has looked at the amount of testosterone babies are exposed to in the womb, and then looked at them at 12 months, 18 months, 2 years, and 4 years of age. The results have been startling. The higher the baby's level of fetal testosterone, regardless of gender, the less eye contact the child makes at age 1, and the smaller his or her vocabulary is at 18 months. By age 4, those with the highest fetal-testosterone levels score the lowest on a test of social skills and the highest on a test showing deep interest in a narrow range of topics.

I've seen this research on testosterone before, and it likely has some validity. However, the next bit of research is very cool and new to me. Apparently there are two types of brains, one that systematizes, and one that empathizes -- the more T you have, the more systematic the brain works. Based on this research, I should be more of an empathizer and less of a systems thinker, but I love and excel at systems thinking -- so guess I am one of the balanced types.

Testosterone in the womb could be the big key to our interests and behavior as adults. "More specifically," Baron-Cohen writes in his latest book, The Essential Difference, "the more you have of this special substance, the more your brain is tuned into systems and the less your brain is tuned into emotional relationships."

Baron-Cohen has marshaled all this evidence into a grand theory, which he lays out in his book. There are basically two kinds of brains -- the empathizing brain and the systemizing brain. If you have an empathizing brain, you're exquisitely good at understanding how someone else might feel, and furthermore you want to alleviate their distress. You're good at identifying people's inner emotions simply by looking at their facial expressions. (Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have catalogued 412 discrete emotions. Oy.) You're good at relationships, and you maintain those healthy relationships by sharing feelings. And you have a flair for language, so you can express all 412 of those emotions.

If you have a systemizing brain, says Baron-Cohen, you're driven to understand systems -- anything from plumbing fixtures to the NBA rule book, from patent law to the bond market. Systemizers specialize in events with predictable consequences, so that when you act, you can be pretty darn certain of the result. Such systems can take a long time to learn, but if you have a systemizing brain, that doesn't bother you -- you can spend endless hours observing all the details, to the exclusion of everything (and, oops, everybody) else in your life. You're more interested in organizing principles than in the social world. You're good with mechanical things, not people.
The differences in men and women in this regard are pretty striking, but it likely fits what we experience -- not all men are systematizers and not all women are empathizers.
Baron-Cohen has come up with 60-question tests to identify people as empathizers or systemizers, and from the thousands he's administered to date, he figures that 44 percent of women have empathizing brains, 17 percent have systemizing brains (which accounts for the many brilliant female scientists), and 35 percent have brains that are roughly balanced between the two poles. Four percent exhibit an "extreme female brain" type.

Baron-Cohen says that 53 percent of men have systemizing brains, 17 percent have empathizing brains, and 24 percent are roughly balanced. The remaining 6 percent have an extreme male brain -- and these men, he theorizes, exhibit behavior that's labeled autistic.

But just because your brain isn't tuned in to emotional relationships doesn't mean you can blow them off. Rather, it means you have to pay attention to emotions -- those of others, and your own. Otherwise, when the chips are down, you'll find yourself sitting at the table alone, with no one to help you and no idea how to help yourself.

The upshot is that biology is not destiny. The last point made in the quote above is crucial -- we have to do the work to make up for what may be a biological deficiency. If not, we will likely end up lonely, depressed, and angry -- but we may not be aware that we feel that way. Other doctors are claiming that there might be an actual, wide-spread disorder than afflicts many men in terms of emotional awareness -- alexithymia.

But in his counseling practice, he saw a more "garden-variety" form of alexithymia. His male patients often exhibited an inability to know what they were feeling -- especially if those feelings were in the tender and vulnerable vein.

As a professor of psychology at the University of Akron, Levant has devoted his research to showing that a mild-to-moderate form of alexithymia is widespread in our society. As he says, "It's normative for many men in our society to be genuinely unaware of some of their emotions."

He gives one quick example: In his practice, he saw a man who had been caught cross-dressing -- by his grown children. So the man came to a therapy session with his wife. Levant asked him how he felt at the moment he was discovered. And the man turned to his wife and asked, "How did I feel?"

Levant believes we experience emotion on three different levels: the neural, biochemical level, expressed in heartbeat and breathing pattern; the physical and behavioral level, revealed in facial expression and body language; and finally the level of conscious awareness. Typically, alexithymic men lack the third level, and may even lack an awareness at the second level.

Whether this emotional checkout is hardwired or pounded into you, it can be crippling. Levant believes that the cost of repressing your emotions -- or, worse, dissociating from them completely -- leads to alcohol abuse, anger and aggression, thrill-seeking behaviors, and psychosomatic illness.

To avoid these fates, it isn't required that you become a master of emotional fluency; awareness by itself is sufficient. But this is not just about making sure you don't wind up in a wheelchair. If you know how to feel, you know how to act. "It helps us live better lives," says Levant. "It enables us to respond more quickly and more appropriately to events that arise in our lives, both at work and at home."

The article concludes over the next few pages with the reasons why men might want to be aware of their emotions -- love, children, work, sports (the obligatory Tiger Woods analogy), and most importantly, sex.

Weaknesses aside, this is a pretty good article that, if read, could go a long way toward men realizing that we need to be more aware of our emotions -- that we need some emotional intelligence.


Anonymous said...

That is a great article, thanks for posting it. However, to say that men ONLY use their left hemisphere for language seems inaccurate. There is just less communication between the right & left sides, so emotional info isn't able to be put into words. What is also interesting is that trauma shrinks the corpus callosum, and many trauma patients are alexithymic. However, children growing up in abusive homes are often better able to pick up on the emotions and intent of others, it is a survival mechanism. The amygdala also gets bigger in trauma, thus the fear response. Given the amount of child abuse in this culture, I wonder how this impacts the outcome and conclusions of these studies, if at all? Perhaps it also explains some of the differences I see in trauma between men and women.

Just things I wondered about as I was reading.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the above article drawing any link with maleness and alexithymia is completely false- another example of popular male bashing. Below is an article showing how Levant got it *very* wrong:

This recent misuse of the alexithymia concept by Harvard University professor Dr. Ron Levant shows how easily the alexithymia construct can be misunderstood as a stoic resistance, repression, or denial of emotions. Levant devised the phrase "normative male alexithymia" to describe how North American males suffer to some degree from cultural conditioning which causes men to repress their vulnerable and caring emotions causing them to become underdeveloped in emotional expressiveness. He says, "Many men were raised (and continue to be raised) to function in a world that no longer exists. To be good men, they were told, they must become reliable providers, emotionally stoic, logical, solution oriented, and aggressive." [Levant. Men and Emotions (1997) p.3]

Levant further states the problem this way: "I believe that a mild form of alexithymia is very wide-spread among adult men and that it results from the male emotional socialization ordeal, which requires boys to restrict the expression of their vulnerable and caring emotions and to be emotionally stoic." [Levant- A New Psychology of Men, (1995) p.239].

Levant states that according to his clinical observation this type of problem is so common for men in our culture that it may be called "normative". He claims; "One of the most far-reaching consequences of male gender-role socialization is the high incidence among men of... the inability to identify and describe one's feelings." [p.238] and "men are genuinely unaware of their emotions. Lacking this emotional awareness, when asked to identify their feelings, they tend to rely on their cognition to try to logically deduce how they should feel. They cannot do what is automatic for most women -simply sense inwardly, feel the feeling, and let the verbal description come to mind." [p.239].

While Levant may be right in his claim that men are (generally) less skilled than women in their ability to describe feelings, he is demonstrably incorrect in claiming that men are less able to identify specific feeling states in self or others in the true clinical sense of alexithymia: i.e. *difficulty identifying feelings*. Here it would seem that Levant has failed to discriminate between the separate factors of (1) identifying and (2) describing feelings.

According to College of New Jersey psychologist Mark Kiselica, past president of the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, most men are not alexithymic: “it is not a 'norm'”. Kiselica reports that a literature review showed only a few studies have reported that males have slightly higher rates of developing the disorder, while the majority of studies found no differences between the genders, with overall about one in 10 people of either gender showing any significant level of alexithymia.

True, men have not been educated or encouraged to express their feelings verbally but they most certainly can, generally speaking, identify both their own feelings and those of others as well as do women. From earliest childhood most cultures encourage males to be emotionally stoic, a disposition which may, as Levant stresses, lend itself to pathologies of emotional expression. But to emphasize the potential pathologies of this disposition tells us only a small negative part of the story. The stoic disposition also includes time honored traits of forbearance, tolerance, and healthy emotional control in stressful situations. To champion emotional extroversion or cite verbal skill in expressing feelings does not guarantee healthy emotional interaction with others, as in the example of ‘con-artists’ or ‘manipulators’ who misuse the language of emotional expressiveness to exploit or domineer others.

Levant's conjectures reveal the twin errors of both genderising alexithymia, and confusing it with general categories of stoic reticence or repression of emotions.

In the final analysis this superficial conflation of alexithymia with ‘maleness’ may reflect the influences of contemporary gender stereotyping more than it does the findings of rigorous scientific method. It also leaves us with the unfortunate consequence of confusing the accepted clinical meaning of the term alexithymia as proposed by all leading clinicians for the last 30 years. In light of these anomalies, and considering that Dr. Levant refers again and again to the stoic nature of the males in question, perhaps he would consider a late name change to 'Normative Male Stoicism'?

WH said...

Anon (#2),

Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed comment. I appreciate the information.

For what it's worth, I had doubts about the alexithymia part of this article. I think what Men's Health was aiming for was a normalization of male stoicism, so they included that questionable research.

I personally believe that men can become emotionally literate -- that we are not inherently lacking in this skill. But we have to make the effort, which is the point of this blog.

I hope to read more of your comments here.


WH said...

Thanks for the comment J,

I think that most studies exclude those who disclose trauma or abuse histories (clearly not everyone discloses), so I am not sure how much that factors into the issue.

Based on other things I have posted here, and in this article as well, there is a huge issue with testosterone shaping emotional skills, but that isn't destiny, only a challenge women don't face to the same degree.

Still, I think the social and cultural issues are greater, despite what the article says.

But the info you provide is good food for thought.