Monday, July 21, 2008

Differences Between Men and Women - An Integral Interpretation

OK, that was just a little humor.

There were two interesting articles last week about the differences between men and women. Both articles demonstrate differences in the ways men and women process emotions -- and the second one sees these differences in terms of brain architecture.

First, a look at flirting from GeniusBeauty.

Women and Men Interpret Flirt Differently

Woman and Man FlirtingIt is well known that lots of men misinterpret female flirt and quite often do not understand it. Scientists have discovered another interesting fact. It turns out, married men and married women react differently to flirt with strangers, report scientists from McGill University, Canada. They found that if men do some flirting with a stranger, they have higher demands to their spouses. Women, on the other hand, after a flirt with a stranger treat their husbands more softly and are trying to improve the atmosphere in their families.

A simple test demonstrated that after a successful flirt men are willing to forgive their wives for 12% less than before the flirt, while women in response to their own flirting are willing to forgive their husbands for 17.5% more. The scientists believed that the difference is based on the different attitude of men and women to flirt. While men understand how insignificant and short-lived a relationship based on flirt is; women, on the contrary, take seriously any relationship and in any flirt unconsciously see a danger to their families, that is why they are trying to strengthen their marriage relationships. It seems that the best way out is not to flirt at all in order to save the family. But some women cannot live without flirting.

That's interesting in its own way, but it seems little more than artifact when considering the next study. The next study is a more comprehensive look at the differences between male and female brains (both structure and, presumably, function), from Psychology: Blogs, News and Information.

Men and women have different brains, research reveals

THE saying goes that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but scientists believe the real explanation for differences between the sexes lies in the structure of their brains.

For a long time it was thought that the basic architecture of the brain was the same in both sexes, with behavioural differences between men and women put down to hormones and social pressures.

But now an increasing amount of evidence is suggesting that male and female brains are built from significantly different genetic blueprints.

According to latest research, there are also differences in the circuitry that wires them up and the chemicals that transmit messages in the brain.

Scientists now believe there is good evidence that there is not just one kind of human brain, but two - each designed for equally intelligent behaviour.

Such findings could help develop more gender-directed treatments for dementia and other brain-related disorders.

Dr Jill Goldstein and colleagues from Harvard Medical School measured and compared 45 brain regions in healthy men and women.

They found that parts of the frontal lobe, which houses decision-making and problem-solving functions, were proportionally larger in women, as was the area which regulates emotions.

Meanwhile, other studies have found that the hippocampus, which is involved in short-term memory and spatial navigation, is proportionally larger in women than in men, which may come as a surprise given women's reputation as poor map-readers.

In comparison, in the men the proportionately larger areas included the parietal cortex, which processes signals from the sensory organs and is involved in space perception.

The amygdala region - which controls emotions and social and sexual behaviour - was also larger in men.

Dr Larry Cahill, a neurobiologist from the University of California, Irvine, said: "The mere fact that a structure is different in size suggests a difference in functional organisation." His team carried out brain imaging experiments on men and women, finding that sex influences how some regions of the brain are used.

When shown emotional images, men used a different side of their brain compared with women.

And while men were able to recall a general gist of the image, women were able to concentrate on the details.

Dr Cahill said this suggested men and women processed information from emotional events in very different ways.

Research also suggests that differences in the brain may explain why men and women have different reactions to pain.

Women are more likely to seek help for chronic pain than men, and certain painkillers work better in men than in women, other studies have found.

The research, published in New Scientist magazine, also points out that women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men and their brains typically produce about half as much serotonin - a neurotransmitter linked to depression.

In comparison, men are more likely to be diagnosed with autism, Tourette's syndrome, dyslexia, stuttering, attention-deficit disorder and early-onset schizophrenia.

But much research has so far failed to take into account the differences between male and female brains, researchers said.

Most studies have been carried out on the brains of male animals or human male volunteers.

Dr Jeff Mogil, from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, criticised researchers for not looking at female brains, which could help lead to more targeted treatments for many illnesses. "It's scandalous," he said. "Women are the most common pain sufferers, and yet our model for basic pain research is the male rat."

For how men and women's brains differ see this pdf.

This is a good bit of research, although it leaves out the impact of cultural shaping on the brain. What we use gets bigger, and this proves true in the brain as well as the body. So maybe the differences can be accounted for less in terms of genetic or even sex differences as much as by the way cultural gender roles shape the use of the brain, which in turn shapes the size and organization of brain structures.

Certainly, it is some of both.

Where research like this is most useful is in breaking down the idea that sex differences and gender role differences are all culturally or socially constructed (which has been the stance of certain elements of the feminist movement in claiming equality with men). There's no doubt this is true in many ways (boys don't cry, girls don't climb trees, and on and on). But it's equally true that we are born with different hormone levels, different bodies, and different brain structures (the corpus callosum is more dense in women than men, as only one example).

Another example of brain structure differences came up in terms of the amygdala -- it's larger in men according to this study. Here is a brief sense of what the amygdala does:

In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdalae perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. Research indicates that, during fear conditioning, sensory stimuli reach the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, particularly the lateral nuclei, where they form associations with memories of the stimuli. The association between stimuli and the aversive events they predict may be mediated by long-term potentiation, a lingering potential for affected synapses to react more readily.

One would think based on cultural patterns that this region would be larger in women, as is the hippocampus, a region responsible for short term memory and spatial navigation. We generally think of men as having better spatial skills and women being more likely to create deep and lasting memories of emotional events -- but this study suggests both of those stereotypes do not hold up when looking at the brain -- either that or fMRI studies can only reveal structures and not functions.

Until we begin to integrate the biological differences with the psychological differences and the cultural roles we have been shoe-horned into, we are never really going to understand the fundamental interactions of males and females in any real way. And further, without this understanding, we will never change the social structures that keep women earning less than men, having constantly to fight for their biological rights, and from breaking through that glass ceiling the feminists argue keeps them out of the highest levels and business and government (I seriously think this has changed considerably at the macro level, while progress is still needed in some micro realms).

Any attempt to explain men and women through fMRI scans, genetic studies, emotional response scenarios, or cultural roles is doomed to failure for being only partial and not integral in focus.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Add to this gays, lesbians, transgendered and so on, and I think studies like this are only part of the picture. If my gay male brain was compared to the results of this study, I'm guessing the results wouldn't match up. In some areas, I'm more typically male but in others I exhibit a more typically feminine bent. Would my brain structure also reflect this? Who knows, but I do so tire of the strict, unforgiving male/female dichotomy.

Very interesting site, by the way.