Thursday, April 22, 2010

Andrew Peterson - The Male Brain: Attachment, Neural Development, and Masculinity

The Next Ten Minutes reviews the recent book on The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine M.D. I just got this book and am looking forward to reading it, even though I have some issues with explaining men by the functions of their brains - we are equally composed of cultural influence.

This post by Andrew Peterson (who is a therapist) offers a better review of the book than most of the mainstream book reviews I have seen - very cool.

The Male Brain: attachment, neural development, and masculinity

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but when I hear the phrase “developmental neuro-endocrinology” I get really excited.

Allow me to explain.

Like many psychotherapists, I’ve grown increasingly interested in the rapidly advancing understanding of how neural processes guide the formation of our personalities and shape our present moment experience. My initial interest in this subject arose out of my training in attachment theory and attachment-focused therapy. Through this training I came to appreciate the complex and interdependent relationship between brain development and secure attachment, which might be summarized like this: proper neural development is what makes healthy relationships possible…but it cannot occur without the experience of healthy relationships during childhood development.

In addition to attachment, my other passion in therapy is masculinity. In fact, these days I work almost exclusively with men. As a result, I spend a great deal of my time helping men understand the workings of their own minds – both in and of themselves, and also in relation to women’s minds. Because men are so deeply conditioned to discount their own capacity for emotional insight, it is very often a revelation to discover that the ways men’s and women’s minds operate is in fact understandable. And it can be life-transforming to discover that it is possible for these two sorts of minds to understand each other and to communicate constructively across the gender divide. That’s why, to my patients I often describe my role as a “translator.”*

Developmental neuro-endocrinology seems to me to be a sort of bridge between attachment-based and gender-specific psychotherapeutic work. Which is why I read Louann Brizendine’s The Male Brain with great interest. In this book Brizendine (as she did in her previous book The Female Brain) isolates a particular aspect of the vast field of neurological research: the way in which the brain’s growth is shaped by developmentally-triggered releases of gender-specific neuro-hormones. How (and when) testosterone, vasopressin and other such hormones are released into the brain creates the subjective experience of “maleness” and leads to the objective behaviors that we identify as typically male.

Brizendine is working in the tradition of writers who integrate a complex body of inter-disciplinary research into a coherent narrative, making visible patterns and relationships between the data that might otherwise be unavailable to a larger audience. Dan Siegel and Allan Schore are masters of this particular art, and they are undeniably more rigorous in their approach. In fact, Brizendine has been strongly criticized for presenting isolated and un-replicated pieces of research to make overly broad claims in support of a reductive and stereotypical image of masculinity across the life span.

I suspect that these criticisms are accurate. But at the same time I found that many of Brizendine’s assertions rang fundamentally true to my clinical experience. And that is the heart of the dilemma that I experience with The Male Brain.

Without in any way wishing to minimize the importance of male gender-role socialization, I agree with Brizendine’s central premise – that there are certain aspects of both masculinity and femininity which are powerfully biologically determined, and which no amount of socialization can combat. (Certainly any parent will recognize the truth in her description of the differences between boys’ and girls’ play. While you can get a boy to play with dolls, he’s very likely to turn Barbie into a gun; and you can get a girl to play with toy cars, but she’s just as likely to turn them into a little car family.) To my mind, accepting that these biologically-determined gender differences exist is the first step toward developing approaches to parenting, education, and therapy which can help us raise boys into good men. Having some understanding of where biologically-determined leaves off and socialized behavior allows us to raise boys in ways which ameliorate rather than exacerbate those biological tendencies. And I sincerely believe that raising good men is essential if we are to survive and thrive as a species.

Read the whole post.

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