Monday, March 29, 2010

NYT Book Review - The Male Brain, by Louann Brizendine

This book is getting a lot of attention. I guess any time a woman offers to explain the male brain, people are going to line up to hear what she has to say. At least this book acknowledges that much of what Brizendine offers up in terms of brain difference is done so to drive sales - as most know, the differences within gender is greater than the differences between genders. Oh well.

Which is not to say there are no differences - there are, and they are what makes us who we are. But the media falsely will point to this book as evidence of the "vast differences" between men and women.

THE MALE BRAIN, By Louann Brizendine
271 pp. Broadway Books. $24.99

A Mind of His Own

Published: March 25, 2010

Many scientists are cautious to a fault when it comes to telling us what they’re unsure of, playing down any novel finding that hasn’t been verified by another scientist. Not so Louann Brizendine. She is a neuro­psychiatrist (the prefix makes any title sound smarter) who has put her professional training behind a breezy, incautious account of how the brain, urged on by hormones, makes men and women act completely differently. You’d never know from reading Brizendine that beneath the sea she blithely sails are depths that researchers have only just begun to chart.

Brizendine nods to the fact that the brains of men and women are mostly alike. But her emphasis is entirely on the “profound differences” between them. This is clearly the best-seller strategy, neatly bisected into two books. “The Female Brain,” published in 2006, drove reviewers in publications like Nature mad but lit up the talk show circuit and the Amazon rankings. “The Male Brain” is positioned for a similar second round. Would Brizendine have gotten this kind of pop for a single book called “The Male and Female Brain: Mostly One and the Same”? Not a chance.

Each chapter of “The Male Brain” covers patients at various stages of the life cycle. At every step — the Dennis the Menace child, the oversexed teenager, the middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman — Brizendine gives a theory for how her patient’s behavior is caused by his male brain patterns, egged on by hormones like testosterone (nicknamed “Zeus”) and vasopressin (“the White Knight”). The publicity materials claim that Brizendine “overturns the stereotypes about men and boys.” In fact, Brizendine chooses patients who typify a familiar stereotype and then explains their actions as the inevitable-seeming work of Zeus and his henchmen.

Take David, who at age 3 turns a blow dryer on his friend’s stream of pee as it hits the toilet. Brizendine traces the causes of this mischief-making back to the first day of his life: “David was only 24 hours old, and without encouragement or instruction from anyone, he stared at the rotating triangles and squares on the mobile and seemed to find them fascinating.” The image comes from one much-discussed lab experiment. Other scientists have tried and failed to replicate the finding that day-old boy babies look at objects while newborn girls look at faces. But neither Brizendine’s text nor her cursory endnotes give any hint of this uncertainty. The idea, however sketchy, seems to be that boys are hard-wired to break the rules because from birth they are less interested in human emotions than in objects, and so don’t respond to parental disapproval the way girls do.

In her introduction, Brizendine promises to answer questions about how much “gendered behavior is innate and how much is learned.” But she throws nurture overboard in favor of nature every chance she gets. “The Male Brain” is filled with sentences like “Boys are programmed to move” and, about the older man drawn to the younger woman, “He was being biologically bewitched to bond with her.” With all those powerful hormones, does personal psychology or experience stand a chance?

Yet Brizendine’s description of how men and boys act isn’t in itself off base. While there is a far wider spectrum of behavior than she ever acknowledges — apparently her patients include no timid boys or unassuming men — many boys do act more turbocharged than many girls. If you try to wish away gender differences by giving your son a doll to play with, you may find, as Brizendine did, that he’s using it as a sword. The toy preferences of preschoolers are one of the greatest sex differences that psychologists have found, and Brizendine is on far safer ground when she turns to them. The problem is that she never tells you so. There’s no way to know from her heedless tour which sex differences are well established and which are not, which research is in its infancy and which solid and mature.

Brizendine has been here before. Her first book got particular attention for the claim that women speak faster than men (250 versus 125 words per minute) and use more words throughout the day, an average of 20,000 compared with 7,000. This was a conversation starter that lined up perfectly with stereotype — Chatty Cathy, quantified! Except that it turned out there were no studies backing up the words-per-minute claim, which Brizendine later removed from the paperback edition. Her claim that women use more words than men fell apart, too, when a paper published in Science found that the average man and woman use the same number of words (about 16,000 during the course of a day). But Brizendine has stuck with that claim, which she says was based on her own “observation,” and on a paper that referred to the vocabularies of 20-month-old girls, whose author disavows the leap Brizendine makes.

In “The Male Brain,” Brizendine devotes a chapter to a “classic complaint: Men accuse women of being too emotional, and women accuse men of not being emotional enough.” She rides to the rescue with the confident assertion that “we now know that the emotional processing in the male and female brain is different.” We do? Brizendine introduces two “emotional systems that work simultaneously: the mirror-neuron system, or MNS, and the temporal-parietal junction system, or TPJ.” Men use the TPJ more, she claims, and it turns them into problem solvers rather than emotional empathizers. When her client Danielle wailed, “You don’t understand!” at her husband, Neil, his brain “would entirely miss the desperate tone of her voice, since his TPJ would be busy working out the solution, and his MNS would no longer be activating.” Danielle, for her part, could not appreciate Neil’s analytic response because “she was trapped in her female brain circuit loops.”

What’s the evidence for all this? Brizendine cites a single 2008 brain-scan study, of 14 women and 12 men, which found a gender difference in part of a lab experiment that tried to simulate empathy. The paper itself declares that “functional neuro­imaging data on gender differences in empathy remain scarce.” When I asked a couple of scientists to weigh in, one said he wouldn’t base any substantive conclusion on this paper, since initial findings of sex differences in the brain often don’t amount to much. The other pointed out that if men and women really processed emotions differently, you’d expect to see far greater variation in fMRI data.

Yet one of Brizendine’s more believable claims is that when she weaves theories like the one about TPJ for her patients, they smile with recognition. Maybe this is because the science will one day catch up with Brizendine’s ideas. Or maybe as a species we’re predisposed to be preoccupied by difference, as the Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke argues. Or maybe we are still in recovery from that brief time in the 1970s when boys really were expected to play with dolls and some New Age man somewhere hung his house with crystals.

But isn’t it time to acknowledge that any rigid insistence that men and women are exactly the same has long since given way to common sense? Brizendine’s trick, after all, is to give a scientific veneer to “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” Which dates to 1992. At this point, it’s hardly daring to say that there are momentous innate sex differences in the brain. It’s just dubious.

Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate and the Truman Capote law and media fellow at Yale Law School.

1 comment:

Kate DuBois said...

Well, Mr. Harryman, you got my attention with your headline. Your homepage photo is beautiful, and your tagline is compelling. But why do you believe that the brain differences within a gender are greater than the differences between genders (and that everyone knows this)?

I'm smiling as I write because I think the answer will be different based on the gender of the person answering the question. :-)

I wonder what Robert Benjamin, the author of the memoir trilogy Imperfectly Ordinary would say about this?

Having just finished his 2nd book in the series I Promised You Daisies, I find myself curious as to not only the gender differences in the brain but the aging brain differences. He is now in his 60's and has a more reflective sensitive awareness of his emotions than it seems he did in his 20's and 30's (when this book takes place.)

Thanks for making me think more deeply.