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And the differences are not just in the kind of television shows or movies they prefer or what they like to talk about when they catch up with members of the same sex!
Men and women have different brains that make them see and feel differently. We are genetically and neurologically programmed to be good or bad in different tasks. The difference in brain structure and chemistry also makes men and women more vulnerable to varying kinds of mental disorders.
Distinct neurological connections
A novel study performed on about 950 men and women (8-23 years of age) has shown that the neural connections in male and female brains are vastly different.
Male brains have more connections within each hemisphere, in female brains there are more connections between the two hemispheres. There is greater modularity in male brains, which explains why men learn and execute tasks in isolation better than women, who tend to excel in multitasking. Think of a female friend or a relative who helps her kids with the homework while rustling up the family dinner, checking updates on WhatsApp, and keeping an eye on what’s happening in her favorite TV show. We all know a few multitasking mavericks.
This difference in neural connectivity also manifests in how men and women behave and function. The rear end of the brain is involved in perception while the frontal portion controls coordinated activities. Greater neural connectivity inside hemispheres makes men generally better in motor activities than women.
The particular brain chemistry of males and females also influences perception. According to one study, men can better detect and process fine visual stimuli and fast-moving objects. Scientists think testosterone, the male sex hormone, may have a hand in this because the cerebral cortex in the human brain contains a large number of testosterone receptors. It is known that testosterone affects the functionality of sense organs.
The combined effect of increased intra-hemispheric connection and better spatial-temporal visual acuity makes men, on average, more likely to excel in mathematics, physics, and engineering. These sex-specific structural differences in the brain may also explain why more men than women become airplane pilots, architects, and race car drivers.
The left hemisphere of the brain is involved in logical thinking while the right hemisphere is the seat of intuitive thinking. Increased inter-hemispheric neural connectivity makes women generally more adept at intuitive thinking that involves coordinating analytical reasoning and intuition.
Women are therefore better at managing relationships, empathizing, articulating and expressing themselves creatively, and appreciating beauty. They have denser gray matter in the parietal cortex than men. This explains why women tend to be better at interpreting verbal cues; gauging what lies behind words and in what remains unuttered, remembering faces, and understanding gestures.
These differences in the structure and working of the male and female brain make sense from the point of view of evolution as well.
In a hunter-gatherer society, men had to possess keen sensory reflexes to be able to spot their catch in the wild and kill it without feeling the pangs of remorse that more empathetic members of the opposite gender would have suffered from. Enhanced motor capabilities too helped men design deadlier hunting tools. Mother Nature made women more empathetic and endowed her with greater emotional intelligence, so she can intuitively respond to the needs of babies and children who cannot make themselves understood.
Differences in susceptibility to mental disorders
Gender differences in the human brain lead to considerable differences in the way men and women perceive, interpret, and react to their external environments. What also intrigues scientists and doctors is the possibility that these differences may lead to either greater or reduced vulnerability to certain psychological disorders.
One study suggests that men may be more vulnerable to autism than women because they tend to have less empathetic and more systemizing capabilities than women do. The authors refer to a condition where a man has an “extreme male brain.” Such an individual has severely restricted empathizing abilities that makes it difficult for him to socialize, communicate meaningfully, and respond appropriately to other people’s behavior and emotions. These are some telltale signs of autism.
According to the findings of another research study, enhanced systemizing capabilities may explain the greater incidence of high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome in men than women. Individuals with these capabilities have a few focused areas of interest and a keen eye for detail, qualities that can stand individuals in good stead in their careers. Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and physicist Albert Einstein exhibited symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome.
More women suffer from major depressive disorder (MDD) than men. Estrogen imbalance in the body and the consequent effect on specific regions of the brain could have a hand in making women more vulnerable to depression. Some areas of the female brain, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate, and medial and orbital prefrontal cortices contain a large number of estrogen receptors. These regions are concerned with mood regulation in individuals. Several studies suggest that high levels of estrogen impair a person’s ability to manage stress that can trigger depression and anxiety.
The above findings provide food for thought to neuroscientists, doctors, and drug manufacturers. Should there be different drugs for men and women? Should physicians prescribe different treatment procedures for men and women?
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Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Autism: The Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156 (1), 68-80 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04467.x
Baron-Cohen, S. (2005). Sex Differences in the Brain: Implications for Explaining Autism Science, 310 (5749), 819-823 DOI: 10.1126/science.1115455
Xu, C., Li, C., Wu, H., Wu, Y., Hu, S., Zhu, Y., Zhang, W., Wang, L., Zhu, S., Liu, J., Zhang, Q., Yang, J., & Zhang, X. (2015). Gender Differences in Cerebral Regional Homogeneity of Adult Healthy Volunteers: A Resting-State fMRI Study BioMed Research International, 2015, 1-8 DOI: 10.1155/2015/183074
Ingalhalikar, M., Smith, A., Parker, D., Satterthwaite, T., Elliott, M., Ruparel, K., Hakonarson, H., Gur, R., Gur, R., & Verma, R. (2013). Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (2), 823-828 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1316909110
Goldstein, J., Holsen, L., Handa, R., & Tobet, S. (2014). Fetal hormonal programming of sex differences in depression: linking women’s mental health with sex differences in the brain across the lifespan Frontiers in Neuroscience, 8 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00247
Schuch, J., Roest, A., Nolen, W., Penninx, B., & de Jonge, P. (2014). Gender differences in major depressive disorder: Results from the Netherlands study of depression and anxiety Journal of Affective Disorders, 156, 156-163 DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.12.011
Shansky, R. (2009). Estrogen, stress and the brain: progress toward unraveling gender discrepancies in major depressive disorder Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 9 (7), 967-973 DOI: 10.1586/ERN.09.46
Sowell, E., Peterson, B., Kan, E., Woods, R., Yoshii, J., Bansal, R., Xu, D., Zhu, H., Thompson, P., & Toga, A. (2006). Sex Differences in Cortical Thickness Mapped in 176 Healthy Individuals between 7 and 87 Years of Age Cerebral Cortex, 17 (7), 1550-1560 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhl066
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