Female Brain Structure and Thinking

Let's turn again to Dr. Brizendine to help us understand female brain structure and how it affects thinking. She describes it like this:

What if the communication center is bigger in one brain than in the other? What if the emotional memory center is bigger in one than in the other? What if one brain develops a greater ability to read cues in people than does the other? In this case, you would have a person whose reality dictated that communication, connection, emotional sensitivity, and responsiveness were the primary values. This person would prize these qualities above all others and be baffled by a person with a brain that didn't grasp the importance of these qualities. In essence, you would have someone with a female brain.9

We can see evidence of this hard wiring and its hormonal underpinnings in the behavior of infant girls. They gaze at faces for signs of emotional expression shortly after birth and draw meaning from a particular look or touch. When they encounter a face without emotion, however, such as a mime or someone who has had too much Botox, the child tends to be confused. A girl will turn her face to others nearby that are more expressive. Mutual facial gazing will increase by over 400 percent in the first three months of life, whereas this response will not increase at all in boys during this time.10

Girls have innate skills of observation, including the ability to hear human vocal tones in a broader range of frequencies. A study at Harvard Medical School found that newborn females less than twenty-four hours old are able to distinguish the cries of another baby from various sounds in the room.11 Girls a little older can also hear even the slightest tightening in Mother's voice, which tells them they should not be touching something forbidden. A little boy, on the other hand, will be less able to recognize mild displeasure in his mother's voice and probably won't care anyway. He will have to be restrained physically to keep him from plunging ahead.12 A girl of two can tell whether or not an adult is listening to her or if she is being ignored. If disregarded, she will often toddle away in indignation.

Brizendine shares an interesting story that occurred one day when she was mildly depressed. At eighteen months, her daughter noticed immediately that something was wrong. She climbed onto her mother's lap and caressed her hair, glasses, and earrings. Then she looked straight into her mother's eyes, held her face in her hands, and soothed her mom's feelings. Dr. Brizendine said, "That little girl knew exactly what she was doing."13 We know now that this kind of female nurturing is a precursor to bonding in motherhood. That is what was going on when the three-year-old told her "little truckie" not to worry because everything was going to be all right. She was a future mom in training.

In short, females are finely tuned machines that operate according to fixed timetables. Once again, the behavior we see throughout childhood results from hormones activating preprogrammed receptor sites as they interact with environmental influences. One affects the other, positively or negatively. Maternal stress during pregnancy, for example, can upset the biochemical balance by stimulating a stress hormone called cortisol. It can alter the normal neural wiring, posing lifelong implications for future emotional health. Research also reveals that girls in their first two years tend to absorb the emotional climate in the home.14 Mothers who are greatly stressed, such as during times of marital conflict or financial worries, can pass along their anxieties to their female offspring. Parents must always remember that perceptive little people, especially their girls, are watching their every move.

Dr. Brizendine elaborates further on the way young females value relationships, as contrasted with males:

If you're a girl, you've been programmed to make sure you keep social harmony. This is a matter of life and death to the brain, even if it's not so important in the twenty-first century. We could see this in the behavior of three-and-a-half-year-old twin girls. Every morning the sisters climbed on each other's dressers to get to the clothes hanging in their closets. One girl had a pink two-piece outfit, and the other had a green two-piece outfit. Their mother giggled every time she'd see them switch the tops—pink pants with a green top and green pants with a pink top. The twins did it without a fight. "Can I borrow your pink top? I'll give it back later, and you can have my green top" was how the dialogue went. This would not be a likely scenario if one of the twins were a boy. A brother would have grabbed the shirt he wanted, and the sister would have tried to reason with him, though she would have ended up in tears because his language skills simply wouldn't have been as advanced as hers.

Typical non-testosteronized, estrogen-ruled girls are very invested in preserving harmonious relationships. From their earliest days, they live most comfortably and happily in the realm of peaceful interpersonal connections. They prefer to avoid conflict because discord puts them at odds with their urge to stay connected, to gain approval and nurture. The twenty-four-month estrogen bath of girls' infantile puberty reinforces the impulse to make social bonds based on communication and compromise. It happened with Leila and her new friends on the playground. Within a few minutes of meeting they were suggesting games, working together, and creating a little community. They found a common ground that led to shared play and possible friendship. And remember [their brother's] noisy entrance? That usually wrecked the day and the harmony sought out by the girls' brains.15

Michael Gurian referred to these bonding tendencies as "the intimacy imperative," which he defined as "the hidden yearning in every girl's and woman's life to live in a safe web of intimate relationships."16 He gave as an illustration his own daughters' early experience in soccer, which was more social than competitive. In contrast to the aggressive way boys play the sport, when one of his girls would knock down another player as she ran down the field, more often than not, she would stop to check on the other girl's welfare. Meanwhile, the opposing team would score while parents were yelling from the sideline, "Watch out, watch the goal!"17

Winning on the field was less important for these girls than friendship and intimacy. That is usually the case, especially when girls are young. Estrogen, the "queen" of female biochemistry, is at work. It elevates relationship to the highest priority.

But what about girls who are very shy and do not connect easily with others? Are they wired differently from their gregarious sisters? No. Gurian writes that even those who prefer to be alone are often focused mentally on how relationships have been going and how they might be improved. He found this characteristic of female nature remarkable and not at all like the impulses of males. He wrote, "I know I am different from my wife and daughters. There is something about the female experience of intimacy that I will never fully know because I don't live it."18

While considering the hormonal influences that make a girl who she is, we must not overlook the actual structure of the brain. There is 15 percent more blood flowing in the female brain than in that of a male, and it is more likely to surge to both hemispheres.19 When you talk to a girl, she is concentrating on what you say with both sides of her brain, whereas a boy is listening with predominately one side. This is why females typically like to process ideas before deciding or acting on them. It is also why women often agonize over routine decisions. Neuroscientist Ruben Gur observes, "There's more going on in the female brain than the male. The female brain is more revved up."20 True, brother, true.

Gurian then asks, "Have you ever noticed how hard it is for a girl or woman to 'turn her brain off '?"21 That is true too. I noticed this characteristic when my wife, Shirley, and I were first married. If we had an argument over something I considered trivial, I would simply put the matter out of my mind until morning. I knew we could work it out after a good night of sleep. Shirley, however, would lie on her side of the bed (her "brink," as I called it) until she couldn't stand the silence any longer, and then she would wake me to say, "You are going to talk to me!" I was forced to deal with whatever was bothering her. Unless I was willing to wake up and fly right, neither of us would get any sleep. Therefore, we would talk through our disagreement, and when the matter was settled, she was able to slumber like a baby. Believe me, it is a male-female thing.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of talking in the lives of girls and women. Though estimates vary, it appears that males use about seven thousand words per day; and females, twenty thousand.22 Women not only talk more, but their enjoyment in conversation is far more intense. Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers of a girl's brain, providing a huge emotional reward for her. It is why teen girls are obsessed with text messaging and computer chat rooms. It also explains why one of the most common sources of disappointment women express about married life is that the guys won't talk to them. Show me a husband who keeps his thoughts to himself, and I will show you a frustrated wife.

I have sat in restaurants numerous times and watched what appear to be husbands and wives sitting together at nearby tables. They eat their entire meals with nothing to say to each other. Their eyes are glazed and unfocused, or the women are watching other people. It is always a sad spectacle to see these couples whose minds have to be meandering through hundreds of memories and an array of feelings but can't find anything worth sharing. My sympathies are always with the women in those situations because of my awareness of how badly they need to converse. Some of them appear to have given up on the effort.

Little and not-so-little girls need to talk too, especially about what they are feeling. Let me speak directly to the busy mom and dad who are too exhausted at the end of the day to get your kids talking, either at the dinner table or in those intimate few minutes before bedtime: you may be making a serious mistake. You need to know what your children are thinking, and they need the pleasure of telling you about it. Even though some loquacious kids will "talk the horns off a billy goat" and you come home too tired to listen, it is imperative that you tune in—especially to your girls. There will come a time when they will be talking primarily to their peers, and the missed opportunities for understanding and intimacy today will be costly down the road.

This is why we should engage our kids in activities that encourage conversation, including eating together as a family, playing table games, inviting friends with kids to dinner, cooking together, building things, adopting a lovable dog or cat, cultivating mutual interests, or learning a sport such as skiing or tennis as a family. Remember how your daughter is made, and seek invitations into that private world. You won't regret it.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11.E. B. McClure, "A Meta-Analytic Review of Sex Differences in Facial Expression Processing and

Their Development in Infants, Children, and Adolescents," Psychological Bulletin 126, no. 3

(2000): 424–453.

12. Ibid.

13. Brizendine, The Female Brain, 14–15.

14.M. J. Meaney and M. Szyf (2005). "Environmental Programming of Stress Responses through DNA Methylation: Life at the Interface between a Dynamic Environment and a Fixed Genome," Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 7, no. 2 (2005): 103–123.

15. Brizendine, The Female Brain, 21–22.

16. Gurian, The Wonder of Girls, 23.

17. Ibid.,53.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.,55.

21. Ibid.

22.Allan Pease and Allan Garner, Talk Language: How to Use Conversation for Profit and Pleasure (London: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

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