A Woman’s Brain

We need to gain an understanding of what it means to be female—neurologically, hormonally, and emotionally. What is known about the brain and how it affects behavior would fill many libraries, and additional pieces of the puzzle are being learned every day. I can't begin to present the wide scope of those findings in this context, but I can share some useful information that will assist you in interpreting your daughter's behavior and explain why she is who she is. The nuances of a child's personality are undecipherable without knowing some of the basics of her neurobiology. Let's see if we can shed some light on what can be a confusing picture.

Perhaps the best book available to introduce us to this topic is The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine. Dr. Brizendine is a Yale-trained psychiatrist who, in the 1970s, observed an absence of research on female neuroanatomy as distinct from that of males. She began seeking answers to such questions as why depression occurs more than twice as often in women as in men and why females perceive the world very uniquely. That led later to her clinical work at the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic, which she founded at the University of California, San Francisco. It also led to her valuable book, based on more than one thousand scientific studies representing the fields of genetics, molecular neuroscience, fetal and pediatric endocrinology, and neurohormonal development. Brizendine has placed this fascinating medical explanation within easy reach of parents and other laymen.

This is what Brizendine wrote, for example, about the uniqueness of males and females:

Common sense tells us that boys and girls behave differently. We see it every day at home, on the playground, and in classrooms. But what the culture hasn't told us is that the brain dictates these divergent behaviors. The impulses of children are so innate that they kick in even if we adults try to nudge them in another direction. One of my patients gave her three- and-a-half-year-old daughter many unisex toys, including a bright red fire truck instead of a doll. She walked into her daughter's room one afternoon to find her cuddling the truck in a baby blanket, rocking it back and forth saying, "Don't worry, little truckie, everything will be all right."

This isn't socialization. This little girl didn't cuddle her "truckie" because her environment molded her unisex brain. There is no unisex brain. She was born with a female brain, which came complete with its own impulses. Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as boys. Their brains are different by the time they're born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values, and their very reality.3

Michael Gurian articulated a similar perspective in his book The Wonder of Girls, which is loaded with useful information about the fair sex. He quoted Brenda Goff, a middle-school teacher in Kansas City, as she described her own family experience. She said:

Before I became a parent, I firmly believed that behavior of boys and girls was mostly molded by society and parents. Girls learned to be feminine, boys learned to be masculine. I had a girl first. At fifteen months, this little girl cried about her socks not having flowers on them. She was even born with feminine qualities that I do not have, so how could she have learned them? I was stunned!

Then I had a son. I was still convinced that I could have a boy who wasn't aggressive—no guns, war toys, etc. No violent TV shows—actually very little exposure to TV at all. Then my son "shot" me with his banana around the time he turned two! And my hair dryer became a space gun at around three. It was extremely obvious that he was different from her and yet we felt, as parents, that they've been treated in much the same manner.4

Gurian said in response, "Brenda's story has been the story of many parents. And why shouldn't it be? It is human nature."5

Indeed! But what aspect of human nature drives behavior associated with masculinity and femininity? It begins at conception, when males and females start their developmental journeys down two very different paths. That juncture will affect the way they think, feel, and act for the rest of their lives. The brains of both sexes appear to be "female" until about the eighth week, when a male brain is washed by a huge surge of testosterone. It is then transformed radically and even takes on a different color.

This male sex hormone kills some of the communication cells, including a portion of the bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. It is a rope of fibers that connects the right hemisphere, where emotion is processed, with the left, where language is focused. Although the corpus callosum survives the testosterone bath, the male brain will never be able to "cross talk" as effectively thereafter, which has major implications for future masculine behavior. Testosterone also causes an increase in the volume of neurons and circuits located in the boy's sex and aggression centers. Why does that surprise us?

A male has up to twenty times more testosterone than a female,6 which is why his play often involves running, jumping, roughhousing, grabbing hair, making loud noises, and playing with cars, trucks, airplanes, and tanks. He finds it really funny to pass gas that is SBD (silent but deadly). He likes to throw things and "fire" toy guns (bang-bang!) or shoot cucumbers or carrots or anything that looks vaguely like a gun. Testosterone is the driver for it all. It is the reason his mother, who loves him dearly, has her hands full trying to keep him from killing himself. He is a boy, after all. That's what boys do.

Because the female brain is not subjected to a comparable surge of testosterone in the womb and beyond, its communicative and emotional centers remain intact. In fact, these structures will grow larger and become better networked neurologically. A girl's corpus callosum is up to 25 percent larger in a male's,7 and becomes an eight-lane superhighway capable of carrying great quantities of emotional information from one side of the brain to the other. (For boys it is a country road.)

As a result, a girl is likely to be more expressive and emotional than most boys almost from birth. She will probably feel things more deeply and respond to subtle cues in her environment that boys are likely to miss. She will be far better at reading character and motives in others, although she probably won't be able to explain how she does it. She will also cry more often, even as an adult. Every man knows that, and he is typically rattled by it. She is a girl, after all. That's what girls do.

To understand the personalities and inclinations of young girls, it is important to understand what is called "infantile puberty."8 It refers to a period between six and thirty months of age when the ovaries produce huge amounts of estrogen, comparable even to adult levels. As testosterone marinates the male brain in early gestation, estrogen bathes the female brains of babies and toddlers. Estrogen is called the "intimacy hormone" because it stimulates brain circuits that create an urgent desire for bonding, nurturing, and communication. Thereafter, both as a girl and as a woman, she will be a friend, a lover, a feeler, a talker, and even a bit of a conniver. It is what makes her feminine.

It is the nature that I was describing in the previous chapter. The softness and sensitivity that we see in girls are the result of her neurological development. The hormonal forces that shape and influence her behavior are the cause.

3.Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006), 12. 4.              Michael Gurian, Ph.D., The Wonder of Girls (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 29.

5. Ibid.

6.Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, The Minds of Boys (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 140.

7.Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, "With Boys and Girls in Mind," Educational Leadership

(November 2004): 21–26.

8.Brizendine, The Female Brain, 13.

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

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