From Venus to Mars: A woman’s brain functions differently than a man’s (1) by MEHMET ÖĞÜTÇÜ*
I am sorry to disappoint you. What you will read today is on how the female brain functions differently than the male brain and in what ways this phenomenon affects our lives. I assure you it is no less important than the foregoing current affairs.
By now we know that men and women come from different planets, no matter how much in common we claim to have with each other. Recognizing this fundamental reality represents the first, most important, step toward understanding each other and reducing the inevitable (sometimes unnecessary) frictions. To do so means a venture into a relatively less known, indeed uncharted, territory: the female brain.
We have heard it 1,000 times. Women everywhere seem to say the same thing about their male partners: “He just shuts off to emotion! He never tells me how he is feeling!” Then, I hear my male friends saying they hate it when a woman asks them during a quiet moment, “What are you thinking?” Women find this a natural question because they tend to go quiet when hurt or lied to. If a man is quiet, a woman may assume his silence indicates that he is upset. Men, on the other hand, stop communicating when they have a problem to solve. These are a few daily examples of how different men and women are -- in more than just the obvious physical ways.
This has a great deal to do with the following fact: A man’s brain and a woman’s brain really do work differently. We see it every day at home, on the playground, in the media columns and screens, in classrooms and in offices. The brain dictates these divergent behaviors. The clichés from John Gray’s best-selling book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” are not without solid reasons. This book explores the intrinsic differences between men and women in a way that has helped millions of people understand why relationships between the two sexes can be so frustrating.
From which planet?
The basic premise here is that many years ago, all men lived on Mars, and all women lived on Venus. Once they got together, they respected and enjoyed their differences -- until one day when everybody woke up completely forgetting that they had once come from different planets. And ever since, men mistakenly expect women to think, communicate and react the way men do, and women expect men to think, communicate and react the way women do. These unrealistic expectations cause frustration. But when we understand the God-given differences between the two sexes, we have more realistic expectations of the “other” sex and our frustration level drops to manageable levels.
With that said and a caveat that generalizations are often misleading, let us look at some of the differences between men and women.
Men get their sense of self from achievement. We tend to be task-oriented, and being self-reliant is very important to us. Asking for help is an admission of failure; we see it as a weakness. Women get their sense of self from relationships. They are relational-oriented. Their connections to other people are the most important thing to them. Instead of prizing self-reliance, they tend to be inter-dependent, enjoying connectedness with other people, especially other women.
Men are competitive. Whether we are on the basketball court, at work or on the highway, we just naturally want to win. Many of us are driven to prove ourselves and it comes out in a competitive spirit. It is not that women are not competitive, because, of course, they are; it is just that they tend to be more cooperative than competitive.
Men are often more logical and analytical than women. And women tend to be more intuitive than men. Women catch subliminal messages faster and more accurately than men. This difference is evident in brain activity. Men’s brains tend to show activity in one hemisphere at a time. Women’s brains will show the two hemispheres communicating with each other, back and forth, constantly. That means that often, men and women can arrive at the exact same conclusion, using completely different means to get there.
Men are linear. God made women to be multi-taskers, able to juggle many things at once. It is a requirement for mothering. Many times they will be cooking dinner and helping the kids with homework, answering the phone and keeping an ear on the radio, all at the same time.
Men tend to be compartmentalized, like a chest of drawers: Work in one drawer, relationships in another drawer, sports in a third drawer and the like. All the various parts of our lives can be split off from each other. Women, on the other hand, are more like a ball of yarn, where everything is connected to everything else. That is why a woman cannot get romantic when there is some unresolved anger or frustration with her husband, and he does not see what the two things have to do with each other.
Men are action oriented. When we feel hostile, our first instinct is to release it physically. And when we’re upset, the way for us to feel better is to actively solve the problem. Women are verbal. Their hostility is released with words, often harsh, rather than fists.
The way we handle severe stress can be particularly frustrating to women who do not understand the way we are: A man withdraws into his “cave.” We need to be apart from everybody else while we figure out our problems alone. Remember, a man is very self-reliant and competitive, and to ask for help is weakness, so he will first want to solve the problem by himself. Women handle stress in the exact opposite way. When they are stressed, they get more involved with other people. They want to talk about what’s upsetting them, because they process information and feelings by putting them into words.
A man’s primary need is for respect. There are a lot of elements involved in respect, which he needs both from his peers and from the significant women in his life: trust, acceptance, appreciation, admiration, approval and encouragement. A man needs to know he is respected. He also needs to be needed. That is why it is so devastating to a man when he loses his job. So, when the means to achieve and provide for his family is taken away, it is emotionally catastrophic. Just as a man needs to be respected, women primarily need to be cherished. Cherishing means giving tender care, understanding, respect, devotion, validation and reassurance. And just as a man needs to be needed, they need to be protected. That is why security is so important to them.
One final difference. For men, words are simply for conveying facts and information. But for women, words mean much more. Not just to convey information, but to explore and discover our thoughts and feelings, to help us feel better when we are upset, and it is the only way we have to create intimacy. To a woman, words are like breathing!
For a laugh
A patient’s family gathered to hear what the specialists had to say. “Things don’t look good. The only chance is a brain transplant. This is an experimental procedure. It might work, but the bad news is that brains are very expensive, and you will have to pay the cost yourselves.”
“Well, how much does a brain cost?” asked the relatives.
“For a male brain, $500,000. For a female brain, $200,000.”
Some of the younger male relatives tried to look shocked, but all the men nodded because they thought they understood. A few actually smirked. But the patient’s daughter was unsatisfied and asked, “Why the difference in price between male and female brains?”
“A standard pricing practice.” said the head of the team. “Women’s brains have to be marked down because they have been used.”
The female brain works differently
Let’s face it: There is no unisex brain. Women arrive already wired as women, and men arrive already wired as men. Their brains are different by the time they are born, and their brains are what drive their impulses, values and their very reality. The brain shapes the way we see, hear, smell and taste. Nerves run from our sense organs directly to the brain, and the brain does all the interpreting. But the brain does more than that. It profoundly affects how we conceptualize the world -- whether we think a person is good or bad, if we like the weather today or it makes us unhappy, or whether we’re inclined to take care of the day’s business.
You do not have to be a neuroscientist to know this. If you are feeling a little down and have a nice glass of wine or a lovely piece of chocolate, your attitude can shift. A gray, cloudy day can turn bright, or irritation with a loved one can evaporate because of the way the chemicals in those substances affect the brain. Your immediate reality can change in an instant. If chemicals acting on the brain can create different realities, what happens when two brains have different structures? There’s no question that their realities will be different.
The women we know
Browsing through the bookshelves in a Washington, D.C. bookshop last week I spotted and right away bought “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine. Although almost 46 years of my life were spent with women (i.e. mother, sister, girlfriend, wife, colleague, daughter) in varying degrees of intimacy, intensity and interaction, it was an awkward feeling for me to still have a burning need to better understand the female brain through the lens of a female author.
In this groundbreaking book, Dr. Brizendine describes the uniquely flexible structure of the female brain and its constant, dynamic state of change -- the key difference that separates it from that of the male -- and reveals how women think, what they value, how they communicate and whom they will love. She also reveals the neurological explanations behind why:
A woman remembers fights that a man insists never happened.
Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain perhaps once every couple of days, but may enter a man’s brain up to once every minute.
A woman’s brain goes on high alert during pregnancy -- and stays that way long after giving birth.
A woman over 50 is more likely to initiate divorce than a man.
Women tend to know what people are feeling, while men can’t spot an emotion unless someone cries or threatens them with bodily harm.
*Mehmet Öğütçü is a former Turkish diplomat and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) executive. He is currently working in London. [email protected]