“The Female Brain”

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The 8/20 WaPo ran a review by Deborah Tannen of “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine called “A Brain of One’s Own.” In it she writes:

… In a breezy, playful style (the calming hormone oxytocin is a “fluffy, purring kitty,” while testosterone “has no time for cuddling”), Brizendine follows the development of women’s brains from birth through the teen years, to courting, pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing, and on to menopause and beyond. Throughout the book, I recognized biological accounts for social behaviors I had observed and written about. For example, the major role played by talk in women’s and girls’ close relationships is explained by differences in the brain. For one thing, “some verbal areas of the brain are larger in women than in men.” How did they get that way? “The testosterone surge” that male fetuses experience in utero “shrinks the centers for communication.” In addition, “It is during the teen years that the flood of estrogen in girls’ brains will activate oxytocin and sex-specific female brain circuits, especially those for talking, flirting, and socializing.”

Anthropologists and linguists who have studied children at play have noted that girls form bonds by telling secrets. Here, too, Brizendine finds “a biological reason”: “Connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. Sharing secrets that have romantic and sexual implications activates those centers even more. … It’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush.” Many readers will find it intriguing or reassuring that their own experiences are supported by brain studies, though such studies may raise the question of what’s cause and what’s effect. Do girls and women enjoy talking because it creates this hormonal rush, or do they get the hormonal rush because they enjoy talking about personal matters? Either way, brain studies dovetail with anthropological observations. …

Tannen concludes:

… The descriptions of how hormonal surges and plunges might result in women’s erratic behavior and emotional unpredictability can seem like a dangerous reinforcement of stereotypes. But Brizendine argues that not understanding the effects of hormonal cycles is itself dangerous because women end up blaming themselves. She notes, crucially, that 80 percent of women are only mildly affected by hormone fluctuations, and that “a hormone alone does not cause a behavior. Hormones merely raise the likelihood that under certain circumstances a behavior will occur.” Perhaps these caveats should be repeated as running heads on every page.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould once said he despaired of the constant question “Is it nature or nurture?” because “biology and environment are inextricably linked.” Ideally, readers will sift through the case studies, research findings and scientific conjectures gathered in this non-technical book and be intrigued by some while questioning others, bearing in mind the caution that hormones and brain structure play a role in gender differences but are not the whole story. And if this book joins a “nature” chorus that has swelled as a corrective to the previous pendulum swing toward “nurture,” we can assume that another corrective will follow. But given the character — and rancor — of our dichotomous approach to the influences of biology and culture, readers likely will be fascinated or angered, convinced or skeptical, according to the positions they have staked out already. That would be a pity.

A more unequivocally favorable review of the book, from sfgate.com, is accessible here. A rather negative review is available here at Boston.com.

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4 Responses to “The Female Brain”

  1. Q. Pheevr says:

    I heartily second Tannen’s suggestion that “[...] these caveats [...] be repeated as running heads on every page.” The cover design seems to be pushing in the opposite direction, though. (A phone cord? Oh, please.) So does the title, for that matter; I’m not sure I fully trust any book that refers to “the female brain” in the singular, with the definite article.

  2. Q. Pheevr says:

    By the way, Mark Liberman over at Language Log has recently had some interesting things to say about some of Brizendine’s claims: “Neuroscience in the service of sexual stereotypes,” “Sex-linked laxical budgets,” and “Sex and speaking rate.”

  3. Patrick Seamus says:

    The assumption here of course is that the brain and the mind are identical, which is arguable, to put it mildly. I don’t know about a ‘female brain,’ but I’m a bit more confident that there is no gender difference when it comes to ‘the mind.’ See, for instance, M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003) and Vincent Descombe’s The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism (2001). I look forward to checking out the links above.

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