Empathy and the Gendered Brain: 7 Things Men and Women Need to Know

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Yes, men can be naturally empathic. But like a lot of other findings in the field of gender-specific medicine, men may express these traits differently than women do.

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The emerging field of gender-specific medicine tells us that male/female differences are real and understanding our differences, as well as our similarities, may be matters of life and death. “Everywhere we look, the two sexes are startlingly and unexpectedly different not only in their internal function but in the way they experience illness,” says Marianne J. Legato, M.D., founder of The Foundation for Gender Specific-Medicine. For instance, a potential heart attack presents differently in men and women. Men often feel a crashing pain in their chest.  Women often experience fleeting pain in the upper abdomen, shortness of breath, and sweating.

Other differences are seen in the way we experience everything from arthritis to depression. In my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression, I describe recent research that shows that men often “act out” their depression and become irritable, angry, or alcoholic. Women more often “act in” their depression and become sad, withdrawn, and overeat. Of course this is not true for all men and all women, but sex and gender differences are important to understand.

Sex differences speak about averages not absolutes.

There are important differences in male and female brain structure and function. Louann Brizendine, M.D. is one of the world’s experts and has written two important books, The Female Brain and The Male Brain. “Until recently,” says Brizendine, “scientists assumed we all had a unisex brain. But now we know that isn’t true.” In the Female Brain, for instance, she notes that the part of the brain that weighs options and makes decisions, “the worry-wort” center, is larger in women than in men. In the Male Brain, the area for sexual pursuit in the hypothalamus is 2.5 times larger in males than in females.

Brain scientist, Simon Baron-Cohen, has been doing research on brain differences for many years. In his book, The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male & Female Brain, he states flatly that “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”  This may seem like a disturbing view since empathy is so important in our pursuit of love and success in life. But, as they say, we need to hear the rest of the story:

 Sex differences speak about averages not absolutes.

When we say that men are taller than women, we understand that we are talking about averages not about all men and women. Believe me, at 5’ 5’’ tall, I’m aware every day that there are many women taller than me (including my wife). But when we talk about such things as brain differences, we often forget and get defensive about differences between males and females.

 

Not all males have male-type brains and not all females have female-type brains.

Among the tests that Baron-Cohen uses to assess brain type is the Empathy Quotient (EQ) questionnaire for the female brain type and the Systematizing Quotient (SQ) questionnaire for the male type brain. I’m sure I’m not the only male who scored higher on the EQ scale than most women. Although, I may be the only male who scored lower on the SQ scale than most men and lower than most women (my wife drives when we’re together and if we break down she has a way better chance of knowing what’s wrong and what to do that me.)

 

Empathy can change the world.

Many people equate empathy with everyday kindness, support, and emotional sensitivity.  But according to empathy expert Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, “Empathy is an ideal that has the power both to transform our own lives and to bring about fundamental social change. Empathy can create a revolution. Not one of those old-fashioned revolutions based on new laws, institutions or governments, but something much more radical: a revolution of human relationships.”

“Empathy is an ideal that has the power both to transform our own lives and to bring about fundamental social change. Empathy can create a revolution…”

 

Empathy is more than fuzzy-wuzzy feelings.

Empathy has a reputation for being focused on warm and tender feelings and the definition seems equally “fuzzy-wuzzy.” But new research from fields such as gender medicine, evolutionary psychology, and brain science demonstrate that empathy can be studied and applied to many of the problems we face today from Alzheimer’s and bipolar illness to anger and violence.

Krznaric defines empathy this way: Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.

 

We must address the empathy deficit.

In the lead-up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama made empathy a major focus of his campaign. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” said Obama. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of people different from us.”

A recent study at the University of Michigan revealed a dramatic decline in empathy levels amongst young Americans between 1980 and today, with the steepest drop being in the last ten years.

 

Men may be equally empathic as women, but express it differently.

As noted above, Simon Baron-Cohen suggests that, on average, the male brain is not hard-wired for empathy. But that may be the result of equating empathy with tuning into another person’s feeling state. Men may empathize differently than women.  Researchers in the empathy field describe two types of empathy. One type is called affective empathy and involves a shared emotional response that women may be better at achieving. The other type is called cognitive empathy and involves being able to see the world through the perspective of the other. Men may be better able to access this type of empathy.

 

The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain suggests that we are hard-wired for empathy and everyone can learn to become more empathic.

In research in brain science show that we all possess “mirror neurons” that fire up both when we experience something (such as pain) and also when we see somebody else going through the same experience. Dr. Christian Keysers is one of the few scientists in the world who has directly studied mirror neurons.

“The question that fascinates me,” says Keysers, “is how we understand others. I often just look at my wife’s face and instantly know how she feels (and thus if I’m in trouble or not). Hollywood movies are a good example, too: your heart beats baster as you watch a tarantula crawl on James Bond’s chest in the movie Dr. No. Your hands sweat and your skin tingles under the spider’s legs. Effortlessly, you feel what Bond feels. How? This is what we have found in our discovery of mirror neurons: our brain mirrors the state of other people.”

In reporting this research Roman Kzarnic concludes, “The existence of mirror neurons suggests a radical redefinition of what it means to be human: the boundaries of the self extend beyond our skin and bone physicality.” Tuning into ourselves and tuning into others may be equally important ways to “know thyself.”

 

Photo: Flickr/8mm & Other Stuff

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About Jed Diamond Ph.D

Jed Diamond, Ph.D., is the Founder and Director of the MenAlive, a health program that helps men live long and well. Though focused on men’s health, MenAlive is also for women who care about the health of the men in their lives. Jed is the author of 11 books including his latest: Stress Relief for Men: How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well. Since its inception in 1992, Jed has been on the Board of Advisors of the Men’s Health Network. He is also a member of the International Society for the Study of the Aging Male and serves as a member of the International Scientific Board of the World Congress on Gender and Men’s Health. His homepage is MenAlive.com.

Comments

  1. So men have cognitive empathy, eh? This is just another way of saying that men are intellectually superior to women. I do not trust most gender “scientists.” Brizendine is lying when she says that science assumed that the brain was unisex. Scientists have always acted like women are intellectually inferior to men. Just read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. Scientists need to examine their own anti-feminism before they start doing “gender research.”

  2. The research going on in gender is great, because it brings up unrecognized symptoms of disorders that could effect either sex. The majority of people, men and women are going to be somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. Only the outliers are really defining the differences between the genders. And for all the outliers that make men more _______ on average, there are ones on the opposite end of the curve, like the author brought up with height. Of course there are more factors involved here, and many ways to cut up the statistical average (means, medians, modes and ranges come to mind as tools). The statistical data doesn’t have any agenda, but the people who chop it up often times do.

    My point is, whenever averages are discussed, many a layman takes this to be the way it should be. So that if men are on average taller, short men are doing something wrong. This isn’t the data talking, its a qualitative understanding of the word ‘average’.

    And it’s great to have that pointed out in the article… it isn’t pointed out enough. But just afterwords, to say that all men don’t have male type brains.. why does it have to be qualified this way? To tell a boy he has a female-type brain because he empathizes on average the same way many women (and a slightly smaller amount of men) do is tantamount to telling him he’s doing something wrong. He’s a boy, after all, he should have a boy’s brain to go along with his boy arms and his boy legs. Word choices and labels matter here, because they can shift gender norms to the left and to the right very easily. Why not call it the emotionally empathizing brain, and describe its constituent statistics in men and women? Why not describe the advantages this gives the men in the minority, rather than always pushing the advantage of the dominant characteristic? Why does it have to be a male-type brain and a female-type brain? All this does is subvert the minority of people who are different… and that has nothing to do with science or averages. That’s an agenda, and it’s buried so deep that people don’t even recognize when they’re pushing it.

  3. The one thing that people often forget when looking at adult brains is that they are a product of the person’s life experience. Parts of the brain grow and change based on experience and practice, and I think we can all agree that life experience is impacted by gender (people hold and talk to babies differently from day 1 based on whether they think the baby is a boy vs. girl). So the fact that, on average, men and women show certain kinds of differences in their brains does not mean that these differences are “hard wired” from birth. They may simply be the physical manifestations of experience and adaptation. This means that men who learn empathy (through modeling, etc.) might grow up to have brains that look more “female” (and vise versa) rather than they were simply predestined to be that way. It’s true that there may also be some inherent gender differences, but the notion that brain structure is static and causes experience/behavior and not the other way around is a bit reductionistic. It’s a 2-way street.

  4. hi Jed,
    here is more about empathy. http://cultureofempathy.com
    including interviews with the people and books you cited.

    You may find this work of Owen Marcus of interest. He leads men’s groups and we did some discussions about empathy and men. http://bit.ly/zvqaw6

Trackbacks

  1. […] Yes, men can be naturally empathetic. But like a lot of other findings in the field of gender-specific medicine, men may express these traits differently than women do.  […]

  2. […] The emerging field of gender-specific medicine tells us that male/female differences are real and understanding our differences, as well as our similarities, may be matters of life and death. Yes, men can be naturally empathetic, but like a lot of other findings in the field of gender-specific medicine, men may express these traits differently than women do.  […]

  3. […] why I had to write this post after encountering this article on goodmenproject.com.  Neurological underpinnings of empathy aside (and the implication of the […]

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