How female and male brains can explain why we’re so different.
In my early years as a teacher somewhere between the first ice age and now I would present the same assignment every year. “Build your dream house,” I would exhort to my 6th graders. Obviously, they needed to build their houses on a small scale, but they could use any materials they wanted. I never gave them any instruction as to what to use or how they should do it, but to just use their imaginations. What came back was a complete surprise to me. Every girl—and I mean every girl—brought in a shoe box with a hole in it that I could look into and see the interior of their house. It would be laid out perfectly with small carpet samples, chairs and even a bedroom set.
The boys—and I mean all the boys—built their dream houses with these columns that would sort of wobble, with towers on top of that, and were usually painted with sparkly stuff. It was striking in the sense that the girls’ were very interior in their vision for their dream house and the boys’ were very exterior in their orientation.
I also found the girls to be good helpers, compliant, supportive, sensitive and generally more maternal than their male counterparts. The boy’s were always joking, running, figuring out puzzles, competing in sports and games while driving to succeed in the classroom (unless they had self esteem problems, and many of them did). Of course, what kind of culture, parental involvement and other factors played a role in each child’s degree of gender normative behavior, but the physical and psychological differences between the boys and the girls struck me as being very marked at that age.
While researching for this blog, I ran across an old episode of the successful series “Friends.” In this episode, the women talked about a first kiss between the characters played by Jennifer Anniston and David Schwimmer, in a much different way than the men. The women wanted to know about every detail of the interaction: where his hands were, what he said—in short, everything. Then the show cuts to the men, who were huddled around a table gorging on pizza when the Schwimmer character says that he kissed her and the other two guys say, “Cool.” That was it. We laugh at this snippet of male and female differences because we know it’s all too true. Men generally don’t talk about serious or personal matters nearly as much as women do.
While men and women can value and engage in many of the same activities, they often have preferential differences. When I am working with couples, the men talk a lot about wanting a helpmate and activity partner, while women say they want to feel acknowledged and validated. Women talk about connection, being cherished, and security, and men talk about problem solving and achieving success. Women may feel closer and validated through communication, dialogue and intimate sharing of experience, emotional content and personal perspectives, while men often find such sharing and involvement uncomfortable, even overwhelming.
Why this difference?
Women have four times as many brain cells or neurons that connect the right and left hemisphere of their brains. This physical evidence supports the idea that men rely more heavily on their left brain to solve one problem, one step at a time, while women have more efficient access to both sides of their brain. Because of this difference, women have greater access to their right brain, which is associated with creative problem solving. Women have a more enhanced ability to multitask than their male counterparts.
Clearly, creative problem solving and multitasking are a desirable combination of assets. Women tend to be intuitive and can think globally. They will consider many sources of information simultaneously. They tend to take a broad perspective, and view elements in an assignment as interrelated and interdependent.
Men tend to focus acutely on one or a limited number of problems at a time. They have an enhanced ability to separate themselves from problems and can intellectually minimize the complexity, compared to the way that women incorporate personal experience into their problem solving. This tendency in men may make the dissonance or emotional association of ethical problems more manageable. The kind of logical thinking at which men excel is more linear, or sequential, and men with this style will view tasks as independent from one another.
So, with all these dissimilarities how in the world do relationships between men and women ever work at all?
Rather than seeing these differences as unavoidable sources of discord, we can view these differences as desirable. Because men and women have complementary skills, the balance between the two makes for healthy and productive partnership. We can view conflict as inevitable because of these essential differences, instead of as an indication of a fundamental flaw in our relationship. As men and women embrace these distinctions between one another, it allows each sex to learn the language of the other so that communication can thrive.
When men and women unite instead of compete they become a working partnership rather than living in separate worlds.
Vive la différence.
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Image of cute boy and girl courtesy of Shutterstock