A Self-Help Guide to the Female Brain
Commentary on The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.
In her recent bestseller The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine provides the reader with a lively account of the female brain at all stages of life from birth through old age. Full of anecdotes, the book falls under the category of pop psych, but it comes with a list of references nearly sixty pages long and appears to be based on a diverse range of biological and psychological studies plus years of observation from the author’s personal medical experience. Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist who founded the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco in 1994 and has extensive experience working with women (whose various mood and behavioral conditions she treats as hormone imbalances).
Brizendine begins the book by comparing male and female brains. She points out that there is a difference of less than 1% in the genetic coding of human males and females but explains that this difference affects all cells in the body and is therefore extremely important in accounting for differing behavior between the sexes. Brizendine also adamantly defends the position that there is no “unisex brain;” after only eight weeks in utero, a fetus begins to undergo sex-specific changes. This sex-specific wiring stays with an individual throughout his or her life and determines the way in which he or she perceives and interacts with the world.
The book encompasses a wide range of topics relevant to women’s lives including fetal development, childhood, the menstrual cycle, love, sex, pregnancy, breastfeeding, motherhood, emotion, depression, menopause, hormone therapy, and sexual orientation. It focuses mainly on the female perspective but also provides examples of male behavior as a contrast. Each topic of behavior and stage of a female’s life is explained by the interactions of various hormones. The fluctuations of a few important neurochemicals- estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, oxytocin, cortisol, and dopamine- explain most of the changes in how females perceive the world and behave. Brizendine also discusses other hormones when they are appropriate, but she writes in a general, simplified way in order to make the information accessible to the public.
Evolutionary drives are also important motivations for female behavior. Brizendine explains how a unique cocktail of hormones was selected to cause the most adaptive behavior in what she calls the “Stone Age woman.” Modern women share this same chemical makeup and therefore many behavioral traits, such as the tendency to avoid conflict and the tendency to choose sexual and life partners based on mating and fathering potential. Sex-specific brain development and hormonal influence have caused females to evolve with uniquely strong abilities in verbal expression, communication, reading emotional cues, and empathizing with others. Through the description of women’s unique brain makeup and the relationships among various neurochemicals, Brizendine weaves a convincing tale about the female brain, how it changes, and how it explains female behavior.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when Brizendine writes about how men and women approach love. The current stereotype seems to be that women are quicker to fall in love and become obsessed with their partner. However, Brizendine backs up my personal observations, which stand in stark contrast to popular belief. She writes that females are more cautious in the early stages of a relationship and are less likely to become quickly infatuated and admit to being in love. This is because the female brain takes longer to shut down the amygdala’s fear circuits and become influenced by the bonding-inducing hormone oxytocin. She describes an anthropological theory that states that since it is advantageous for males to have sex with as many females as possible, they evolved with the power of deception in order to woo many women. Therefore, females became adept at reading emotions and detecting lies, and they are not as quick to accept someone wholeheartedly. This is just one example of how Brizendine takes a commonly observed behavior and backs it up with a chemical explanation.
This book reinforces what we concluded over and over again in class: that each person has a unique reality based on constructions of their own brain, and everything they do is influenced by that reality. Brizendine presents this reality as one that changes not only in each distinct stage of a woman’s life but even from day to day. (In fact, a woman’s menstrual cycle causes her brain to change up to 25% every month!) The book also provides behavioral explanations that may surprise us because they do not rely on consciousness. It is often hard for us to find the roots of our behavior unless they go through the I-function. For example, we can’t say exactly why we are attracted to certain people or why we are more trusting on certain days than on others. Brizendine’s book provides an interesting way to learn about the underlying causes of our own behavior and lives up to its promise of explaining, for the benefit of both women and men, how the female brain works.
Perhaps Brizendine’s most important point is that we are not slaves to our biological makeup. It may dishearten some people to realize that much of our behavior is actually driven by ancient biological wiring. But Brizendine argues that understanding our biological impulses should not make us feel helpless; on the contrary, we humans must accept our evolutionarily driven behaviors in order to learn how to control them. “At each step of the way we can better understand our world if we can have a vision of what our brains are doing,” she explains (157). “If you’re aware of the fact that a biological brain state is guiding your impulses, you can choose not to act or to act differently than you might feel compelled” (6). We can work with nature to influence our behavior for the better. This idea is not only relevant in controlling nuisances such as the symptoms of menopause; it has broad applications in the treating of mental illnesses. Neurobiology is a field of continuing exploration, and we are sure to discover even more about how the brains of both sexes work and how we can alter biology in order to address psychological and behavioral issues.
Brizendine, Louann M.D. (2006). The Female Brain. New York: Broadway Books.