The Female Brain: Review and Commentary
Men and women are different from one another. This fact isn't exactly the breakthrough of the millennium, but when you look at some of the current work being done to define and elaborate on these differences, especially within the brain, that first sentence takes on new meaning. The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine goes through each stage of life from birth to puberty to post-menopause explaining how the female brain develops and differs from its male counterpart. As the founder of the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic, Dr. Brizendine draws on a lot of her experiences with patients and their families to explain what is happening in the brain and its effects on mood and behavior. These case study examples make the book very accessible to any reader, regardless of scientific background. There are all sorts of fun facts from studies looking at brain behavior in rats, to social structures in untouched communities in the Amazon, and statistics that would be great conversation starters at cocktail parties. From all of these case studies and fun facts, there are two major points of the book: how the inherent structural differences between male and female brains affect behavior, and the influence of hormones on the brain.
The default brain is female. In utero, the brain starts out as female and will remain female unless it experiences a surge of testosterone that changes its structure, allowing certain connections to remain unscathed. The female brain has larger communication and emotion centers and smaller aggression and sex centers. According to Dr. Brizendine the bigger centers of communication and emotion color the rest of the female experience-dictating social interactions, choice in career, and what the woman with this female brain wants in life. Women are in general better communicators than men, and rely on constant communication with others. They also give more weight to relationships. Maintaining relationships is paramount to most women according to Dr. Brizendine; in puberty they fear abandonment and will go to great lengths to fit in with friends, or as a married woman she will stay in a not-so-great marriage for the sake of her children or she just can't stand to see it end. Dr. Brizendine did a good job of putting these behaviors in evolutionary terms. Women are more focused on relationships because without strong relationships Stone-Age Man might leave her to care for their children on her own, or Stone-Age Best Friend might not help her gather food for her child. Although many behaviors can be drawn back to the pure size and activity of certain brain structures, many of these structures wouldn't have the responses they do if it weren't for hormones.
For each stage in a woman's life, there is a certain hormonal cocktail that comes with it. In utero, it is the lack of a certain hormone-testosterone-that develops its structure. While during puberty and into adulthood, the ebb and flow of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone influence mood, sex drive, and even verbal ability. Falling in love comes with oxytocin, the hormone of trust, which is often released in conjunction with dopamine, and can be sparked by as little as hugging the love-object. Pregnancy and motherhood comes with its own special blend. Then menopause comes in and changes the hormonal balance, or lack thereof, that a woman has become accustomed to throughout her life. Dr. Brizendine spends a lot of time explaining the role these hormones have at the different stages, and what can go wrong if there is an imbalance of these hormones. I knew that hormones were important to brain function, but I had no idea how strong that role can be. Some women become entirely different people when their estrogen levels drop and their progesterone begins to spike; the most extreme cases are diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). The same hormones are present in men and women, but it's the amount and influence of these hormones that are different.
Although the book is quite insightful to the female brain-it is the title after all-I had a couple issues with it. Dr. Brizendine wrote mostly in generalizations about women and men. She gave enough background and information to justify her statements, but they were still difficult for me to swallow. This could stem from my desire to be looked at as equal to men and be treated as such. Outlining the differences between women and men opens the door to either acceptance of these differences and the creation of a society in which those differences are embraced, or justification for why women and men can only do certain things and fit in certain roles. It is this latter door that inspires my hesitation. Dr. Brizendine does address this issue in her epilogue, saying "I have chosen to emphasize scientific truth over political correctness even though scientific truths may not always be welcome." How to deal with differences is an issue for most of science-you need to find a story that fits in with and accepts all the observed differences. When it comes to the formation and justification of societal roles, the story has quite a bit of meaning for many people.
The Female Brain focused extensively on structural and hormonal influences on the functioning of the brain. In Neurobiology and Behavior, I wish we had spent a little more time looking at the different structures in the brain, not to memorize the exact location of the hippocampus, but to look at how these different structures relate to one another. We established that the brain is made up of boxes within boxes, but how are some of these boxes defined in the neuroscience community? How do they interact? I also would have liked to look at the fuels for the brain-neurotransmitters and hormones-a little more in depth. The action potential was elaborated on at great length, but what about the things that control the sensitivity of whether an action potential will start or not. These chemicals contribute greatly in the functioning of the nervous system. The brain may very well be "wider than the sky," but physically it can be broken down to boxes and communication between boxes, i.e. brain structures and signaling molecules. How these physical components make the brain able to "contain [the sky] with ease-and You-beside" should be fodder for the extended version of Biology 202.
Coming from a household of women at different stages in life-puberty for my sister, perimenopause for my mother, and the young woman who is somewhere in between stages for me-I found this book interesting and enlightening. I can now go home and tell Mom why she gets all those hot flashes, and why her hormone therapy made them go away. Knowing the differences of the brain between men and women can help everyone learn how to deal with the opposite gender. While, understanding the role of physical structures and the molecules that influence them within the brain is necessary to get the entire picture and create the whole story.
Brizendine, Louann. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006.