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Stress and the Female Brain Advantage

drlouannbrizendineIn 1994, Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, established the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco—one of very few such institutions in the world—and focused her attention on the etiology and functioning of the female nervous system.

In 2007, she published The Female Brain as the culmination of her 20 years of research and a compendium of the latest findings from a range of disciplines. It is a fascinating and, in some ways, startling revelation of the most noteworthy particularities that characterize the human female brain.

Size Does Matter… and So Does Density

Women and men have very nearly the same number of brain cells, even though the female brain is about 9% smaller than men’s. This fact had been known for some time and had been, more or less jokingly, interpreted as meaning that women were not as smart. Dr. Brizendine reveals a much simpler explanation: women’s brain cells are more tightly packed into the skull.

To further dispel any notion of masculine brain superiority, she says, women have 11% more language and hearing neurons than men and a larger hippocampus, the area of the brain that is most closely associated with memory. Much more developed in female brains than male’s is also the circuitry for observing emotion on other people’s faces. Dr. Brizendine concludes that, when it comes to speech, emotional intelligence, and the ability to store richer and more detailed memories, women appear to possess a richer brain endowment and thus a natural advantage.

The amygdala in males, on the other hand, has far more processors than in females, which could explain men’s greater intensity in perceiving danger and their higher proneness to aggression. The male body is much quicker to mobilize to anger and take violent action in reaction to an immediate physical danger.

Are women not as capable of reacting to danger? Dr. Brizendine says that a woman’s brain is as capable to perceive danger or deal with life-threatening situations, but that it mobilizes the body’s resources in quite a different way. The female brain appears to be wired to perceive greater stress over the same event than a man’s. This greater arousal and more forceful stress reaction appears to be a natural way to ensure adequate protection against all possible risks to her children or family unit. Brizendine suggests that this ancestral reason may account for the way a modern woman may view unpaid bills as catastrophic and naturally perceive them more intensely threating to the family’s very survival.

[amtap book:isbn=0767920104]

MRI scans have pushed knowledge much higher by allowing the observation of the workings of the brain in real time. The brain lights up in different places depending on whether it is stimulated by love, looking at faces, solving a problem, speaking, or experiencing anxiety. What lights up, where and when, is different between men’s and women’s brains. Women use different parts of the brain and different circuits to accomplish the same tasks, including solving problems, processing language, and generally experiencing the world.

This is a fascinating book for the scientist and the novice alike, well worth reading. It is the Stresshacker Recommended selection for this month.