The Female Brain (2006)

The Female Brain (2006)

10/25/2007

The Female Brain As Mysterious As Ever

by Kristina G.

Have you ever wondered why you burst into tears more easily than your boyfriend? Or why an offense from months ago still makes you mad, even more so because he mysteriously has no recollection of it ever happening?

Louann Brizendine has figured out what philosophers, poets and the average Joe have been trying to comprehend for centuries: what makes men and women so different from each other. Well, not really.

In the just-released paperback version of The Female Brain (2006), Brizendine promises to elucidate that mysterious feminine nature by showing just how different—structurally and chemically—the female brain is.

Though in the science section, The Female Brain should be on the relationship shelf. Like a self-help book, the text offers a few moments of false epiphanies (“yes, of course that explains why I do those things!”) until you realize the message is superficial: in this case, that women’s brains are really, really weird. 

Certain structures are bigger and more active in women, Brizendine says, such as the anterior cingular cortex, which she calls the “worry-wort center,” and the hippocampus, which stores every little insult. While this is fascinating, Brizendine fails to mention that neurobiology is still a very new field. Various regions of the brain do lots of different things, and the functions are not as clear-cut as she affirms. If the brain was as predictable as Brizendine portrays, men and women would never deviate from their stereotyped roles; women would always be self-sacrificing, unpredictable creatures, and men aggressive sex-maniacs.

Though it promises to spotlight on hormones, a bulk of the book reads like other popular science pieces on evolutionary psychology, where humans do everything out of what Brizendine dubs the “Stone Age brain.” For evolutionary psychology to be legitimate, society, culture, the environment and free choice all take a back burner. Why do women cry? Not because society accepts and even encourages crying in girls, but because the more delicate gender has evolved an unmistakable, biological way to show feelings of distress to those brutish, insensitive men (who, according to Brizendine, can pretty much only detect aggression in others). Why does a woman fake orgasms? Not because of any cultural pressure, but because she needs to assure her mate of her biological fidelity to secure his protection.

She points out that there is no “unisex” brain shaped by the environment, but that boys and girls are born with physically different brains, as the male brain is flooded by testosterone as a fetus. However, Brizendine is too quick to equate gender behavior with neurochemistry; she doesn't just ignore environment's influence on the sexes, but even suggests that it's overemphasized, which is a surprising lapse from someone with her credentials.

Brizendine is a psychiatrist with degrees in neurobiology and medicine from the University of California, Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard. She has also founded the UCSF Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic, which should make her more than qualified to write intelligently on the female brain. But though she has 88 pages of references, many of her arguments are supported by unconfirmed single experiments, anecdotes, fictional stories, or tales about her own patients, who she portrays as perfectly stereotyped men and women whose problems arise solely out of not understanding each other’s biological needs—women need to communicate and men need to have sex, and it is as simple as that.

She does touch on some tantalizing insights that take the book up a notch from other examinations on the male-female divide, and this happens when she fulfills the book’s promise to focus on the woman’s brain and not behavior. She offers a fascinating discussion on the varying hormonal soups women experience during puberty, pregnancy, menopause, and the times in between. And her explanation on how a break-up translates into the equivalent of physical pain and withdrawal in the brain for both men and women is fresh and interesting.

While a brief chapter near the end covers hormone replacement therapy, the book shies away from being truly useful and is frustratingly quaint at times (“sexual thoughts float through a man’s brain many times each day on average and through a woman’s only once a day”). Instead of perpetuating generalizations based on shaky science, Brizendine should have stuck to her original intention of explaining hormonal influences and offered ways for women to correct imbalances.