I wrote this paper a few minutes ago for my journalism class and thought I'd share before I printed it off. It's about male/female neurological differences. There were a million other femiscientific (my word) facts I was dying to include in here, like the countless advantages (most of which have only been discovered in the past few months) of having an extra X chromosome as opposed to the underdeveloped Y [male] chromosome, some stuff about sexual advantages, and certain extra chemicals that give women better memories, but I had to keep this essay just a few pages long.
For the record, my essay's not intended to be a pseudo-feminist statement, but a scientifically-based factual argument. I hope I can pull that off and I'd really appreciate any feedback.
Essay behind the cut:
Retreating to the gloomy living room of my uncle Sumner’s house on Cape Cod Bay as the rain flooded the yard put a bit of a damper on my summer vacation. But the conversation I walked into was enough to make me want to stay outside in the rain all afternoon. My relatives were having a heated discussion about the male and female brains. Being something of a feminist nut, I decided to listen to some of it, but I was very sorry I had. Upon hearing my uncle Sumner explain his theory that “men more dominantly use the left hemisphere of the brain [mostly rational], women the right [mostly emotional/creative],” I was left cringing, maybe almost speechless. When my nineteen-year-old brother chimed in with, “It’s the truth, get over it,” I vowed to set things straight.
Being a very rational (“left-brained”) person, I decided to lay out a couple questions and track down the answers: 1. Are there physical differences between the male and female brains? and 2. How could neuroanatomical differences potentially affect the way the genders think and act? In my research I not only found the answers to these questions — I also found that my uncle and brother are certainly not alone in their belief. In fact, historically people have accepted the idea that women are highly emotional (“right-brained”) “feelers” and men are the only rational (“left-brained”) “thinkers” who can better perceive and make sense of things. Until very recently even renowned scientists like Darwin agreed that men were intellectually superior to women.
The fact is, there are not only many physical differences between the male and female brains, but these differences make for complex differences in thinking between the genders. According to TIME magazine, women are not dominantly right-brained, just as men are not dominantly left-brained. The only left-brain/right-brain difference between men and women is that men exclusively use their left or right hemisphere to work out certain tasks while women use both hemispheres at the same time. Computed Tomography (the CT scan) studies have produced evidence that most thoughts or actions we can test yield different usages of the brain with females than with males. A male brain uses only one of its hemispheres (left or right) to perform a thought or action; a female brain uses both its hemispheres together to perform that same thought or action. This is possible because of the stronger corpus callosum (the bridge of nerve fibers connecting the hemispheres) in the female brain.
Using both sides of the brain at the same time to think could be considered advantageous or problematic, depending how you look at things. Some people consider it a disadvantage that women’s thoughts “slop over” onto a second hemisphere rather than primly poise themselves in a tidy one half of the brain, and many men become frustrated by the emotional ties women may have even to rational arguments. But for the most part, neurologists are considering this joined-hemisphere way of thought to be to a woman’s advantage. It makes for more contextual thought, for one thing, but it also allows for a woman to see all sides (creative, rational, and emotional) of a situation more easily than a man typically could.
A single-hemisphere way of thought can also give men more mental weaknesses than women, as their thoughts are constantly swinging back and forth between two extremes with a lesser-developed corpus callosum tying them together. During a left-hemisphere thought or action, men can appear highly insensitive, as they’re not always emotionally aware of the other party’s reactions to their exclusive rationality. During a right-hemisphere thought or action, men are often unable to take reasoned actions, sometimes lapsing into abulia and making unwise decisions.
An easy example for me to find of a male with these weaknesses is my brother. Upon stating, “It’s the truth, get over it” in accordance with Sumner’s statement, he was exclusively using his left hemisphere (rational — although uninformed), while neglecting to consider my feelings regarding his statement (this would involve using his right — emotional — hemisphere at the same time). On the flip side, he has also used his right hemisphere exclusively, several times letting his emotions overpower him to the point where he was incapable of rationalizing that maybe punching and destroying a family friend’s wall isn’t such a good idea. I’m not saying that women are incapable of thoughtlessness or reckless behavior, but their neuroanatomical differences make these behaviors much more infrequent.
However, although structural differences have been documented, there are still many misconceptions about women’s ability to keep up with men in academically competitive fields. For instance, just eight months ago Harvard University president Lawrence Summers proposed that a lack of “innate ability” in math and science might explain why fewer women enter these fields. Ignoring the differences in brain substances and intricacies of the brain folds between the two genders, people often assume that the 6-8% difference in brain mass (TIME magazine) indicates a difference in intelligence or “innate ability” in certain fields. But when these beliefs extend themselves to popular “scientific” beliefs, things can get — and have already gotten — dangerous. As recently as the late nineteenth century many well-respected European scientists — Paul Broca, Paul Topinard, Gustave Le Bon, and even Charles Darwin among them — postulated (and greatly popularized this theory) that because the human female has a smaller brain than the human male, she most likely would have an intelligence most similar to that of an ape. Needless to say, I was shocked when I heard this theory mentioned in the LA Times last April, and I wondered if they ever considered the size of the generic whale brain when they published this theory. If women, having smaller brains, had an intelligence more similar to that of an ape, then would men, having larger brains, have an intelligence more similar to that of a whale? Even on a single-species scale of brain mass, the idea that size reflects intelligence seems pretty ridiculous today. Recent studies show that women’s brains are not only composed of a slightly more sophisticated material, but their brain folds and cortexes are much more complex, making up for any size differences and putting women as intellectual equals with men.
What tends to confuse many people, including Summers, is that this intellectual equality does not follow the genders throughout their entire lives. In fact, many intelligences come developmentally at different stages to the different sexes. For example, TIME states that girls typically learn to speak, read, and perceive visual elements (all left-brain functions) sooner and with a significantly higher proficiency, while boys are usually considerably more adept with most maths and sciences (also left-brain functions) until these rates even out in young adulthood. Thus it has become a common fallacy that men are better able to excel in the maths and sciences and women in the humanities. For people who expect children to run our world, then by all means this would be correct, but with adults these intellectual differences are pretty much nonexistent.
However, cultural misconceptions have affected the career choices and opportunities of the genders. Cultures where these misconceptions do not exist often raise women who are particularly skilled in the maths and sciences. For example, female public high school students in Iceland average 33 points above their male counterparts (who are generally raised with lower expectations) in standardized math tests, whereas American female public high school students typically score several points below American males in these same tests. According to sociologist Yu Xie of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, American girls who make top scores on science tests usually reject science careers, and a number of boys who don’t necessarily receive eye-popping scores in these tests enter and succeed in the sciences. Xie also wrote in a 2003 book called Women in Science (which she co-wrote with Kimberlee Shauman of the University of California, Davis) that girls “also attain significantly better grades” in high school and college science courses.
Even with women attaining these better grades, certain women have become a little more than fed up with men’s general misconceptions about our brains. Valerie Solanas’ (yes, the one who shot Warhol) 1967 Scum [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto outlines a male-free world based around her idea that “the male has a negative Midas Touch — everything he touches turns to shit”; several years ago a woman known only by “Kashka” started a webpage titled “All Men Must DIE” to compile a hit list that would “eventually include each and every man on this planet”; a group of feminist students at UNH organized a highly anti-male “Patriarchy Slam” convention in March. It is these kinds of women who inspired Tom Hazlett’s term “feminazi” (later popularized by Rush Limbaugh) to describe anti-male feminist extremists.
I am not one of these so-called “feminazis, ” and I’m not against men in any way either, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable in this world if all men — not just contemporary neuroscientists — realized the following facts:
1. Women are no more right-brained than men. Men’s brains are set up to make them just as emotionally vulnerable as women, and just as suitable for creative expression as well.
2. Men are no more left-brained than women. All human beings are rational animals, and men are certainly not the only ones suitable for advanced thinking and reasoning.
It is perfectly alright, in my eyes, to be male and therefore have a lesser-developed corpus callosum and more limited way of thought, but it just doesn’t seem right for men not to know about this. Although there are differences between the male and female brains, both men and women should accept that they have different effects on the way we think and act.
With my uncle Sumner having had children himself, I can’t say I quite understand why he, with his radical beliefs about the female brain, didn’t question why his young daughters presumably demonstrated spatial and verbal logic and reasoning (all left-hemisphere intelligences) superior to those of his young sons. I would like him and my brother to realize that they were wrong in their assumptions about men and women, that neither sex is predominately left- or right-brained, and, in the words of my brother, to “get over it.”