Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Female Brain

A friend recommended a book to me recently, The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine, M.D., and I found it an interesting read as a writer and a woman--love those books with two-for-one pleasure, kind of like chewing Doublemint gum.

Of course, as I read, I was constantly battling with my natural resistance to generalizations about the sexes which abound in this book. I prefer to think of differences between men and women as closely overlapping bell curves. I read this argument in another book a few years ago, whose title escapes me alas, but the wisdom has stayed with me. In this model, men and women share much, much more in common as human beings than socially exaggerated differences suggest and while a small portion of men do have superior spatial abilities for example, any given woman could have superior abilities to any given man.

Brizendine prefers the racier path of emphasizing differences in colorful transportation metaphors, although of course, her theory that hormones construct our brains seems to call for such an approach.

Anyway, she has convinced me to take a closer look at the benefits of a low dose of estrogen at perimenopause when that time comes, to preserve my brain function, which otherwise would shrink by 40%. Wrinkles, age spots, bring 'em on, but a little shrunken brain, that's scary (if it's true).

She also came up with a few other interesting observations that do ring true to me, although again, it depends on the person.

For example, males are apparently more interested in bonding/fucking under high stress situations than women, who tend to turn off under high stress, whereas men will "mate" with the first willing female after a physical challenge (like war). So says, the doctor, anyway, and history seems to support her argument.

She attributes the longer time required for women to reach orgasm to an extra neurological step required by the female brain. "The impulses can rush to the pleasure centers and trigger an orgasm only if the amygdala—the fear and anxiety center of the brain—has been deactivated. Before the amygdala has been turned off, any last-minute worry...can interrupt the march toward orgasm." But you knew that, didn't you? And apparently science shows that it's easier to conceive if the woman comes after the man does, another evolutionary reason for the differential. "Ladies' first" as birth control?

But here's the one that gets me. Brizendine claims--several times--that 85 percent of (twenty to thirty year old) males think about sex every 52 seconds and women think about it once a day or up to three or four times on fertile days. (Sometimes she gives the ages, sometimes she just generalizes, although I think the ages make a huge difference for comparison).

Jeez, am I a freak? Am I actually a twenty-five year old man with a vagina? I think about sex all the time, and it's not just since that became my career! I love this quote, too:

"Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road, men have O’Hare Airport as a hub for processing thoughts about sex whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes."

Damn, I've always thought 747's were so sexy, too! Guess I'll have to transfer my affections to those empathetic little Cessnas.

I will say it was gratifying to see some of the reviews on Amazon taking the author to task for her sloppy conflation of neuroscience and psychology, her simplification of sex and gender, and her love of pharmaceuticals as a cure-all. Still, I enjoyed the book, as an erotica writer as much as a female (if I indeed am one because now I'm wondering since I just thought about sex like five times as I wrote this), and I certainly recognized enough in her case studies to have the luxury of blaming my own psychology on biology, which is always fun. It's easier to attribute my sensitivity to movie violence to my greater capacity for emotional mirroring rather than a candy-ass wimpishness (a self-accusation). My body literally throbs with pain when I see graphic torture or injury while Herr Doktor just shrugs and says "it's a stupid movie." There's probably also a neurological basis for the effectiveness of beer ads on men versus women, but Brizendine didn't go there--Craig Sorensen did though!

So, yeah, time to take the brain back to the library, but I thought I'd give a book report to fuel that sex difference debate that's been around since the Stone Age!


Craig Sorensen said...

As you probably know, I too rebel against generalities. There are certainly differences between women and men. There are the obvious physical contrasts: women's center of gravity is lower on their bodies than men's. Then there is the obvious difference in genitalia.

But we are all points on a curve. And a curvy woman is as likely to be physically driven as a thick chested man is to be emotional.

Here is a study in contrast:

You say you think about sex very frequently. I, a male writer of erotica, do not. One might be tempted to attribute this to my, ahem, advancing age, but the truth is I never did.

Well, except for those teenage years, but that's another story.

Anyway, don't get me wrong, I can think very, very intently on it for periods of time, but I can also go for long stretches without a conscious sexual thought.

Sort of like that super highway that exits onto a country road, then back to the super highway. Or more to the point, a flight on that 747, then off to a puddle jumper.

But then again, my multitasker brain may be churning night and day about sexuality.

I've never been sexually driven by stress or post-stress situations. Quite the contrary, though I do handle stress reasonably well.

Also, I score high on spacial skills test.

Could it be that I'm a twenty-five year old woman with a penis?

Or maybe I need a book on sexuality and the multitasker brain.

Or maybe I just need a Guinness.


Jeremy Edwards said...

Yeah. All we have to do is look around to see how individuality is the most significant theme. Sure, there may be various biological predispositions ... but I'm also wary of studies that purport to show this or that sweeping truth about human behavior, especially when regurgitated for popular consumption (such as in a mass-marketed book). Often when I read about the details of a study, I see, even with my layperson's eye, built-in assumptions that might not be warranted, flaws in the methodology (e.g., lack of comprehensively conceived "control groups"), and conclusions that don't necessarily follow from the data. I imagine this is especially true in an area like gender comparisons, where people have so many preconceptions, and where the chicken-egg of nature/nurture can easily make people, even researchers, mistake cultural effects for biology. (For example, are women less likely to think about sex, or less likely to admit to themselves (and a survey-taker) how often they think about sex? Mind you, I don't know anything about this study; but I'm saying I'm generally wary.

Jeremy Edwards said...

For example, are women less likely to think about sex, or less likely to admit to themselves (and a survey-taker) how often they think about sex?

Or, if they really do think about sex less frequently, on average, than men, is that necessarily biological, or could it be because girls are more likely to be brought up to repress their sexual selves?

Donna said...

Well, thanks for sharing your thoughts, Craig, because I realized the reason I shared my book report was that this is the kind of book that begs for deprogramming when you finish. The author has her pop-medicine agenda and a lot of things just don't feel right, especially when it pushes a culturally conservative agenda in a manner of speaking.

Thank heavens we have two examples to disprove her generalization between the two of us :-). Although you are more interesting/surprising as a male erotica writer who is not "sex-obsessed." Because clearly all erotica writers are, or so says common wisdom. According to me.

And yeah, this airplane analogy is starting to make more sense. On some journeys you do transfer to a smaller plane to get where you want to go.

Now that we have the technology to peer into the brain, albeit with foggy glasses, perhaps the multi-tasker studies will be coming out in academic and pop form and we'll learn all kinds of interesting things!

Emerald said...

Jeremy said,
"All we have to do is look around to see how individuality is the most significant theme."

I so wholeheartedly agree with this. In fact, I find I agree wholeheartedly with everything Jeremy said in that comment. And indeed in the next comment too — even if some of these things seem to be "found" in such studies, why/how would one ignore the (to me) obvious socialization that influences both females and males to demonstrate certain characteristics/behaviors sexually?

To Craig's study in contrasts: I myself have been known to think about sex quite a bit. Sometimes I have compared feeling, um, horny to feeling hungry — I have felt it so intensely that it distracts me just like hunger does: It's as though it will do so until it is somehow satisfied. That is not all the time, of course, but I have certainly found it a noticeable part of my experience. And from a less personal perspective :) , it does seem to be a topic that is rarely far from my consciousness.

As far as the stress-driven response, in the past especially I feel as though I felt particularly oriented toward sex when I felt stressed or tense. I remember having a conversation with female friends in which they said if they experienced "having a hard day" or stress at work or some such thing that their interest in sex seemed to become nil. I remember just staring blankly at them. I said, "Seriously? For me it feels like the opposite. The more stressed out I feel, the more I feel like I want to fuck someone." I wouldn't say that necessarily still feels like the case now (there may be more nuance in a number of areas for me — and actually it may also be indicative of the kind of sex I was having, if you will, and the reasons for it, which may have evolved or shifted in me since then), but I remember feeling that way at the time.

Sorry if any of that was too much information! Thanks for the conversation all.

Donna said...

I totally agree with you Jeremy and in fact I think this type of critical thinking should be part of every school curriculum. Studies and statistics are used, or rather abused, to forward agendas all the time when the (false) assumption is all science is "truth."

What does it mean to "think about sex" anyway? Couldn't a warm, romantic feeling be another form of it? And surely women have been taught it's slutty to be sexual and would be less likely to admit it. As a reader though, part of me still absorbs such "information" as--omigod, I'm a freak.

It was also interesting that the first visible review on Amazon about this book was by a colleague who expressed suspicion that no leading scientist in the field publicly endorsed the book.

Donna said...

Oh, one more thing--on the topic of Guinness. I watched that ad again with Herr Doktor and perhaps I'm at a different phase in my cycle, but I decided the mechanical movements of the female body were probably intentional because otherwise it would be "porn" and it was necessary to keep an amused distance. Still, the lack of authenticity did nag at me. The type of sex they use to sell isn't really sex we'd recognize in our bedrooms. But that kind could be too dangerous, after all....

Donna said...

Good morning, Emerald! I think we're both typing away at the same time.

Thank you so much for helping to blast open the platitudes. Now, I read in another pop medical book that in females, the sexual response zone of the brain is next to the place where we feel hunger, while the male is associated with anger. I decided to buy this one because I also feel sexual desire as "hunger, but lower." Which might be why brownies are so popular, too. And why men sometimes looked angry to me when they stared, causing my expression-sensitive young female brain to wonder "is he lusting after me or did I do something wrong?"

So that might be where stress and sex are linked for men (and I imagine evolutionary biologists might say a stressed man wants to deposit his seed before he dies), but I agree that I've felt more hyped up and sexed up under stressful situations as well. Not to mention it's a great way to relax, lol.

And hey, it's never too much information. Speaking up about our truths is what helps deconstruct the stifling status quo. It all comes back down to individuality. But that might be too much for science to handle--so there's still room for the humanities to weigh in!

Isabel Kerr said...

Wonderful food for thought, as always Donna!

I'd say, in our very small sample, we blow those generalized theories out of the water. I think, the better sex we have, the more we think about it, the more comfortable we are thinking about it, and no one is more obsessed than anyone else in our group, even if there are a couple of role reversals in the sample. ; )

I'd like to weigh in on the peri/menopausal question briefly. You guys can go have a Guinness if you want, although you might be interested to read about what's going to happen. Could brain optimal brain function be achieved another way, use it or lose it or eat more fish? Aside, a psychologist friend told me that she'd recently read a study about cultural differences in menopausal symptomology and that women in cultures where contraceptives are less acceptable, have many fewer to almost no symptoms like we do, and that they see menopause as a great relief from childbearing responsibilities and can enjoy sex more freely, that last minute worry gone, and maybe they think about it more then too. (my first hand extrapolation : ) ) I can attest to the fact that older women are revered and seen as sexy here, if that means anything. You thought I stayed for the food?

I also think women are conditioned not to think about sex and so it's more of a cultural thing. Although there are some very interesting theories here, it would be interesting to know if she included any other cultures in her studies, because this sounds very WASP oriented.

Thanks Donna, once again, for a stimulating discussion!

Donna said...

Talk about wood-fired pizza for thought, Isabel! Again, I'm so glad I shared my impressions of this book, because all of your comments are really helping me to pinpoint my misgivings (although there were parts that did feel right as well).

First of all, nope, this book did not at all have an intercultural element. The doctor shared her personal experiences with patients and there was no questioning of how culture shapes us. Big hole in the discussion, I'd say.

And, hmm, older women are respected and revered for their sophistication and wisdom? Imagine that! I feel I'm getting that on a personal level and have always had a fuck-you attitude toward popular culture--while no doubt being shaped by it nonetheless. But it is heartening to know of a different model. Menopause is indeed cultural as well as physical and the book was really invested in the hormones ruling us. Come to think of it, there may have been a few lame references to cross-cultural similarities, but they weren't convincing, lol.

And yes, the more I think about it, the more a "thought" is so hard to pin down, isn't it? A crush or thinking some guy is cute is not sexual? I'm now observing my son's teenage female friends and classmates and they are not just thinking sex once a day, lol.

Finally the hormonal issues, yeah, I'm mistrusting that and will need to research it more, hoping more research comes out before I need to make my decision. Omega 3's and black cohosh and soy and other natural ways of dealing with the changes are certainly preferable. I was talking with my older sister and she quoted someone who said that women's menopausal emotional crises are a way of allowing ourselves to deal with the unfinished business in our lives. Maybe American women have more unfinished business?

Okay, I could go on and on--wish you guys were here and we could break open a bottle of Chianti!

Isabel Kerr said...

Thanks Donna.

Hm, Our (American) culture is so youth and beauty oriented rather than experience and wisdom oriented and the paradox is that the more experience one has with sex the more one enjoys it and the better one is at it, so here, the older woman is looked at more in terms of a "knowing" individual and it's the secret they share with the man who has sex on his mind all the time. I'm extrapolating again, but it is a little like that. Despite this country (Italy) being a very (95%) catholic country, sex is more open here, it does lean more toward the macho side but women are given their say. It is not ideal! There are huge issues with objectification and anyone who has read about our Prime Minister's extramarital problems knows it is not right, but I'll take openness about sex any day over repression. At least one confronts issues a little more that way. Berlusconi is afterall being called on the carpet in a very public way which hopefully will open discussions about why what he's been doing isn't right, much as there is some discussion there (though not enough) about the Polansky and Letterman cases. Get it out in the open, talk about it.

I'm now observing my son's teenage female friends and classmates and they are not just thinking sex once a day, lol.

I bet their parents aren't encouraging them to explore and talk about those thoughts either.

Sorry, I'm getting off topic about the differences between men and women but you've really opened a great discussion Donna!

One other brief mention of the hormonal issues. We need to look very deeply into our physiological and psychological responses to what's going on in our bodies.

I've posted a poem, if you don't want to read about menopausal issues, don't go there. : )

Thanks for letting me go on Donna!

Isabel Kerr said...

I bet their parents aren't encouraging them to explore and talk about those thoughts either.

I'm sorry, that was a very presumptuous statement, because you, Donna, live in an area in which this might actually happen!

Donna said...

Actually, Isabel, I would bet most parents even here do not encourage girls as much as we'd all like. I'm finding it fairly easy to be more open with my boys, and while I'd assume with girls it would be even easier, who knows? I'd still fear more for their safety in that area. I could go on and on about that, but....

Now I want to say thank you so much for posting your poem. Much to think about and it certainly drew me in to the experience! As I mentioned on your blog, I feel as if I've just figured myself out and now everything is going to change again. Go figure.

I realize that we all tend to either romanticize or demonize "other" ways of doing things. So while the Italian respect and admiration for the woman of experience is something we could use more of here in the US, there are other aspects of our culture that I prefer to Old World ways. Ideally, we could pick and choose to come up with the most balanced, respectful combination. In any case, even just knowing there are different ways to be is liberating for me, so I really appreciate the perspective.

Indeed this discussion has been a great antidote to the book :-).

I do have to agree heartily with the idea that the more a person enjoys something, the better they are at it, a felicitous circle indeed.

Emerald said...

"women's menopausal emotional crises are a way of allowing ourselves to deal with the unfinished business in our lives"

This really seems to me to speak to the holistic view of health as understood in, among other things, Five-Element Acupuncture — seeing symptoms related to health and dis-ease as invitations to examine ourselves, lives, and how our body is asking for our attention. It's not as though our bodies are against us, after all. Sometimes it seems to me the Western perspective has lost touch with or forgets to recognize the incredibleness and intelligence of the body, including its knowledge that our conscious, sometimes whirling, minds don't always seem aware of.

Donna said...

Yes, Emerald, I'm beginning to see how much our culture does pit the body against the mind in an unfortunate way. I've also been reading a book by Andrew Weil where he talks about his belief that doctors should help the body heal itself. That is, the greatest healing force is not externally, from drugs, and in fact those only help (if they do anything at all) the body do what it can do best for itself. Not that cancer doesn't need chemo, but most conditions can be handled by the body's complex ability which is still basically magic to us in spite of science's "progress." I'm wandering off on a tangent perhaps, but I'm reminded of the attempt to replace breastmilk, a custom-made food for a baby, with chemical powder formula. What a sad replacement. I know some mother's can't nurse, but many formula-fed babies can be nursed....

Anyway, I agree heartily with your comment.

Shanna Germain said...

Wow, fantastic post and discussion! I am reading "Sex and the Seasoned Woman" by Gail Sheehy at the moment, and I am finding it really informative. I keep reading things and going, "Oh! That's me!"

I will say that she classifies "seasoned women" as "somewhere between 40 and death," which made me laugh, but which I think might also be a generational thing, since most of the women of my generation seem to be having our 'revival' starting around 35.

Shanna Germain said...

PS -- I should probably add that I used that particular link to the review, not because I agreed with it, but to show that, as always, everyone is different. The reviewer to me, seemed slightly angry (albeit thoughtful) and I realized that while I'm spouting my "rah-rah-freedom of being seasoned!" stuff there are people everywhere who aren't having that kind of experience at all.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Mmm ... sex with seasoned women. "Would you like me to sprinkle some grated parmesan on that?"

Actually, I remember Gina blogging about dusting herself with cinnamon. Sounds like a corkin [spamword} good time!

Donna said...

Cinnamon sounds very well seasoned for a lady, doesn't it?

Thanks for the book tip, Shanna. I find that sort of stuff very helpful for my own perspective. Actually, I had my first "crisis" around 35 when I started writing, and a few more since, with, obviously, more to come. But I do get to know myself better each time and that's what we're here for, isn't it, to be students of ourselves?

"Sex and the Seasoned Woman" is on my list!

neve black said...

Wow. What a great discussion. I'm extremely late here- it appears I took the wrong plane and was served the incorrect beer. If that sounded flippant in any way, it wasn't meant to be at all. I was trying to be funny. :-0 sexual peaks and valleys tend to be linked to what's going on in my life, although I work hard at taking a sunny outlook towards life. Let's not forget the cocktail of hormones that pulses throughout my body too: sometimes that martini is a wee bit stronger at certain times of the month. Nuff said.

There are times when I go for long periods of time and I don't think about sex, because I'm consumed with some other fascinating subject. But then, out of the clear blue I'll get a glimpse of something that isn't particularly sexual at all, and it hits my sex-nerve and I'm all buttery impulse.

I can't say that when I feel stressed-out I'm thinking of sex, like both Donna and Emerald mentioned. Which is interesting to me. I do want sex after vigorous excercise though.

The men that I've had sexual experiences with all seem to have hunger and horny connected and not horny with war and anger. Isn't that interesting?

There's no question that men and women are wired differently, but I think we're all wired differently. Like Emerald and others pointed out here, there's behavior differences, religious differences, environmental differences, etc, etc. Hell, I was raised by a crazy Republicans! It's wonder I have an ounce of sexuality inside me.

Suffice to say, thank God we proved this woman's generalization theory isn't always correct.

Thanks for posting. Thanks for all the great comments. I so enjoyed this. And once again, I'm sorry I was late.

Donna said...

There is no "late" here, Neve! I'm certainly not one to expect immediate comments being the perennial late-comer :-). But thanks so much for sharing your take on the topic. Yet more compelling evidence that our individual make-up trumps any broad categorization.

When I think about it, it still irks me that this author--and anyone--just assumes women aren't sexual and need to be talked into sex. That may be true for her, but not my chicas :-).

Also, you got me re-thinking the "thinking about sex." I seriously am always thinking about sex as my favorite fascinating topic, but it isn't always connected with a desire to have sex. So jeez, I don't know what to make of that, lol.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and let's get you the right beer!