Demystifying the Differences Between the Female and Male Brains

How female and male brains develop differently and what that means for behavior.

Recently, I was with a dear friend and her three-year-old son, and we were discussing her little boy, who, though very sweet and well mannered, wasn’t attaching to me the way I wanted. “Well, boys never bond with me as much,” I said to my friend as I talked about the nearly instant bond I sometimes feel with some young girls in the after-school programs I volunteer for.

She smiled and stated that her son was probably just trying to spare his mama’s feelings and wanted her to know she was his favorite lady. She also stated that he tends to gravitate more towards males in group settings. The little boy, who I wasn’t even aware was following the conversation, suddenly piped up. “No. It’s because boys let me hit them,” he proclaimed. Out of the mouths of babes…

Dr. Louann Brizendine points out this exact dynamic—though with the science behind it—in her bestselling book The Female Brain. The differences between the brains of males and females “though subtle, are profound,” and those differences instill a desire for aggressive, competitive play in those with male brains, and social play that focuses on harmonious relationships in those with female brains. But that tidbit is just the start.

Our brains shape our realities, and when we’re looking at how our female-brain realities compare to that of someone with a male brain, we’re not only starting with two different brains and two different levels of hormones and chemicals, but also two different brain structures. After eight weeks in utero, a testosterone surge happens in male brains, while female brains continue to develop as they were (female is nature’s default gender, so all brains “start out” female). This lack of testosterone is why the hippocampus—the center of emotions and memories—is larger in females and we have 11 percent more neurons in our centers for language and hearing. Male brains, on the other hand, have larger centers for action, aggression, and sexual drive—you’re shocked, I’m sure.

This is also why we have tropes about male-female relationships such as, men who can’t remember important dates and women who ask too many questions and are indecisive. Sure, some of this is culture, environment, how you interact with your significant others, etc., but some of it is literally down to how our brains are structured and how they have developed, as well as the chemicals that run them. For example, those of us with female brains grow up focusing on communication—staring at faces, interpreting emotions from expressions and vocal tones, and waiting for approval through eye and physical contact.

This is why a well-modulated, “What are you doing?” will cause some children to stop what they’re doing, while others “ignore” it—male brains are more about exploration and can’t necessarily interpret a warning tone as such, but female brains will recognize it because that part of their brain is more developed. This is also why a lack of clear eye contact and the facial expressions one expects in a certain situation can make a female brain interpret that something is wrong. (I also personally think this causes my fear of clowns—if your face is painted to mimic an emotion, I can’t read your real emotion!)

The Female Brain provides the science behind these situations, answers to questions you have, and answers to questions you didn’t even know you wanted answered. In my case, it explained why my significant other reacts to a question with action instead of an answer (women ask questions for consensus before action, which can seem like a directive in question form to male brains) or why the girls in the after-school programs I volunteer for will hug me at the end of our first meeting, and my own nephew would prefer to kick me. All in all, Brizendine’s book is worth the read for anyone with a brain of any kind, meaning even Dorothy’s friend the Scarecrow could learn something from this book.





Illustration: Marie Guillard


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