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Differences in male, female brains alter decision making

DALLAS — A few years ago, at the urging of his wife, Greg Johnson scheduled the first checkup of his adult life. “I didn’t even have a doctor,” says the 49-year-old Corinth, Texas, businessman, who describes himself as a weekend athlete. When test results came back, the physician recommended Johnson follow up with a gastrointestinal specialist.

But two months later, upon realizing that the appointment would conflict with his surfing trip to Costa Rica, Johnson canceled it and never rescheduled.

Fast-forward to January 2006.

“I noticed significant changes in my health, but I blamed it on just getting older,” says Johnson. “Then I remembered that canceled appointment.”

This time, he met with the doctor, had a colonoscopy, and five days later underwent surgery to remove a foot-long section of colon and half of his rectum. Because the cancerous tumor had metastasized in his liver, Johnson also needed radio-frequency ablation.

“The whole time my mind kept racing back to that physical,” he says. “I kept thinking about the what-ifs.”

Then, “because I did too much afterward instead of just sitting around like they wanted me to, the incision got infected.” Once the wound finally healed, he started chemotherapy. “By the third round, I felt like a walking, talking toxic dump.”

Tell this story to a man and a woman and the reactions will probably differ significantly. Guys can relate, at least on some level. Women, on the other hand, probably just shake their heads and think: typical man. Actually, that’s not far from the truth.

“There are anatomical differences between the male brain and the female brain that cause the two genders to react differently in many situations, including seeking help,” says Dr. Malcolm Stewart, a neurologist at Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas.

“The differences, which are in the fight-and-flight part of the brain, have nothing to do with intelligence but everything to do with the way we function in our environment.”

According to Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, even as children “males tend to show far more ‘direct’ aggression such as pushing, hitting and punching. Females tend to show more ‘indirect’ (or covert) aggression, like gossip and exclusion.” Differences in the structures of the brains, he says, are largely responsible.

The stereotypical strong, silent guy isn’t far off the mark, either. Two areas in the brain that control language are significantly smaller in men than in women. “And because women’s brains have more connections between the right and left sides, they are better able to get in touch with their feelings and express them,” says Stewart.

This also enables women to function better in social situations: “If they go to a party, a woman can listen to multiple conversations and figure out hidden agenda,” he says. “When they talk to a guy later about it, she’ll realize he doesn’t have a clue.”

As both genders age, however, their brains become more similar. “When you mature, you have to learn how to think both like a man and a woman,” says Stewart. For men, that may mean a greater awareness of health issues. They also tend to be more nurturing as a grandfather than they were as a dad, plus they mellow both in terms of anger and their risk-taking behaviors. In the case of women, they “become more confident, more internally driven, more like their husbands,” says Stewart.

The differences in the brains manifest themselves in generalized tendencies for men and women, never in absolutes in terms of behavior. And understanding these tendencies, says Stewart, can ease tension in relationships.

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