Surprising Differences Between the Male and Female Brain
By Lisa Collier Cool
It’s not as simple as Mars vs. Venus, but scientists have identified intriguing differences in how men and women think that influence emotions, memory, business success, and even longevity.
In the largest brain imaging study ever conducted to compare male and female brains, Daniel Amen, MD, and other researchers analyzed imaging scans of 26,000 people. They discovered that women showed increased blood flow in 112 of the 128 brain regions they studied, indicating that on average, women’s brains are much more active than men’s.
The most striking difference between the sexes was that women have a much higher level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area that’s sometimes called “the brain’s CEO” because it governs planning, organization, impulse control, and learning from mistakes.
In the soon-to-be published study, men’s brains showed greater activity in regions associated with visual perception, tracking objects through space, and form recognition. However, these gender differences don’t mean that one sex has a mental edge over the other—just that their brains are wired differently.
“Even when men and women succeed at the same task, they tend to call on different strengths and areas of the brain to achieve this result,” says Dr. Amen, author of Unleash the Power of the Female Brain: Supercharging Yours for Better Health, Energy, Mood, Focus, and Sex (Harmony, 2013).
Here’s a closer look at some gender differences Dr. Amen and other researchers have identified—and how we can use them to our advantage.
Men Have Bigger Brains, But It Doesn’t Make Them Smarter
On average, men’s brains are 8 to 10 percent bigger than women’s brains. While that may not seem surprising, given that men’s bodies tend to be larger overall, even after correcting for body weight, it’s been estimated that men have about 4 percent more neurons than women do.
But before men jump on these findings as proof of brain superiority, scientists point out that these size differences aren’t distributed uniformly in all brain regions. In a study using MRI scans, Dr. Jill Goldstein at Harvard Medical School found that compared to men, women have larger volume in both the frontal cortex (the inner CEO) and the limbic cortex, involved in emotional responses.
“This may explain why women tend to be less impulsive and more concerned with emotions than men are,” says Dr. Amen, who theorizes that a bigger and more active frontal cortex suggests that women are wired for leadership—and may actually be better bosses than men.
Consider the intriguing result of a recent study in which teams of men and women were assigned tasks that involved brainstorming, decision-making, and solving visual puzzles. Teams were given collective IQ scores based on their performance.
Conventional wisdom would infer the team made up of people with the highest individual IQ scores (thus the highest total IQ) should emerge victorious. However, the collective IQ scores were based on how they completed the assigned tasks as a team. And the teams with the highest collective IQs were those with more women, Harvard Business Review reports.
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Women Have Better Memories, Worse Sense of Direction
Dr. Amen’s research shows that women have greater activity in the brain’s hippocampus. “Guys, if you wonder why your wife or girlfriend never forgets anything, here’s your answer: The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps store memories.”
In a 2008 study, Swedish psychologists found significant sex differences in several types of memory, favoring women in all almost all of the areas studied.
Specifically, women excelled at recalling words, pictures, objects, and everyday events. They also outperformed men on such tasks as recalling the location of car keys or remembering faces (particularly those of other women).
However, the psychologists also found that men have the edge in a type of memory called visuospatial processing. For example, the study results suggested that a man would be more likely to remember how to find his way out of the woods.
There’s quite a bit of scientific evidence that men have a keener sense of direction than women do, adds Dr. Amen. “Overall, men are better at getting from point A to point B, but are also less likely to realize it if they take the wrong turn. That’s why men are famously reluctant to ask for directions: They don’t realize they’re lost.”
Women Live Longer, But On Average Men Are Happier
Studies suggest that women have greater self-control and levels of what Dr. Amen terms “appropriate worry.” For example, women tend to take better care of their health, visit the doctor more often, and behave less recklessly.
Women also have lower rates of substance abuse, anti-social personality disorder, and ADHD. And they’re 14 times less likely to go to jail—and even get fewer traffic tickets than men do.
“These points are actually quite fascinating,” says Dr. Amen, “because appropriate worry about negative consequences could be a key factor in why women outlive men. In one large study, researchers found that those with a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude—i.e. young men with motorcycles—died earlier from fatal accidents and preventable illness.”
However, the dark side of women’s higher level of worry is that they are more prone to anxiety disorders and depression, which strikes women at nearly double the rate it does men, according to the Mayo Clinic. At some point in life, about 1 in 5 women develops clinical depression.
One reason why women may be more vulnerable is that men’s brains, on average, produce 52 percent more serotonin, according to a recent study by University of Montreal researchers. This feel-good brain chemical has been dubbed “the happy hormone.”