Are there differences between male brains and female brains?

This brief blog does use generalisations - but try the ideas for size and see if your own experience of your own brain and those of other genders and take what you find useful.

Over thousands of years, male brains have evolved to focus attention on achieving a single goal whilst excluding any distractions (the hunter).

Conversely, female brains have evolved to look at the bigger picture and pick up on the emotional states of others (the gatherer).   

In the words of Simon Baron-Cohen

“The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

There is very little anatomical difference between male and female brains, but some studies have shown that female brains show more connections between the right and left brain in the corpus callosum.

While other studies have shown that people with ‘female’ brains show more activity on the right side and people with ‘male’ brains show more activity on the left side.

It is hard to say how much the hormones from the sex organs of the developing foetus affect the developing brain and how much is a result of the way that boys and girls are treated from birth. However, there are few people I have met who haven’t had difficulty in understanding another gender’s thinking style.

So, whilst the jury is out on differences between male and female brains most people do recognise that male and female thinking styles can be quite different. At one end of a continuum - an extreme female brain is very empathic and able to see a question from all angles and to be aware of how a decision could affect others. At the other end - an extreme male brain is great at systems and sees a clear, concrete answer and could be oblivious of how others might respond.      

A difference that parents might notice in their children is that; boys systematically overestimate their abilities… and therefore need clear boundaries around risk-taking.

Whilst girls are more likely to underestimate their abilities… and therefore need encouragement and support in taking risks.

Stress can affect boys and girls and men and women differently. Boys (hunters) can respond with fight and flight and occasionally freeze. Males respond to a threat with their sympathetic nervous system and experience a thrill.

Whereas girls (gatherers) often respond with freeze and ‘tend and befriend’. Females respond to a threat with their parasympathetic nervous system and experience unpleasant, nauseated feelings.

A simple story from my own life demonstrates how my husband and I respond with our male v female brains to a simple stressor. When stress-free we are both able to use our empathy and systems thinking. However, on the occasion that my other half loses his car keys we slip into our ‘default’ thinking styles. Even a slight rise in stress levels cause the hunter to search only in the place the keys ‘should’ be and the gatherer searches anywhere they ‘might’ be. The Hunter uses logic and the gatherer uses imagination. The hunter may be flummoxed when logic doesn’t find the keys and the gatherer may panic when imagination creates a disaster for the events that may unfold if the keys cannot be found.  As stress levels rise, the keys are even less likely to be found. The way to find the keys is to lower stress - this allows us both to think more clearly. The keys are found either by him systematically searching or by me scanning the room.

Female (empathic) thinking styles are more usually attributed to people who look female and have female physiques. Male (Systemic) thinking styles are more usually attributed to people who look male and have male physiques. However, this is not always the case, nor is it predictive of sexuality.

It is always valuable to remember that throughout life our brains are ‘plastic’, this neuroplasticity means that we are always able to change our abilities and thinking styles to benefit ourselves and the communities we live in.

It is also worth considering that in the 21st Century in the western world we are using systems designed by ‘hunters’. It may be time to ‘gather’ together to build families, healthcare and education services underpinned by empathy.

If you have any thoughts or questions about male and female thinking, please comment below, Let’s start talking about what really matters.

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