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Venus, Mars and the Frontal Lobe (by Paul W. Smith)

Lobes of Human Brain

Men and women are different.  Whether this is obvious or controversial depends on your point of view, but it’s just true.  Most of us can accept this based on personal observations.  One of my favorites is the Cocktail Party Test.  When two women meet at a party, the first question will nearly always be “Do you have any kids?”  For men, it will be something like “Did you see the Broncos game last night?”  There are plenty of other ways to separate men and women, but this one is bulletproof. 

By the time my wife and I passed our tenth wedding anniversary, I was starting to grasp some of those other ways.  This was around the time that John Gray’s bestseller, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus started its run to becoming a bestseller.   The national conversation turned to differences in thinking and communications styles that divide the sexes.  Many will be familiar.  Take personal care for example; women search for a hair product with protein, aloe extract, volumizers, vitamins, minerals and liquid keratin.  Men look for a bottle that says “shampoo.” 

For some reason, scientists weren’t willing to settle for cocktail parties and shampoo.  SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) is one of their many brain imaging technologies that can monitor blood flow and activity under various stimuli.  A recent study using this approach looked at 46,000 images of healthy men and women as well as some folks with an assortment of psychiatric conditions.  The researchers were surprised to find that men and women really are different. 

One key finding is that women exhibit enhanced activity in the frontal lobe, the portion of the brain that inhibits inappropriate thoughts and actions.  This helps to understand Congress, where men outnumber women four to one.  Women also showed increased blood flow to the limbic (emotional) and hippocampus (memory) regions of the brain.  The limbic activity probably accounts for the cocktail party thing. 

Meanwhile, male brains were busiest in the visual and coordination centers.  This is consistent with other observations showing men to have superior tunnel vision, while women lead in peripheral vision. 

One of the more interesting conclusions from these studies is that women’s brains seem to be naturally wired for leadership.  Although they may spend a bit too much time worrying about what other people think (insular cortex), they also tend to connect well with others, reading them and interacting with greater success.  Even if women do make better leaders, it’s doubtful that the male frontal lobe will allow men to accept it. 

Blood flow and brain activity data is hard to dispute, but the conclusions drawn from it are of course the subject of challenges from other scientists.  If someone beats you to the journal with an impactful study, the best way to get published yourself is to pursue a counter-case. 

Among the doubters is Professor Norma Feshback of UCLA.  Norma suggests that environment and learning may be just as significant, or more so, than the hard-wired connections inside our skulls.  Boston psychologist Aline Zoldbrod (another woman) adds that there are large differences in socialization between men and women, and that these play a big role in their capacity for empathy.  You would not be alone in thinking that this sounds a lot like the old familiar “Nature vs Nurture” argument.

While it’s a proven fact that kids, football and shampoo divide the sexes, there remains plenty of debate over how our internal wiring affects all this.  Modern imaging technology shows definite size differences in key brain regions.  SPECT measurements indicate gender-based variations in activity levels for men and women under the same stimulus.  What does it all mean?

As with many other things, the final answer will almost surely come from a male-female cohort, combining educated discussion with experimental data.  After all, the brain studies also indicate that women prefer to talk about problems, while men like to solve them.  Now if only someone would take the lead…

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.