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Gender and the Brain: Louann Brizendine's work stirs new controversy

By Ryan Howes

The debate over whether there are fundamental differences in the psychological and cognitive functioning of men and women is still a volatile political issue, especially for those on the lookout for potentially discriminatory stereotypes. The latest battleground for this debate is the human brain itself. Neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine's two bestsellers, The Female Brain and The Male Brain, in which she argues that differences in hormones and brain structure account for much of the difference in male and female behavior, have made her a polarizing figure among scholars and casual readers alike. Newsweek calls her work "common sense to some and nothing short of heresy to others." Brizendine, who'll be a luncheon speaker at the 2011 Networker Symposium in March, recently took a break from the lecture circuit and work as director of the Women's Hormone and Mood Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, to talk about the controversy surrounding her work.


RH: Why do you think that your work triggers such strong reactions in people?

BRIZENDINE: Oh yeah, people either love it or they hate it! The problem with talking about anything that has to do with gender differences is that it's likely to violate some people's ideas about what's politically correct.

RH: So how has your own experience as a woman and a feminist influenced your work?

BRIZENDINE: I was part of the second wave of the feminist movement in the '70s at UC Berkeley. In that era, if you said there was any difference between the genders, you might as well have been saying that women were inferior to men. Like many women, I felt that when I had a son, I was going to raise him to be emotionally evolved and sensitive to his feelings, and that, one day, my future daughter-in-law would thank me for the great job I'd done. We had all these great fantasies about turning the next generation of men into something we felt was lacking in the men we were dating. But that was before I got married, became a mom, and discovered what it was like to raise a child.

RH: You once advised women: "Celebrate your man for being a man and stop trying to make him act more like you. It can't be done and will only add tension to your relationship."

BRIZENDINE: That's the old French idea of "Vive la difference!" It would be very boring if we were all the same. But many women want it both ways. We want the guy to say "Honey, I know how you feel." But, at the same time, they want the man to be a man. That can lead to the impossible expectation that men have to be both ways all the time.

RH: For lots of therapists, the most striking thing about your work is how you explain the different roles hormones play in the developing brains of men and women.

BRIZENDINE: The hormone testosterone predisposes males to seek out females for sex. Testosterone's evolutionary assignment is to give men a strong sex drive and an interest in seeking out fertile females. In women, estrogen is the more dominant hormone. It creates more oxytocin in the body and brain, and it makes women more likely to protect the young and to keep helpless infants alive. So both the female and male brain are not only built on different genes or a somewhat different scaffolding, but they're also running on these different hormones whose job it is to make certain behavior more likely. There's nothing mysterious about that.

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