Getting Smart with Differences in Women and Men
Sexual differences were necessary for the development of complex life on earth. As understanding of our genetic underpinnings becomes clearer, we see the importance in finding advantage in respect for male and female distinctions. We know that life on earth existed as a single celled organism for nearly 2000 million years. The evolution of multicellular life form signaled the beginning of complex life. It seems that on many levels of living two of the same often vie for similar resources and find themselves in fierce, if not lethal, competition. The merger of two cells, that finally didn’t kill each other off meant that there must be an amalgamation of equals, each with a separate set of complementary skills.
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Women are especially “wired” for emotional and social reactivity. We have genes on the extra leg of our XX chromosome (males have the XY chromosome) that are inherited from our fathers and relate to emotional reactivity, nurturing and social proclivities. We also have a larger corpus callosum, the network of neurons that joins the two hemispheres of the brain, which enables us to more easily access the emotional centers of the right brain. It is far from surprising that women, who have so often been accused of being overly emotional, indeed do have easier access to emotional brain centers.
Research has revealed that the Y chromosome is dramatically different than the X chromosome. It is the Y chromosome that is a critical determinant of maleness. The modern Y chromosome is about one-third the size of its X-chromosome partner. A substantial portion of DNA on the Y chromosome is passed directly from father to son.
It is because of the Y chromosome that men have some 14 times more testosterone than women. Testosterone is strongly related to aggression and sexuality. Under threatening conditions males become more aggressive, while females focus more on attachment. Men actually have an increased learning capacity under stress. For women the opposite seems to be true. This is partially related to the developmental differences in levels of testosterone and estrogen in the brain. What is the evolutionary adaptive value to this discrepancy in learning potential under stress? No one seems to know yet, but one may speculate that historically (remember the time line on earth- that most folks have lived in the wilds and civilized man is only a tiny bar on the end of this line) males had to protect the human family, while females perhaps needed to be genetically programmed to stay with the children, focusing during danger on nurture, rather than on strategizing about protection or providing.
We have known for some time that many psychiatric disorders in men are cognitively based. For example, attention deficit disorder occurs in males three times more often than in females, schizophrenia 2.6 times more often, and autism 3.6 more often. These are all thought disorders of one kind or another. In contrast psychiatric disorders in women seem to be more emotionally based. Women exhibit post traumatic stress disorder 3 times more often than men, and female depression is twice as prevalent.
The collaboration of DNA cells, organ systems, women and men, and indeed world community seem to be a higher order affair. In fact, the reward center in our brain is highly activated by cooperative behavior. Collaboration and conciliation are part and parcel to human nature in both sexes. A recent video clip of primate research showed monkeys who were exhibiting conciliatory gestures to one another after a squabble. It was quite touching to see angry pouting chimpanzees quietly extending an arm signal to their companion to reconciliation and watching their joyful response to reattachment, including kisses, hugging and grooming. The most exuberant hooting of primates occurs when males are cavorting together.
Through neuroimaging a profusion of knowledge is becoming available about the mechanisms of our genes and functions of various brain structures. Because of this we have the potential to achieve more sensitive insight into our life experience. Hopefully it will add a dimension of possibility to direct our lives into patterns of living that are aggressive only when necessary and to develop our more conciliatory and tolerant selves. Our genes and our brain are interactive and flexible with our life experience. We are told that learning can change our brain function, neuronal patterns and even modify gene expression. Learning leads to the production of new proteins that promote the remodeling of neurons, making new pathway connections. Genes have the capacity to interact with the environment to make the molecular, neuronal and hormonal adjustments in response to our changing experience. Scientists say that genes exist so that we can create internal adaptive evolutionary processes. Life experience seems to profoundly influence genetic and neuronal habit patterns.
Historically men and women have been socialized very differently. As we move towards a culture where we no longer rely on physical prowess, more egalitarian opportunities and learning have become available to women. The emotional responsivity of women is a genetic gift. But how do we utilize it so that we add a complementary dimension of sensitivity, nurture and empathic wisdom to our relationships? Sexual differences are more comprehensible now that we understand their genetic basis. Constructive communication is a skill that includes the wisdom to tolerate divergences to our mutual benefit. The slightly more cognitive versus slightly more emotional styles of men and women need to be understood and respected. Empathic communication in particular is the human experience that seems to mitigate differences and promote intimacy. Avoiding a self consumed perspective, reaching for one that takes the “other point of view” into account, helps us to find solace and connection to one another.
Modern day men and women have many stresses, and both sexes are often called upon to learn and produce under chronic stress. Women today are encouraged to perform and achieve in careers as well as to nurture families and partners. Men too are expected to achieve and to nurture. The challenge seems to rest in learning to skillfully express our feminine and masculine selves to the best advantage of our own and our communal life experience. Taking advantage of contextual assets and liabilities of men and women can greatly promote complementary gain and mutual respect. It is certainly better than berating each other for not being the same. Surely, understanding differences between men and women is essential to achieving empathy, tolerance, conciliation, and attachment relationships. Our gender related abilities for emotional responsivity and cognitive orientation can truly be complementary, leading to the enhancement of our lives as men and women.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist