President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System
Boys and men, girls and women—yes, they help make the world go round.
What makes these two genders so different? Louann Brizendine, MD, who is boardcertified in neurology and psychiatry, explains and explores the differences in her intriguing review, The Male Brain.
When she began her research into the male brain, “That will be a short book, maybe more of a pamphlet,” suggested some of her colleagues (facetiously, we hope!). But this comprehensive biological and behavioral study into boys and men is actually a sequel to her popular book The Female Brain.
Let’s start with hormones, which are chemicals made by glands in the body, then released into the blood stream where they have profound effects on the entire body (including the brain). Male behaviors which are stereotyped by social interaction, sexual expectations, mating outlook, parenting, nurturing, protecting, and even aggression can be traced back to the effects of male hormones versus female hormones.
As early as eight weeks after conception, the “Y” chromosome (which is present in the male, absent in the female), starts a hormonal cascade leading to changes in the brain. For the rest of our male lives, from toddlers to grandfathers like me, we will have a predilection for certain types of behavior.
These typical behaviors include being rough and tumble, competing in sports and/or attending sporting events, solving problems, male-male bonding, dating and mating, ogling females attractive to us, forming sexual and pair-bond relations, protecting family and turf, fantasizing, and pursuing sex, according to author Brizendine.
Think about the generally bigger growth in early childhood of boys, the rough and tumble muscle movements, the seekand- pursue baby boy, or the “must-be-moving” boy toddler.
Clearly, these activities and behaviors produce a certain amount of confirmation as we watch and enjoy the little ones play.
Seeing an eighteen month old in a shopping cart at the local food market “steering” the mock steering wheel and being very content is part of this dynamic. The slightly older and very mobile male toddler who has “ants in his pants,” can’t sit still, and tries to squirm out of his parent’s arms and constantly explore, is still charming but different than the slightly younger boy.
This latter age group is at the “very interested stage,” which is also healthy but exhausting for the adult charged with maintaining a safe environment.
Likely this set of behaviors had an adaptive advantage over the millennium, as older boys and men were expected to forage and hunt for the entire family or tribe.
Next, boys who are pre-puberty enjoy lots of muscle movements, ”are interested in winning, chasing objects, and exploratory play with boys, not girls. They are sweet, warm, lovable, and like to be hugged.
Puberty changes everything. There is a 20-fold increase in testosterone, resulting in a new-found interest in girls. The circuits for visual, smell, and auditory stimulation now become sensitive and attractive to females. Sleep cycle and sleep needs change. Boys become sensitive to pheromones, almost odorless “smells” detected by our noses which help determine whether someone is attractive to us or not.
These mating senses, pheromones, are thought to help diminish mating among too closely related humans. Experiments show we are all more attracted to people whose scent is different than our own. In an evolutionary sense, this may help prevent the dangers of familial intermarriage.
In puberty, protecting turf matters. (Think of West Side Story.) Social interaction with girls, an obsession with female body parts, sexual fantasy, male hierarchy, change in sleep patterns, avoidance of parents, excessive risk taking, and challenging authority are all part of the complex life of the early teen up to the single, sexually mature man.
These same characteristics cause auto insurance actuaries to bump up the premiums for this group of boys to the highest of any age group.
Where did that sweet lovable boy go? Don’t worry; he will be back much later as a grandfather, protecting the tribe.
The high libido young single male is focused on fertile females. These big boys have a high testosterone and a major interest in finding sexual partners.
Fortunately, they also focus on career development, finances, and starting a life worth living. They can be potentially aggressive, particularly when in the male preening stage.
Fatherhood makes dads much more protective of their pregnant wives. Dads are more sensitive than non-fathers to the cries of newborns. Fathers go through pregnancy too, with real changes – only a fraction of what mom endures; but being supportive, making a living, and helpful are important characteristics benefiting the propagation of the species and the individual family.
Midlife manhood is characterized by a gradually decreasing level of testosterone. Men’s major focus now is on raising kids, being successful at work, somewhat less concern for hierarchy, and less of a focus on procreation. Men still are attracted to attractive women; that interest never dies.
Finally, even though men in the andropause can still reproduce, those with any sense act prudently.
The attraction to the opposite sex is present but not as overwhelming as is was in their sexually mature, single man stage. Their major interest now is in staying healthy and improving the well-being of others around them. Legacy issues—what will I be remembered for?—and the next generation’s future take front of mind positions. Men at this stage are much more open to affection, sentimental behavior, and are much less aggressive.
This sort of stereotyping is usually entertaining but not always accurate in every case. But in terms of boys’ and men’s brains versus the opposite sex, it’s helpful to understand and define the various stages of our lives.
You may be wondering about the female brain, which is a coming attraction for this column. Not a simple task for a male to write simply about the female brain, but a very appealing topic nonetheless.