Nature v Nurture – Louann Brizendine’s take on it all

by |December 26, 2010

No doubt the storm of controversy unleashed when neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine published her book The Female Brain is about to be re-ignited as her newer one The Male Brain comes down into paperback next month.

A New York Times bestseller, The Female Brain is an thoroughly  readable account of how the uniquely flexible structure of the female brain determines not  only how women think and what they value, but how they communicate and whom they love.

Its publication set off a storm of protest as some of her scientific claims were contested, as were some of  her interpretations of them.

To my mind, the critics missed the point. Having read The Female Brain recently, I can say that Brizendine’s genius is in taking some pretty complex scientific ideas about how sex differences in our brain structures are hardwired into men and women and presenting them to a non-scientific readership in a way that  assumes intelligence and judgement.

When accused of poorly representing the science and making a bigger deal out of the differences between the male and female brain, Brizendine retorted:

If that’s what people are getting out of my book, that’s an incorrect view. There are many more similarities than there are differences. I’m not trying to write scientific treatises. I’m writing for people who are intelligent but don’t do science. In doing honour to its complexity, I think I’ve hit the mark in some respects and missed the mark in others. Scientifically, looking at gender differences is in its infancy. It’s only really important in medicine to study diseases, for example. Gender differences per se are of less interest.

And on the subject of that old chestnut, nature vs nurture, she says:

Nature-nurture is dead because they’re really the same thing. Nature is the thing we must understand first, in terms of how things get wired in utero and the phases of brain development. The piece that used to be called nurture is genetically driven changes that come with things like stress, hormonal differences, neglect, abuse, drugs, or toxic substances. Understanding the genetics we’re born with and how they get modified by our upbringing and environment is the key.

The controversy is not surprising. Feminism, and post-feminism, what my teenage daughter calls “the F-bomb”, has made studies of  gender differences a veritable minefield but at the same time, there is no doubt that we all engage in anecdotal comparative  gender observations.

As the mother of a boy and a girl, whom I tried to bring up the same, I can tell you that I am still constantly amazed at how stereotypical true to gender they were from the beginning. When my son could still only speak four words, two of them were “bang” and “crash”. My daughter on the other hand, put all of her energy as a baby into creating intimacy by locking eyes and forcing relationship.

Having galloped through The Female Brain, I can suddenly understand all sorts of behaviour I observe in my kids – from her obsession with social network sites to his seemingly inability to hold an instruction or a thought for longer than 2 seconds. As for myself, I have discovered that I am a complete cliché.

At the very least,  The Female Brain is mandatory reading for a man who wants to understand their relations with women – be they their daughters, wives, mothers, significant others.

The Male Brain sounds equally as compelling.

Brizendine peppers each chapter with examples of  her patients at various stages of the life cycle. At every step — the Dennis the Menace child, the oversexed teenager, the middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman — Brizendine gives a theory for how her patient’s behaviour is caused by his male brain patterns, egged on by hormones like testosterone (nicknamed “Zeus”) and vasopressin (“the White Knight”).

As with her first book, she is criticised for not leaving enough room for personal psychology or experience in explaining men’s behaviour. Maybe not, but I can tell you that reading Brizendine makes the minefield of parenting a whole lot easier, and it is saving my son from having to endure some  of my completely stereotypical motherly haranguing.

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