In the 2000 film "What Women Want," Mel Gibson played an ad executive who gained the ability to hear women's thoughts. This superpower proved helpful on the job with marketing products like pantyhose, mascara and nail polish to women, particularly when it came to stealing his female co-workers' ideas. He discovered his ability to eavesdrop on women's ideas more troubling when it came to his personal life, however, when he learned that many of the women in his life found him to be a shallow, superficial jerk. After his burst of insight into women's innermost desires and dreams, Gibson's character learned how to treat women better.
We can't help but wonder what the movie would have been like if the main character had been a woman getting the chance to explore the male brain. Women have spent countless hours agonizing over what a guy is thinking, and sales of women's magazines and self-help books attest to the desire to understand the enigma that is the male mind. Why doesn't he answer my texts? How can he live in such a pigsty? How long must we date before he'll drop the L-word?
We'll probably never learn the exact number of hours a woman should wait before calling a guy or whether he prefers to be the pursuer or the pursued -- men are too diverse for such grand statements, and besides, it may not be any fun to have men completely figured out. The good news is that scientists are gaining more insight into the male brain all the time. Are they finding that the same old sexist stereotypes hold true, or are there some pleasant surprises in store?
10: Men Really Can't Remember What You Wore on Your First Date
Women don't just remember their wedding anniversaries. Many women also remember the date they first kissed the man who would become their husband, what they were wearing on their first date with him and what song was playing in the restaurant where he proposed. Men often get in trouble when they can't remember these kinds of details.
Researchers have found that men and women use different parts of their brains to form memories, and it turns out that the emotional center of the brain plays a large role in women's memories. When women are affected emotionally by something, be it a photograph in the newspaper or a fight with a boyfriend, they are apt to remember every single detail. Men, on the other hand, tend to have more visual and "tactical" memories, which means they easily remember how to get from one place to another or the layout of a room, yet have trouble recalling a loved one's birthday [source: Gray]. And women may need to give men a hand at parties -- women are better than men at recalling faces, particularly female faces [sources: Branan, Association of Psychological Science]. One theory posits that women are particularly good at remembering pretty girls' faces -- after all, they may be potential threats. As it turns out, a woman's male companion may not remember that pretty face at all.
Men's poor memories dog them throughout their life, unfortunately. In a study presented in 2008 to the American Academy of Neurology, researchers announced that men were one-and-a-half times more likely to have mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia, than women [source: American Academy of Neurology].
9: Men Don't Listen (the Same Way Women Do)
The idea that we use only 10 percent of our brain is a persistent myth. What's not a myth, however, is that men use just one side of their brain to listen, while women use both sides. When men listen, the left side of the brain, which is associated with language, is activated, while both sides activate when a woman listens [source: BBC].
Listening is but one task in which women seem to use their interconnected sides of the brain in ways that men don't. This doesn't imply that women are better listeners -- it just indicates that men and women listen differently. Because women are using more language processing centers, they may be able to multitask when it comes to conversing; they can surf the Web and chat at the same time. Men, on the other hand, may need to focus solely on the conversation at hand to process it, which may account for the numerous magazine articles that advise not bringing up a touchy subject during the big game.
Research from the University of Sheffield in England also indicates that men process women's voices differently than they do men's voices, perhaps because the women's voices are more complex and convey more information. When men listen to women's voices, it activates a part of the brain that processes the sound of music, but when they listen to men's voices, it activates a part of the brain that's associated with imagery [source: Epstein]. Women's voices have more complex sound frequencies, but don't let a man use that as an excuse for not listening. It just means that you shouldn't assume that your guy has heard and understood the exact same thing that you just did.
As for who does more talking in a relationship? That's something we'll address a little later in this article.
8: Men Aren't as Empathetic as Women
In general, men read less fiction than women, and they rarely find themselves hooked on soap operas. That may be because men frequently test as less empathetic than women [source: Eliot]. Without empathy, or the ability to put oneself in another person's shoes, men may have a harder time investing in fictional characters.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has described the male brain as one that's wired for "systemizing," in comparison to the female brain, which is characterized by "empathizing" [source: Kanazawa]. Rather than figuring out how another person feels, men tend to see another person as a machine that is ordered by defined rules. When others aren't predictable or easy to analyze, it's harder for men to determine what to do next. For this reason, Baron-Cohen has linked "extreme male brains" to autism, which is characterized by an inability to understand what others are thinking or feeling.
There is likely an evolutionary reason for this. Men, in their roles as hunter and protector, would have needed the ability to coldly kill animals and people in order to feed and defend their family. Women, as caregivers, would have needed the ability to nurture their children and get along with nearby families [source: Kanazawa].
Now, such distinctions may be wired into our brains. Mirror neurons may play a role in empathy. As the name implies, these neurons cause us to mirror actions and emotions that are presented to us. If our friend looks sad, mirror neurons would cause us to feel sad and wonder what was wrong. Studies have shown that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men, which is probably why they're better at picking up emotional cues and detecting when something is wrong [source: Weiner]. So if you're sending a man what you consider to be glaring signals that something is wrong, cut him some slack. He'll need more than withering looks and body language to receive an error message.
There does seem to be one instance when men's mirror neurons work just fine, and you might not like it.
7: Men Really Can't Help Looking at Other Women
On the last page, we discussed that men are less empathetic than woman, perhaps in part because they have less sensitive mirror neurons than women do. But men's mirror neurons aren't completely lacking, as evidenced by brain scans that have been done while men watch pornography. In 2008, French researchers had men watch adult films while they were undergoing an fMRI brain scan. The researchers found that the part of the brain that displays mirror neuron activity lit up before the subjects got erections, which may indicate the great power porn has on the human brain -- it persuades mirror neurons to think that sex is actually occurring, which stimulates a physical response [sources: Motluk, Lehrer].
Mirror neurons aren't the only part of the brain that is involved when a man watches pornography. Actresses in adult films tend to be, shall we say, curvaceous. Researchers have found that the sight of a woman with an hourglass shape, be it in the movies or in the local bar, activates the same reward centers in the brain that are associated with drugs and alcohol [source: Choi]. Seeing photographs of the same woman, minus the distinct waist-to-hip ratio, didn't activate those reward centers. From an evolutionary standpoint, men may still subconsciously associate shapely hips with fertility, thus finding women with hourglass shapes preferable for mating. So if your boyfriend won't stop checking out that Beyoncé lookalike, bear in mind that never looking at another woman would be like an addict going without his fix.
But if he looks, does that mean he'll stray? Not necessarily.
6: Men Don't Think About Sex Every Seven Seconds
There's really no polite way to put this: Men, as a gender, have been accused of having sex on the brain at all times. Prior to going on dates, young women are warned that guys are only after one thing -- another notch on their bedpost. One oft-cited statistic claims sexual thoughts cross a man's mind every 7 seconds.
Do all men need a collective cold shower? Not by a long shot. Most men come nowhere near the fabricated 7 seconds standard (if they did, this would have been a mighty short article). According to the Kinsey Institute, 54 percent of men think about sex every day, but 43 percent only consider it a few times a month or a few times a week, while 4 percent make it the whole month before pondering the subject [source: Kinsey Institute]. The same study found that only 60 percent of men had masturbated in the previous year [source: Kinsey Institute]. Admit it -- you expected that number to be much higher.
Because men have a reputation for always being in the mood, many a woman has had her feelings hurt when her partner rebuffs her amorous advances. Many factors can affect a man's readiness for love, including stress, fatigue, an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise.
So if men aren't constantly thinking about sex, what IS on their minds?
5: Men Love Sports
All right, all right -- this one probably doesn't come as a big surprise to anyone. Most men love sports. In 2005, three out of four U.S. men described themselves as sports fans, while only 50 percent of women identified as such [source: Carroll]. Fifty percent of men say that football is their favorite sport to watch, with baseball and basketball trailing with 11 and 9 percent of men, respectively [source: Carroll]. And even though rates of gambling on games is fairly low -- only 17 percent of Americans put money on a sports team in 2007 -- men are twice as likely to place a bet as women are [source: Jones].
Since we're on the topic of sports and gambling, this is as good a time as any to discuss testosterone, the hormone that is associated with all things masculine. Men produce 20 times more testosterone each day than women [source: Mitchell]. When puberty rolls around, testosterone levels rise in boys, causing growth spurts, lower voices, facial and body hair and increased muscle mass. Testosterone also plays an important role in developing the reproductive system -- it kick-starts libido, produces sperm and spurs development of the penis, prostate and scrotum.
In studies with animals, removing testosterone causes a drop in aggressive behavior, but scientists haven't found the same relationship in humans [sources: Mitchell, University of Zurich]. Testosterone doesn't always equal increased amounts of aggression, but we do have testosterone receptors on our brains, which makes it plausible that increased amounts of the hormone could affect our behavior. So testosterone plays some part in why men get fired up before the big game and become willing to risk money on their favorite team.
Go! Go! Go! To the next page!
4: Men are Pretty Tough When It Comes to Pain
Ever wondered why guys wrestle? Or why they'll offer their torso to another fellow and say, "Come on, punch me!" To be honest, we don't know why they do that. But we do know some interesting things about how men perceive pain.
Women, despite enduring childbirth, tend to complain more often of pain throughout their lifetime. In tests comparing how long the genders can withstand pain, men always endure longer. Many scientists believe the men feel compelled to maintain a stiff upper lip to fulfill cultural stereotypes that peg men as real tough, macho guys. In one study, scientists offered participants financial rewards for keeping their hands in ice-cold water, thinking that women didn't feel motivated to withstand pain since they had no social stereotypes to uphold. As it turns out, the money didn't make the women any more tolerant of pain, but it made the men able to withstand the cold water for even longer, indicating that there really is something different about the way men perceive pain [source: Dye].
Thanks to brain imaging, scientists now know that when men feel pain, their cognitive, analytical centers light up. When women feel pain, their limbic system, also known as the headquarters of emotion, lights up [source: UCLA]. As with many items on this list, there's likely an evolutionary reason for this -- women who feel pain may be going into nurturing, protective overdrive on behalf of their young, whereas men, the ancient defenders of the homestead, aren't upset about the pain, they just want to stop it. Some doctors wonder if training women to approach pain the way men do -- focusing on the feeling of pain as opposed to the emotions like anxiety or fear that the pain creates -- could help women in distress. At the very least, doctors now realize that they may need to treat a man's pain and a woman's pain differently.
The thing is, even if men do feel pain, you're not likely to know it. Find out more about men and emotion on the next page.
3: Men Have Feelings Too, But Don't Expect Them to Cry
We've already touched on the subject of men and empathy, and whether men are able to tell what others are feeling. But what about their own feelings? Women are considered the far more emotional gender, and many a girlfriend or wife has been left wondering why her man won't just open up about how he feels. To some extent, it may be because men learn from a young age that the touchy-feely stuff is for the girls. But, as you may have guessed, some of it has to do with the difference between the male and female brains.
The amygdala is a part of the brain that controls our emotional responses. In men, the amygdala communicates with just a few parts of the brain, like the visual cortex and part of the brain responsible for movement [source: Lloyd]. It's like the amygdala is a power strip, and men have just one appliance plugged in. In comparison, a woman's power strip is fueling many different appliances. In women, the amygdala is more connected to parts of the brain that control language, which may be why women talk about their feelings. It's also linked to parts of the brain that control bodily functions like heart rate, blood pressure and digestion, which may be why women get a stomachache or other bodily response when they're stressed or worried. In comparison, men seem to compartmentalize and show no outward display of emotion. But men still experience all the same emotions that women do, they just don't cope with them in the same way.
Even when men are talking about their emotions, you probably won't see them cry. Women cry four times as much as men do, probably because they have 60 percent more prolactin in their bodies [source: Hoyt]. Prolactin is a type of hormone that stimulates crying. Men also tend to sweat more than women do, so it's possible they rid their bodies of toxins that way, whereas women release emotional toxins through tears. And even if a guy sheds a tear, it won't be full-on waterworks. Men have smaller tear ducts, so they can't produce the same amount of tears that women do.
2: Men Like Shopping
Men might think that the female brain is consumed by thoughts of shoes, handbags and designer dresses. A woman proposes a trip to the mall, and his blood runs cold. But as it turns out, men spend just as much as their female counterparts on "Sex and the City" do. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men spent just $246 less than women on clothing in 2004 and 2005, and they spent more on their cars, restaurant cuisine, alcoholic drinks and audiovisual gear [source: Hamilton].
So, men like to spend money -- they just don't like to spend it like women do. Whereas women like to stroll through the mall and peruse all the options, men prefer to decide what they want ahead of time, get it and go home. According to Professor Daniel Kruger at the University of Michigan, this difference reflects some evolutionary trends [source: Alleyne]. As we've learned, traditionally, men served as the hunters, and women as the gatherers. Women would have to scope out the best spot for food and then forage carefully so as to avoid coming home with poisoned berries or rotten nuts. Today, that may be why women browse for just the right color of blouse or spend days finding the perfect birthday gift. On the other hand, men on the hunt had to be quick and decisive to catch their prey, and they needed to return home quickly to protect their homestead. If we're still ruled by our evolutionary past, that may be why men prefer to shop speedily and return to the recliner.
1: Men are Just as Talkative as Women
In 2006, Dr. Louanne Brizendine published "The Female Brain," which included the provocative statistic that a woman spoke about 20,000 words per day, while a man spoke a mere 7,000 [source: Liberman]. In studies of male and female brains, researchers have determined that women have more tightly packed neurons on layers of the cortex associated with language [source: Hotz]. Is it any wonder that women are painted as a chatty, gossipy bunch and men as the tight-lipped, uncommunicative gender?
After "The Female Brain" was published, phonetics professor Mark Liberman published an article in the Boston Globe that pointed out that Brizendine's source for her statistic was a self-help book authored by a man who'd given many different counts over the years for how many words a woman speaks [source: Cameron]. Brizendine later removed the statistic from her book since there was a lack of science behind it. When researchers have tried to compare the number of words used by both men and women in the same situation, the differences were negligible [source: Liberman]. If anything, men talk a little bit more [source: Cameron].
Despite studies showing that they're the talkative ones, men persist in thinking that women talk more. On an episode of "Talk of the Nation" on NPR, Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University recalled an anecdote in which a teacher was presented with research that boys spoke more in class. The teacher tried, then, to call on boys and girls equally, to which the boys reacted with anger -- why were the girls getting to talk so much more? Despite the fact that she was calling on both genders in equal amounts, boys had the perception that the girls were running the show [source: NPR].
Men and women may not like to talk about the same things, which is why women perceive that men won't open up and men think that women are always hounding them. But if the two genders listen to each other, they'll find that each has plenty to say.
Lots More Information
- Fact or Fiction: Feminism Quiz
- Women's Rights Pictures
- Gender Inequality Puzzles
- The Ultimate Gene Quiz
- The Ultimate Male/Female Communication Quiz
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