“There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. As well speak of a female liver.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman (American Feminist Writer and Editor, 1860-1935)
It is easy to understand the sentiments behind this well-known statement by a pioneer feminist, but the fact is that it is dead wrong. In recent years there have been a host of new discoveries into the very marked gender differences not just in the brain, but also in the liver and for that matter throughout the body. Differences that have important implications for your health and well-being. For some years I worked with a husband and wife team who had made important discoveries about gender differences in the brain. In fact some of this work made the front page of Newsweek magazine. The female member of the team once told me how, after giving a lecture at a prestigious University, she had been scolded by some people who told her that her research was undermining the movement toward gender equality, and that she should stop what she was doing. I leave it to you to make up you own mind about that.
Yes, there are demonstrable differences in the brains of men and women, but ONLY when looked at statistically. There is as much variation in brain structure as there is in height or skin color. There are also gender differences in cognitive ability, but again there are huge variations. As a male I should have a good sense of direction. In fact my sense of direction is so bad that I once joked that we should put up signs inside my house directing me toward the kitchen and the den! An over-emphasis on gender differences can have some undesirable consequences: couples therapists tell me that if clients have become overly dependent on the Mars/Venus concept, they will often have to schedule an extra 3-4 sessions to “deprogram” them.
Are gender differences in the brain and in cognition culturally determined? Probably not: experiments conducted since the 1960s have found that gender differences in cognition, emotion and perception appear to be trans-cultural, and what is more some of the same differences are found in animals. Higher rates of depression are found in women around the world, while autism is more common in boys. Estrogen and testosterone have profound effects on the developing brain. More than 20 years ago Norman Geschwind, one of my early mentors, published some challenging speculations about the interactions of sex hormones with the brain, and handedness, migraine and autoimmune disease. Some cognitive skills change during the menstrual cycle, a fact that has allegedly been used by some professional female chess players, who regulate their cycles with the oral contraceptive to ensure that they hit the big tournaments at times in their cycles when their reasoning and visuospatial abilities are at their best. The Scottish Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson discusses some of these issues in this month’s issue of the magazine New in Chess.
If we leave aside the brain, there are also enormous gender differences in other parts of the body that have significant implications for health. Apart form obvious differences in size, women tend to have more subcutaneous fat than men, so medicines that go into and are stored in fat have to be dosed differently in men and women. There are big differences in one of the key enzymes in the liver that is involved in dealing with toxins or in metabolizing drugs: important to know if you are being prescribed medicines. Women’s stomachs also tend to empty more slowly than men’s: yet another reason for being careful to take gender into account when prescribing medicines.
Amidst all of these physical differences, that I am going to explore in future entries, it is important not to lose sight of the different cultural demands on men and women. In the United States and Europe more women than ever are being expected to fulfill multiple roles: worker, wife, mother, cook, chauffeur, nurse and planner, to name only a few. It is no surprise that so many women are facing a condition that I call, for obvious reasons, “Overload.”
In my book Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I discuss some of the drawbacks of conventional methods of helping people cope and some novel solutions. As an example, I have known many people who have gone to stress management classes, that have meant them rushing across town, missing dinner, doing the class and then rushing home to put the children to bed and check their email. That kind of thing is not very likely to be helpful. When I taught T’ai Chi and Qigong classes, I would usually spend the first 45 minutes helping people wind down before we could get to work.
In response to this chronic overload, I have spent many years devising extremely brief things that people can do to help themselves in the course of a day. I have a principle that has guided me for years: for most people, if it takes more than one minute, it’s going to be very difficult to fit it in. But once they have found that one minute, other minutes often begin to follow. I shall shortly be going into the studio to record some more of my one-minute miracles, and early in the spring, we shall begin to attach some podcasts to this blog.