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What a shopping trip says about our brains


The distinct ways my wife and I tackle an errand to the farmers’ market can be explained by biological differences

MD, clinical psychiatrist, academic, award-winning author, public speaker, poet and podcaster. He is the author of eight books, including the global bestseller The Secret Life of the Unborn Child and 2021’s The Embodied Mind: Understanding the Mysteries of Cellular Memory, Consciousness and Our Bodies

We live in a small Ontario town where every Saturday a farmers’ market takes place. I like to go early to buy flowers. The night before, I ask my wife if there’s anything special she wishes me to buy. She may ask for eggs or to “see if they have wild blueberries.” At the market, I go directly to my favourite flower stand and buy a bunch. Walk over to the egg stand to pick up a dozen large browns. Look around for wild berries. Drive home. The whole trip, on a nice day, takes me about 30 minutes.

When my wife goes, she can easily spend two or more hours there. I used to ask her (I have since learned my lesson), “What has taken you so long?” “Well,” she would say, “I talk to the farmers, ask where they come from, what else they are growing. I look for special vegetables like zucchini flowers or baby squash. I may ask for cooking instructions to expand my meal options. I take in the colours and smells. Sometimes I meet friends and we chat or have a coffee.”

Two very different experiences, and, I think, rather stereotypical of gender differences. Stereotypical male behaviour includes traits like assertiveness, aggression and a focus on leadership roles. Stereotypical female behaviour involves nurturing tendencies, empathy and a focus on relationships and communication. These differences are influenced by upbringing, and other social and cultural factors, but also, as a significant amount of research suggests, genetic and biological factors – including differences in brain architecture.

Like a computer, the brain depends on its wiring. Broadly speaking, the hallmarks of the female brain compared with the male brain are more extensive communication between the two hemispheres, more connections between the part of the brain that receives input from the five senses and the frontal lobes, and often, speech centres on both sides of the brain as opposed to only the left side in the male brain.

The differentiation in brain anatomy starts in utero, during the first trimester. Neurohormone-driven brain development in males is slower compared with the females, which accounts for the longer period of the development of social responsiveness and regulation of feelings in boys. In other words, boy babies’ brains lag behind in development compared to their little sisters. This is reflected in their early relationships with their caregivers. At 12 months, girl toddlers display a greater preference for interactions with caregivers, make more eye contact and show more emotional empathy and interest in people than do same-age boys.

Psychologist Edward Tronick, who examined newborns and infants up to two months old together with the world-renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, concluded that boys “are more demanding social partners, have more difficult times regulating their affective states (emotions), and may need more of their mothers’ support to help them regulate affect. This increased demandingness would influence the infant boys’ interactive partner.”

Bonding-attachment will take a little longer and will be a little more difficult for boys than girls. If a mother’s first child was a girl, she may wonder why her second child, this time a boy, was so much more “difficult.” This label, whether communicated by words or actions, may leave a permanent imprint on the boy’s unconscious mind with consequent emotional problems.

Brain differences lead girls to become more outgoing and more observant than boys. Adults can then play a social role in reinforcing these differences. Mothers and other female caregivers tend to encourage the prosocial behaviour of girls, while fathers and other male caregivers tend to be rambunctious and more physical with male children, fostering in them action over thought and feeling.

Studying adult brains helps to explain some notable differences in the way women and men approach the world. Research from the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 found that women typically had a larger corpus callosum than men. The corpus callosum forms a bridge of communication between the left and the right brain. As a result, female brains exhibit extensive wiring between the left and right hemispheres. Greater interhemispheric connectivity in females facilitates integration of the analytical and sequential reasoning modes of the left hemisphere with the spatial, intuitive processing of information of the right hemisphere.

This type of structure may account for the fact that women tend to be better at multitasking while men seem to excel in highly task-focused projects. Furthermore, it facilitates social communication and intuition. In contrast, male brains with a smaller corpus callosum evince greater neural connectivity along the posterior-anterior dimension which involves the linking of perception to action.

As you may recall, my visits to the market are goal-oriented, focused on the tasks at hand. My wife, while still having a to-do list, is much more open to the whole experience. Depending on the circumstances she will easily deviate from the list while the chances are that I will stick to mine. You could say that my field of vision is 120 degrees, hers is 360.

It has been known for a long time that women, on average, have better verbal memory and social cognition, whereas men have better motor and spatial skills. Brain scans have offered an explanation: women tend to have verbal centres on both sides of the brain, while men often have verbal centres in only the left hemisphere. This is probably also the reason why women use more words when describing experiences or feelings and have more interest in talking about these things.

Analyzing data from 168 studies and 355,173 participants, Marco Hirnstein, University of Bergen, found a small but robust female advantage in verbal fluency and verbal-episodic memory. The advantage is small but consistent across the past 50 years and across an individual’s lifespan. Moreover, they determined that the perceived female advantage depends on the sex/gender of the leading scientist: female scientists report a greater female advantage, male scientists report a smaller female advantage.

As we review these studies, we need to keep in mind that they are statistical generalizations and do not apply to individual men and women. Every person is somewhere on a continuum between the typical male and female brain. By understanding these inherent biological differences between men and women with their advantages and disadvantages, we can learn to appreciate the distinct ways men and women approach life rather than fall into a well of criticism and spend endless hours playing mutual blame games.

As Dr. Ruben Gur, of the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania has said, “It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are.”





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