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Do men and women have different brains?

RELEASED April 11, 2013
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Episode Summary
It’s a pretty touchy subject because of the possible implications – if you find differences between the brains of men and women, does that mean there are differences in their intellect? Surprisingly, though there are demonstrable differences between male and female brains, they use them differently to achieve the same ends equally well.

Recording:    Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark:    Hey pal?

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah?

Josh Clark:    I think we should talk about our animated series one more time.

Chuck Bryant:    Besides the podcasts – it's my favorite thing to do but –

Josh Clark:    I realized that we made a TV show and you didn’t just include that in that list.

Chuck Bryant:    I like this better.

Josh Clark:    Wow.  Thank about that.  That's how good this animated series is.

Chuck Bryant:    It's really awesome.  They're showing our animator that's super talented and he's awesome and we want these to continue which means you need to watch them.

Josh Clark:    They are free videos but we have to get the number of views up to have them stick around because we have their money and Mr. Shoan so he'll keep making them for us so please.  You don’t have to chip in a dime.  Just go watch these highly entertaining four to five minute animated shorts based on our audio podcasts.  You can check them out at stuffyoushouldknow.com, our home on the Web.  What's the name of the website?

Chuck Bryant:    Stuffyoushouldknow.com.

Josh Clark:    That's right.

Chuck Bryant:    Just click on the video tab and we really appreciate it and you can share them around the social media.  We would appreciate it even more.

Josh Clark:    Sure, do whatever.

Chuck Bryant:    All right so that's our shameless plugs.  We don’t ask for much so –

Josh Clark:    Yeah don’t blame us.

Chuck Bryant:    Give a couple of podcasters a break here huh?  Ready?

Josh Clark:    I'm ready.   Are you ready?

Chuck Bryant:    Let's do it.

Josh Clark:    Are you ready Jerry?  Okay.  Hey and welcome to the podcast.  I'm Josh Clark.  There's Charles "Chuck" Bryant and this is Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck Bryant:    Brains, women's brains, men's brains are different?

Josh Clark:    Yes Chuck, [inaudible] Chuck.

Chuck Bryant:    What was it, Tonto, Frankenstein and [inaudible]?  I don’t know.  We talked about it before.  I don’t remember.

Josh Clark:    Tonto, Frankenstein – man.  Why are you doing this to us?  Todd, there's somebody screaming at their iPod.

Chuck Bryant:    I know.

Josh Clark:    Tonto, Frankenstein –

Chuck Bryant:    Let's just get on with – I'll remember as soon as I look it up.

Josh Clark:    Tarzan.

Chuck Bryant:    Tarzan.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.

Chuck Bryant:    Boom.  That's it.  I don’t have anything –

[Crosstalk]
– your little man's brain with all the gray matter farted out on us.

Josh Clark:    This is a very – this can be touchy navigating this one.

Chuck Bryant:    I don’t think so.

Josh Clark:    Well the implications are really huge especially not necessarily the scientific implications but the potential policy implications of misguided people who don’t understand what they're hearing.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah but I say this as our general – this is what I gather from this whole thing, is it sounds like men's and women's brains are different and who cares?  Men might be better at women at some things than women.  Women might be better at some things than men.  Women might process this faster.  Men might process this faster.  Who cares?  That’s why we're all here together, to put these brains together to lead us forward into the future.

Josh Clark:    Nicely done.

Chuck Bryant:    I don't get all worked up about it.  Women are – seems to be better at some things and men seem to be better, big whoop.

Josh Clark:    Some of them supposedly are very clichéd, like men supposedly are better at orienting objects in space in their mind and that means you can read a map better supposedly.

Chuck Bryant:    Women generally are better at language tests which probably mean they may be better at communicating things.

Josh Clark:    I really feel though we should caveat with this is a look of the state of a pretty nascent field still comparing the brains of men and women.  It was only in the 90s that a Dr. Sandra Witelson started comparing more than 100 normal men's and women's brains and accidentally stumbled upon the fact that they are different in their organization and make up.  And since then it's been such a touchy subject that there's still a lot of the fields who won't say anything more than that may be true but there's really no difference or whatever.  And there are people that are getting louder and louder and they're saying no, there are differences.

It's not necessarily intelligence.  It's not necessarily cognitive ability.  I will even go one better and say I'm not even willing to say that women don't read maps as well as men.  But there are structural and compositional differences between men's and women's brains.  It's been proven and one of the implications at that.

Chuck Bryant:    And I say yes, study this because there are so many benefits you can garner from learning more specifically about everything so do it.

Josh Clark:    Exactly.  So that's kind of where we're at right now.  We're just reporting on the state of this nascent field and a lot of it's not been proven but one thing that has been shown -- I really feel like we should kick it off at this – if you look at longitudinal studies, huge studies that have been done over the decades and you compare cognitive abilities, intelligence between boys and girls, the difference is almost negligible overall.

Chuck Bryant:    IQ scores, stuff like that.  It's all about the same.

Josh Clark:    Right.  And there's differences say between Math skills and between boys and girls and we don’t even know whether those are culturally bound or what.  We'll get to that.  Let's talk about how the brain is different because like we said that has been proven.  Men's brains and women's brains do differ in some ways.

Chuck Bryant:    And like you said this is new.  For a while they've known that they're different but they used to think it was sort of just in the hypothalamus where sex drive and food intake are controlled.  That seems like such a copout.  Their brains are different because men like to eat more and have sex more.  That's just not true.

Josh Clark:    Structurally they are different.  The super chiasmic nucleus is different and helps regulate reproductive cycles through circadian rhythm.  There are different patterns of androgen receptors which are responsible for sexual preferences.  There are two times more neurons and cells in certain areas in the hypothalamus of a man than a woman.  So they are different but that's what they thought for a long time that was the only difference in the brain.

Chuck Bryant:    They also found that taking into consideration, weight differences and height differences men's brains are probably a little bigger but that doesn’t equate to    intelligence or cognitive abilities.  It's just one of those things.

Josh Clark:    Remember in the midst of the brain episode we did?  We were saying humans don’t have the biggest brain.  A whale does but it's all about the ratio of body size.  Well we missed something.  It's about the ratio of neurons to body size more than brain size.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.  I think someone pointed out – who was it?  It was some animal that kind of disproved it was just the size.

Josh Clark:    I don’t remember what the animal was.

Chuck Bryant:    I can't either.

Josh Clark:    One or two people wrote in with that.  So this actually kind of raises a very troubling question or it did at first.  Wait a minute, if a man's brain is bigger than a woman's and even if you take into account weight and height and all that stuff it's still larger, then does that mean that men are smarter than women or should be?

Chuck Bryant:    No.

Josh Clark:    No.  Why?

Chuck Bryant:    Well because in 2001 they found that certain parts of men's brains might be larger or smaller and certain parts of women's brains are larger or smaller and that could balance out the overall difference in the end.  That's why you're not going to see any differences on intelligence levels and stuff like that so parts of the frontal lobe which is decision making, problem solving in the limbic cortex which is for regulating emotions are larger in women whereas in men the parietal cortex which is space, perception in the amygdala which then packs sexual behavior and social behavior [inaudible].  So certain parts of ours are bigger, some parts of the ladies are bigger.

Josh Clark:    Okay.  There's another big difference that they found.  Men have about 6 1/2 times more gray matter which is neurons than women do but women have about ten times more white matter which is the connections between those neurons than men do.

Chuck Bryant:    That's right.  And it seems that men actually think with the gray matter and women think with the white matter.  So taking a step back from it, the outside, it looks like women's brains might be more complicated in how it's set up and how they think but they may be faster than men.

Josh Clark:    Right, they would work more efficiently.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.

Josh Clark:    So in this sense if you're looking at this gray matter that's where the neurons the thinking cells are.  But there's less communication among them in men.

Chuck Bryant:    That makes sense.

Josh Clark:    Whereas women may have depending on the part of the brain fewer neurons but a more efficient communication system which is weird because that would mean you could make the case that they were roughly to arrive at the same conclusion at about the same time even though there are these two completely different structures.

Chuck Bryant:    But they also pointed out that some women might have more neurons, as much as 12 percent more neurons.

Josh Clark:    It depends.  And I'm surprised that sentence was written like that.  It depends on the region of the brain that the – I think she's a biologist physiologist, Sandra Witelson up in McMaster in Ontario.

Chuck Bryant:    A psychologist.

Josh Clark:    Yeah, she's the brain lady.  She found that there are parts of the cortex in women pretty much across the board where you're going to find 12 percent more neurons packed in there so in this region they may have less gray matter overall but their neurons are more densely packed.  But what she found that was interesting was that these areas where they have more neurons were associated with signals coming into and out of the brain which means that women would be more efficient at combining information rather than internal calculation.

Chuck Bryant:    That makes sense to me too when I hear all these things out loud and think about my marriage.  I think Emily's way faster at processing things in a conversation than I am.  I don’t know.  It all kind of makes sense to me.

Josh Clark:    I feel like that is – that this is the reason why a lot of people are so whoa.  We're at this point where just in the ‘90s Witelson discovered 12 percent more neurons in this one thing.  We know so little about the brain as it stands let alone the differences between men and women that it's like I feel like we need to amass all of the info we can first and then start extrapolating.

Chuck Bryant:    Emily's way better at reading maps than me and that goes counter to what usually people might think.  I have the worst sense of direction on the planet.  We call it the opposite thing.  If I say go right it's left and I'll even try and trick myself and say I think it's right and I'll say go left and it's right so I'm a wonder of nature in how bad how sense of direction is.

Josh Clark:    I didn’t know that.

Chuck Bryant:    Dude, I've been on road trips and gotten off the highway to get gas and gotten back on and gone right back the way I came from for miles before I realized it.

Josh Clark:    No way.  I feel like I know you a little more.

Chuck Bryant:    I'm really bad when it comes to that stuff.

Josh Clark:    That means you've got a lady brain.

Chuck Bryant:    I do and I have to hold the map.  I have to orient the map to where – point it in the direction to make sense of it.  [Inaudible].

Josh Clark:    I know what you mean about having to orient a map in that direction.  Wow I had no idea.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah I'm awful.

Josh Clark:    Okay.  So here's another one.  This one, this is the most amazing difference to me between a man's brain and a woman's brain.  Back in the 90s like '94, '95, the turn of that year, some Yale researchers gave a test, a language skill test of some sort where basically they said say Germany without the "ma."  It was a test of removing full names.

Chuck Bryant:    Ger-many.

Josh Clark:    Gerany.

Chuck Bryant:    Journey.  I was just being stupid.

Josh Clark:    I was having trouble with it just now.  They did this though under – at the time brand spanking new wonder machine.

Chuck Bryant:    It was new at the time?

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  And the weird thing that they found was that women and men had the same ability.  They did just as good a job in removing full names from words but they used different parts of their brain whereas men used just one small region of one of the hemispheres.  I'm not sure which one.

Chuck Bryant:    The left.

Josh Clark:    Women used regions in both the left and the right to do the exact same thing and the researchers pointed this out.  They're like okay, we would get this if what we were testing was something really ancient like something that had to do with reproduction or requiring food or defense or fear, something like that, something really old but reading is a skill that humans have acquired probably within the last few thousand years.  It's brand new and men and women have evolved in just that race in time to use their brains differently to do the same thing.  Why?  That makes no sense whatsoever.  What it suggests is that men and women have different brains.

Chuck Bryant:    Exactly.  It's remarkable.  You would think that they would kind of work in the same way but they don’t.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  That's staggering to me because we're human beings.  We're the same species.  We can mate and produce new versions of our species.  The fact that we have different brains just because the different sexes, that's just mind boggling to me.  I had no idea.

Chuck Bryant:    Just because of different sexes or there's the old nature vs. nurture argument.  So who wrote this?  Was it Connor?

Josh Clark:    Molly Edmonds.

Chuck Bryant:    Molly Edmonds, formerly as Stuff Mom Never Told You.  She points out that even if you're super open minded and I really want to just raise my child not as you're a boy, you have to play with trucks or you're a girl, you have to play with dolls.  There's still probably going to be some of that the child absorbs even of one of the most gender neutral parents among us.

Josh Clark:    You rarely pick up a little girl by her left ankle and dangle her upside down.

Chuck Bryant:    Right exactly.  But no matter how hard you try society is going to impact a shape a child like that in same way so that – maybe that plays a part in it.

Josh Clark:    All right.  I'll shoot a hole right into that.  That doesn’t account for the brain, change being different in structure or does it?

Chuck Bryant:    Well Sandra Witelson studied Einstein's brain.  We did a podcast on Einstein's brain.

Josh Clark:    That's a good one.

Chuck Bryant:    In fact it sat in the garage for a number of years.

Josh Clark:    Like 70.

Chuck Bryant:    In a jar.  But she actually got a piece of it like other people have to study it and her argument is our brains are structured at birth because look at Einstein's brain.  It was actually structurally different and it had nothing to do with nature at all – nurture at all.  It was just shaped differently in some ways and maybe that's why he was so smart and maybe that's why there aren't Einsteins all over the place.  And so this is something that we get from birth.  It doesn't matter how you're raised.  It's going to be different.

Josh Clark:    See the jury is still out on that one.  Witelson's – that's her belief.  There's also another campus that says no because there's such a thing as brain plasticity and you have neuro connections that are – remember the person with just one hemisphere but binocular vision?  Your brain goes through the process of pruning so it gets rid of neuro connections.  And if everybody's telling a little girl that she's not good at Math because she's a girl her brain may very ruthlessly cut out a lot of those connections and she may through this brain's version of a self fulfilling prophecy be less good at Math.

Chuck Bryant:    That's where nurture comes.

Josh Clark:    And the brain structure would still be the same.

Chuck Bryant:    Exactly.  That's where nurture comes back in.  Like you said, if little girls are taught they don’t want to do Math.  Maybe there are more boys in class and then that perpetuates it further to where they did one study where they found that female students who were Math and Science and Engineering majors did not want to sign up for these summer conferences in Math and Science because they were shown videos where it was a bunch of horny little nerdy boys.

Josh Clark:    I was wondering –

[Crosstalk]

Chuck Bryant:    I don't want to go to that.

Josh Clark:    Exactly.

Chuck Bryant:    I don’t want to be surrounded by those goons.  So these are Math and Science and Engineering majors and they didn’t want to do that because again they're just fed that line that it's all boys and boys are interested in this kind of –

Josh Clark:    There have been other studies too that found girls who are told that a math test generally does show gender differences scored more poorly than ones who weren't told that.

Chuck Bryant:    Or if they were told it's gender neutral they improved.

Josh Clark:    Right and boys are not immune to this kind of thing too.  Apparently they did a study where they told white males taking a math test that their scores were going to be compared to Asian males and they did much more poorly than males who weren't told that.

Chuck Bryant:    So again it's that self fulfilling prophecy that we can I guess make happen.

Josh Clark:    So the path that we're going down right now where we're saying no, it's just nurture, it's just society, there's a danger to it.  It's not necessarily wrong but there's the danger of following it too far along to where you ignore the fact that there are for whatever reason real differences that are in the male brain and the female brain and is here where some people, there's a guy named Kahill.  I can't remember his first name but he's at UC Irvine.  He's one of the louder people that shout no, we need to be paying attention to these differences to understand how to better treat males and females suffering from the same thing.

Chuck Bryant:    Drugs for instance, I didn’t know this.  Apparently most of the studies they do are drugs are done on males and male animals because they don’t want a skewed result during the menstrual cycle.  And so these drugs, they need to study both the female brain and the male brain because they could potentially tailor a drug toward a female brain to act better and be received better than they would for just the standard male brain.

Josh Clark:    And conversely if you take schizophrenia.  It's different for men, it's different for women.  The onset is usually earlier for men.  Men usually have worse symptoms.  Women usually fare better with schizophrenia and they think that it's because women respond better to the drugs prescribed to treat schizophrenia than men.  That would be because of differences in the brain.  And if we understand the male brain versus the female brain we could better tailor schizophrenia for men to treat men better and have better outcomes.

Chuck Bryant:    Yeah.  Physical therapy is another good example.  In an article they found that our brains actually work differently when we do simple things like reaching for an object.  A woman's brain tackles that differently than a man's just in the same way I guess when we're reading Gerany.

Josh Clark:    Gerany.  It is Gerany.

Chuck Bryant:    Don’t stop believing.  So if we physically reaching for this phone than when Jerri comes over and reaches for this phone, then if we had – we're both punched in the brain we might need different physical therapy techniques.

Josh Clark:    Well you said punched in the brain too.  Women especially in frontal lobe injuries are devastated by those may more than men.  They think it's because there are more neuro activity packed into the frontal lobe of women and that's where they do a lot more of their thinking than men do and that's evidence by people who suffered the exact same kind of brain injury but a woman will just be zonked and a man will be that kind of hurt but I'm going to get back to walking.

Chuck Bryant:    Wow.  I'll go back to the beginning.  I stand by it.  I say everyone just needs to settle down and start studying this stuff because it could provide huge benefits and physical therapy benefits and things like that if we just accepted the fact that our brains are a little different and that's just the deal.

Josh Clark:    Yeah.  Our brains are different but they're also trainable.

Chuck Bryant:    True.

Josh Clark:    If a girl was told she was bad in Math and she decided that she wanted to take a lot of Math classes, I guarantee you she would excel at Math.

Chuck Bryant:    And I could probably train my brain to be more spatially oriented as far as maps and directions go.

Josh Clark:    Do it.

Chuck Bryant:    I don’t care because now I have GPS and Emily to tell me I'm dumb.

Josh Clark:    Let's see.  You got anything else?

Chuck Bryant:    I don’t.  Embrace the differences people.  That's what I say.

Josh Clark:    That's very nice.

Chuck Bryant:    I stick behind that.

Josh Clark:    If you want to learn more about embracing differences specifically with the male and female brain you can type that into the search bar at howstuffworks.com.  It will bring up this article and since I said search bar I guess it's time for listener mail.

Chuck Bryant:    Before we do listener mail buddy let's talk about stamps.com.

Josh Clark:    Let's.

Chuck Bryant:    Mailing and shipping are a super important part of running any kind of business especially a small business and it can actually get in the way of growing your business if you're a small business because you're always at the Post Office.

Josh Clark:    So use stamps.com instead right?

Chuck Bryant:    Exactly.

Josh Clark:    With stamps.com everything you would do at the Post Office you can do right from your desk.  Buy and print official U.S. postage for any letter or package using your own computer and printer.  Stamps.com will send you a digital scale so you don’t have to do any of the calculating.  This thing does – it calculates the exact postage for you.

Chuck Bryant:    It sounds like buddy we may never have to go to the Post Office again because we go to stamps.com or even have to lease one of those postage meters because they're not cheap.

Josh Clark:    Chuck, tell them about the special offer.

Chuck Bryant:    Well the special offer buddy is promo code stuff.  It's a no risk trial plus $110.00 bonus offer which includes that scale we were talking about and up to $55.00 in free postage.

Josh Clark:    That is awesome so don’t wait.  Go to stamps.com before you do anything else.  Click on the microphone at the top of the home page and type in s-t-u-f-f.  It's stamps.com, enter stuff.  And now it's time for listener mail right?

Chuck Bryant:    All right.  This is from – I'm going to call this Stuff You Should Know jingle.  We've got a jingle written for us.

Josh Clark:    I can't wait to start using this.

Chuck Bryant:    Hey pals, I play music for a living mostly up in Canada.  On a recent tour down to south by southwestern Austin our keyboard player Alex introduced me to the podcast.  And I'd heard that word podcast I honestly never knew what it was.

Josh Clark:    Way to go Alex.

Chuck Bryant:    I spent the next two nights listening to Stuff You Should Know every moment that I could, really made the drives go by a lot of faster and love that you guys can make any topic very interesting.  I had a lot of time to kill so I listened to nearly 30 episodes in just under a week.  So anyway guys one of the last episodes I was listening to was how a commercial jingle works.  I think josh mentioned under his breath that he wished you guys had a jingle.  So I got home, I wrote you a jingle.

Josh Clark:    Awesome.

Chuck Bryant:    I tried to combine the familiarity of something like the Cheers theme song with the immediacy and simplicity of a commercial jingle.  I hope you enjoy it.  Glad I discovered the show and I'll be listening as long as you're talking.  And this bit of goodness is from Rusty Matyas, sorry Rusty, from Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada, North America, U.S.A.  And so we want to play the little jingle right now and we may try to work this in somehow and use this on the show.

Josh Clark:    I think we're absolutely going to.  This thing is gold.

Chuck Bryant:    You ready everyone?

Josh Clark:    Here it is.

Chuck Bryant:    Here we go.

Josh Clark:    That was pretty awesome.

Chuck Bryant:    That's great.  We've got our own jingle.

Josh Clark:    Let's do it again.  Again it's great.  It's even better the second time.  So I think that we should start using this.  hopefully you listeners will hear it pop up and thank you very much Rusty and thank you Alex for inadvertently giving us our own jingle.

Chuck Bryant:    Agreed.

Josh Clark:    [Inaudible].

Chuck Bryant:    Hey you said something under your breath.

Josh Clark:    I did.  If you want to send us a song or something or anything, whatever, if you just want to say hi don’t just say hi.  It's been done.  You can Tweet to us at sysk podcasts.  You can join us on facebook.com/stuffyoushouldknow.  You can send us a good old fashioned email to stuffpodcast@discovery.com and join us on our good old fashioned website, home of Stuff You Should Know, the animated series, a blog, tons of other great stuff.  You can find that at stuffyoushouldknow.com.

Recording:    For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com.

[End of Audio]

Duration: 26 minutes

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