If you are a man, perhaps you have wondered why your wife, girlfriend, mother, sister and even a female friend remembers everything you said to her or promised. You also may have been surprised why women are better than men when it comes to memory tests.
If you are female, chances are you have also wondered why men tend to outperform women in spatial tasks and motor skills—such as map reading or driving. Wonder no more. Scientists have found the answer.
A pioneering study has shown, for the first time, that the brains of men and women are wired differently—which could explain some of the stereotypical differences in male and female behaviour, the United Kingdom’s The Independent newspaper reported yesterday, quoting research by scientists.
According to the newspaper, researchers found that many of the connections in a typical male brain run between the front and the back of the same side of the brain, whereas in women the connections are more likely to run from side to side between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
This difference in the way the nerve connections in the brain are “hardwired” occurs during adolescence when many of the secondary sexual characteristics such as facial hair in men and breasts in women develop under the influence of sex hormones, the study found.
The researchers believe the physical differences between the two sexes in the way the brain is hardwired could play an important role in understanding why men are in general better at spatial tasks involving muscle control while women are better at verbal tasks involving memory and intuition.
Psychological testing has consistently indicated a significant difference between the sexes in the ability to perform various mental tasks, with men outperforming women in some tests and women outperforming men in others. Now there seems to be a physical explanation, according to scientists.
The UK newspaper said, quoting Ragini Verma, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia: “These maps show us a stark difference—and complementarity—in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others.
“What we’ve identified is that, when looked at in groups, there are connections in the brain that are hardwired differently in men and women. Functional tests have already shown than when they carry out certain tasks, men and women engage different parts of the brain.”
The research was carried out on 949 individuals—521 females and 428 males—aged between eight and 22. The brain differences between the sexes became apparent only after adolescence, the study found.
A special brain-scanning technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which can measure the flow of water along a nerve pathway, established the level of connectivity between nearly 100 regions of the brain, creating a neural map of the brain called the “connectome”, Prof Verma said.
“It tells you whether one region of the brain is physically connected to another part of the brain and you can get significant differences between two populations,” Prof Verma said. “In women, most of the connections go between left and right across the two hemispheres while in men most of the connections go between the front and the back of the brain.”
Because the female connections link the left hemisphere, which is associated with logical thinking, with the right, which is linked with intuition, this could help to explain why women tend to do better than men at intuitive tasks.
Prof Verma added: “Intuition is thinking without thinking. It’s what people call gut feelings. Women tend to be better than men at these kinds of skill which are linked with being good mothers.”
Many previous psychological studies have revealed significant differences between the sexes in the ability to perform various cognitive tests.
Men tend to outperform women in tasks involving spatial tasks and motor skills—such as map reading—while women tend to do better in memory tests, such as remembering words and faces, and social cognition tests, which try to measure empathy and “emotional intelligence”.