Have you ever wondered how the man in your life—husband, son, grandson, brother, uncle, friend ... you—thinks? Why do male heads automatically turn when a beautiful woman walks by? Why do sporting events often sound like a gathering of Neanderthals? And why, why won’t men ever ask for directions?
No matter the man—or his age—you’ll want to pay attention to the information and advice from Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist and author of the new book The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think. Brizendine is a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and founder of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic, the country’s first clinic to study gender differences in brain, behavior and hormones. Her earlier book, The Female Brain, shared insights on female behavior by connecting hormonal biology and brain structures. Her new book does the same for men, by exploring male-specific psychology in all phases of life.
The four years that Brizendine spent researching this book paid off not just professionally, but also personally, in her own key relationships, she told the AARP Bulletin. And she could very well change the way you see moody teenage boys, grumpy husbands and doting grandfathers.
Q. When a boy hits puberty, we can see the physical changes, but we can’t see inside his brain. What’s going on in there?
A. The brain circuits of boys in the 9 to 15 age group resemble springtime in New York. The circuitry that’s been lying dormant since that boy was about a year old is starting to flower, blossom and make new connections with all of the trees and branches around it. The billions of neurons in the brain are “going live” as his testosterone level billows twentyfold. That brain circuitry will continue to change until the boy is about 19 to 21 years old.
Q. So when you write that the “male’s brain is structured to push sexual pursuit to the forefront of his mind,” that’s all part of this incredible growth process.
A. In the human male brain, there’s an area in the hypothalamus for sexual pursuit that is 2.5 times larger than in the human female brain. In other mammals, like the rat, the male brain is six times larger. So, yes, the area meant for sexual pursuit starts to gear up and be fueled by testosterone in the teenage boy’s brain and continues for the rest of a man’s life. The testosterone, in turn, stimulates a hormone called vasopressin, which contributes to making a male territorial. And when those two hormones mix with the stress hormone cortisol, they supercharge the male’s brain and his body, preparing him for the fight-or-flight response.
Q. Those are some pretty charged-up brain circuits.
A. You know how in a sports bar, the TV is always on in the background? That is essentially a man’s brain—always humming along. But if a voluptuous female walks by, his attention is diverted. A man has to learn how to control that, which can take a while. That’s why I always advise younger women in the work force: Choose your wardrobe carefully. If you wear a plunging neckline to a business dinner or cocktail hour, a part of the male brain is going to focus on that. Certainly it’s nice to be an attractive female noticed by men, generally, but knowing about the male brain and how it’s different than the female brain is very important for women overall.
Q. What’s the biological advantage of this wiring?
A. Nature made the male brain the way it did for a reason. As soon as there’s an opportunity for sexual pursuit or for sexual activity, the man is ready. He doesn’t want to blow any chances. It’s not that men have bad intentions. It’s how they’re wired.
Q. You say that when a man’s partner is critical of him, the brain actually puts him on the defensive.
A. Most men just want to make you happy. They want to please you. So when you criticize them, their goal of making you happy has been destroyed. It’s as if you said to a dog, “bad boy.” None of us likes to be criticized. But too many critical remarks or corrections can demoralize a man. It’s disaffirming to him. If you’re going to be critical, make sure you give more than enough praise and compliments.