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.
Q. Do women have to be so careful around a man?
A. When it comes to the brain, there’s a male reality and a female reality. And knowing those realities can help us in our relationships. It can move us beyond just being politically correct. Remember, the purpose of hormones is to make a certain behavior more likely to happen. So it’s very good to know how the other person sees the world. My hope is that I am helping women see the world through male-colored glasses. Men’s brains are literally different than ours.
Q. Have you changed any of your own behavior toward men as a result of your research?
A. Definitely. I’ve become much more forgiving of men. I grew up in the feminist movement, at UC Berkeley, in the 1970s. Our view of men was pretty negative at the time. They were the enemy. That tonality has really softened in me because of what I’ve learned through my research. You want to see the world from the perspective of the people you love. And for mothers of boys, or for grandmothers of boys, the brain science can help us move in that direction.
Q. When it comes to parenting teenage boys, you say it’s vital to “disengage without disengaging.” How does one do that?
A. Obviously a lot depends on the personality and skill set of your particular teen. But you need to stay engaged while taking half a step back. Let your son try his wings a little; then take another half a step back to see how he does. Keep doing this. It’s a type of hovering, but it also means keeping your mouth shut a lot. Let your son have some of his own space, his own thoughts. Let him employ some trial and error with things that aren’t dangerous or unsafe. Once I said to my own son early in his teenage years—and he’s now 19—“Honey, I’m just trying to help you copilot your plane.” I thought I was being really clever.
Q. How did he respond?
A. I’ll never forget it. He said, “Mom, if you want to do that, then get out of the pilot seat.” That taught me a lot! The reality is, we have to let our boys fly a bit, but we have to keep our binoculars trained on them.
Q. And be ready to parachute in, if need be?
A. Yes. And I say that to you still struggling, myself, to do the right thing, even now.
Q. Tell us about the “doting grandfather brain.”
A. Yes. There’s a gut connection, a body connection, that grandparents have to their grandchildren. They are the continuation of your gene pool, after all. Grandparents have so much love for their grandkids. Obviously they’re very glad that they no longer have to change the diapers or do the carpooling or deal with all the homework, but they’re very engaged with their grandchildren’s minds nevertheless. The biological reaction of grandparents to their grandchildren can be pretty intense. The grandparent brain is formed through interactions, through what I call face-to-face time, or body time, with grandchildren. It’s formed from spending actual physical time with them. It’s very important.
Q. What if a grandfather doesn’t live close enough to visit often?
A. When grandparents can’t physically be there, I recommend using Skype, the computer software that allows you to see and talk to people in real time. It’s a wonderful way to stay connected to the kids. I’m a step-grandmother myself—my husband and I have a blended family. His two daughters are in their mid-40s, and we have three grandchildren. My husband will go on Skype with them three or four days a week. That way they have a little face-to-face time at the end of many, many school days. Even that little bit of visual contact keeps the bonds between them strong.
Q. What else should parents or grandparents know about boys’ brains?
A. When the sullen adolescent boy disappears into his room to play video games, he’s not rejecting you, necessarily. He just likes to play his video games. They stimulate his brain, much more so than homework. My advice is to try to engage with him through his media. Ask him to show you the game.
Be patient. Sit next to him and watch him play. It’s probably best not to try to play against him—you’re going to be really bad! But if you engage a little with your boy on those things, he’ll feel that you understand a part of his life that you wouldn’t otherwise. I also suggest using cellphones for texting.
Q. Right. E-mailing is so “yesterday” to them.
A. Yes. Save the e-mail for your grown children. I really encourage parents or grandparents to get a little into the interactive world of the kids today. Text a “happy birthday” message to your grandchildren’s cellphones if you can’t see them for their birthday. Or text a “happy summer vacation” message, or other messages, just so that you engage in their world and become present to them. That is so important.
Maureen Mackey is a writer and editor from New York.