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It's All About Hormones

I'm now more willing to discuss the differences between male and female energy because I'm finally finding some scientific research to back me up. Science is discovering that hormones not only influence our physical characteristics, they also influence our thoughts and emotional responses. For example, I wrote an article in Nature's Field last year on the role of oxytocin in creating family bonding. In a similar manner, estrogen and testosterone not only account for the physical differences between the sexes, they also account for the mental and emotional differences. So, don't blame social conditioning -hormones are the culprit.

I feel very comfortable in calling traits programmed by estrogen “feminine” and traits programmed by testosterone “masculine.” I mean if estrogen isn't feminine and testosterone isn't masculine, what is? What complicates the picture is the fact that we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our bodies. So, we are all a blend of masculine and feminine energies. Again, there should be no judgment about that. We are who and what we are, and our unique blend of talents and abilities makes us able to do things that other people who do not have that blend of talents and abilities could not do.

Masculine and feminine behavior traits are programmed in the brain in the womb. During fetal development, if the brain receives more testosterone, it will be programmed with certain masculine traits. More estrogen during these same stages of development will program the brain with more feminine traits. So, the “tom boy” girl or the “mama's boy” male child may simply have had a slightly different blend of hormones during development.

What further complicates this picture is the fluctuations in hormone levels we experience during our life. The surge of hormones during puberty is one major hormonal shift that we all recognize. However, there is a second major hormonal shift that takes place in midlife. For women this is called menopause, but men undergo a similar shift that has traditionally been called a midlife crisis but is increasingly being referred to as andropause.

During this secondary life-shift women's estrogen-levels are programmed to drop and testosterone becomes more dominant. Men have a similar shift in which testosterone levels fall and estrogen becomes more dominant. This is why many women start a career and become more assertive at this stage of life, while many men want to stay at home more, gardening or tending grandchildren. In other words, we are programmed for a partial reversal of roles after the childbearing years are passed. Nature is obviously very fair, but because we do not understand this secondary life transition, we have both men and women panicking and resisting this important life transition.

Why Men Don't Listen

Grabbed your attention, ladies, didn't I? Actually, I borrowed that heading from the title of a book I recently read. The full title was: Why Men Don't Listen And Women Can't Read Maps. Is anybody insulted yet? (When I mentioned this book at a recent class, one of the female students piped up that the book had to be written by a man. Obviously she thought the part about reading maps was sexist. Interesting that nobody objected to the “men don't listen” part.)

The book, fortunately, was written by both a man and a woman-a married couple, in fact-who spent several years traveling the world and researching this topic. The authors, Barbara and Allen Pease, claim the information has really helped their marriage because they better understand the differences in the way they perceive the world.

So, let's examine a few of the differences estrogen and testosterone program into our brains. Remember that it is entirely possible for a female brain to have a lot of masculine wiring and for a male brain to have a lot of female wiring, so we are talking generalities here, not about specific individuals. If you can keep this in mind, you can avoid being offended unnecessarily. Besides, it's high time we men got to use the hormonal excuse for some of our behaviors. (That's equality, folks!)

Hunters and Gatherers

In traditional societies, men were hunters, and generally speaking, testosterone programs the body and brain for hunting. Hunting requires the ability to select a target and pursue it without distraction. Men had to leave the village, find the game, kill it, and return again. Men also had to calculate size, distance, speed, direction and other factors necessary to aim at and hit a target. Testosterone programs the brain with skills for this type of activity.

In these same societies, women were the gatherers. They not only tended the children, they had to be alert to the possibilities of predators or other dangers to the village. They also gathered useful materials from their surroundings to make life comfortable-a kind of nest-building instinct. Estrogen programs the brain with skills needed for these types of activities.

Here are some specific examples: Estrogen programs the brain to have wider peripheral vision, while testosterone programs a kind of tunnel vision. As a result, men tend to focus on a goal and move towards it, oblivious to other things going on around them. In contrast, women see more details and obtain more subtle information about their environment. They are much more aware of their surroundings and pick up subtle clues that men simply don't perceive. This explains why, generally speaking, men can navigate their way around a strange city but can't see their socks in the drawer.

Another hormonally programmed difference involves skin sensitivity. Women's skin is more sensitive to touch than a man's skin. In fact, women as a whole are ten times more sensitive to pressure on the skin than men. Here again, a women's senses are more attuned to the environment than a man's. Pursuing a goal (hunting) requires one not to be distracted by unnecessary sensations or situations, so testosterone programs a “thick-skinned” nature. In fact, the most “thick-skinned” woman is about as sensitive as the most “thin-skinned” man.

Women often interpret this lack of sensory sensitivity as a lack of emotional commitment on the part of males. They assume that the male is picking senses or “sees” the same subtle clues they are seeing and is simply ignoring them, i.e., being insensitive. The truth is, the testosterone-programmed male doesn't have a clue as to what the estrogen-programmed female is talking about because his sensory systems aren't “fine-tuned” enough to pick those things up. Give him a “bear” to kill (i.e., some problem to solve) and he'll probably gladly do it to prove his love and devotion, but expect him to pick up on subtle emotional changes and he'll feel frustrated and unsuccessful because it is a problem he can't solve. His thick skin and tunnel vision just aren't equipped to cope with this kind of task.

Communication Skills

Estrogen also programs the brain for better speech and communication skills. If you are going to get along in the village you have to be able to communicate. Testosterone-programmed brains are programmed for brief, get to the point, no frills communication. In other words, solve the problem and move on. Estrogen-programmed brains tend to love more verbal socializing and indirect, feeling-oriented communication.

An estrogen-dominant brain, observing that the garbage can is full and needs to be taken out might say, “The garbage can is pretty full.” A testosterone-dominant brain will acknowledge, “Yes, it is pretty full,” but fail to recognize the “hint” to take out the garbage. A more direct, “Please take out the garbage,” would probably elicit an immediate response because it is a form of communication testosterone-programmed brains can process.

On the other hand, estrogen-dominant women tend to perceive direct communication from males as “orders” and feel their ability to recognize the subtle messages has been insulted. So, “Gosh, I'm hungry” is likely to exhibit a better response from an estrogen-dominant brain than “Would you fix me something to eat?”

By now, you should have a better understanding of why women (as a group) are better listeners and communicators than men. There are lots of other differences, but let's look at one more-the skill area where testosterone-programmed brains out-perform estrogen-programmed brains-spatial reasoning ability. That's the skill involved at reading maps.

In tests involving spatial skills the very best females score similarly to some of the worst males. (Similar to the skin sensitivity thing, except this time the tables are reversed.) In fact, in subject areas that involve spatial skills women seldom even study them because their estrogen-programmed brains don't enjoy them. This is why all the occupations requiring spatial skills (such as engineers, race car drivers, flight engineers, pilots and air traffic controllers) are dominated by males. This has nothing to do with male tyranny over women. It has to do with how hormones have programmed our brains.


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