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Move over, Natalie!
on December 29, 2006
A few years ago, New York Times science writer Natalie Angier produced "Woman: An Intimate Geography". The book was intended to explain many facets of a woman's body, and was a good comprehensive account, sorely overdue. However, except for some discussion of hormonal influences, the book tended to skim over the brain's role. Louann Brizendine takes up that slack with enthusiasm and deep experience. As founder of a clinic dealing with women's health and behaviour issues, she's adept at explaining complex issues clearly. She relates her own studies and that of many researchers [seventy pages of "References" impart that!], nearly all of it of recent vintage. As such, this is the most up-to-date and comprehensive study of how the female brain develops that is available today.
The author reminds us that all human brains start out female. Until the Y chromosome's genes begin transforming the embryo by a cascade of hormonal signals, all the brain cells are XX, the default. Then males and females are sent down the separate tracks of sex development. As much distinction as we see between males and females, the hidden differences in the brain are easily as significant, if not more so. Brizendine explains the triggers launching the conditions found in the female brain, showing how different ratios of neurotransmitters between males and females assist in guiding them along their separate paths.
From the growing embryo, the author moves on to the child's years and through adolescence, adulthood and the grandmother years. At the outset, it's clear that a woman's biological signals are strong and persistent, even if sometimes inconsistent. There are strong evolutionary roots to why women's "moods" are as they are and some of these are manifest in other animals, a point Angier dismissed scornfully. A woman's level of empathy with others is far higher than a man's. She develops a sense of reconciliation to prevent or avoid danger to herself and her offspring. Preparation for this outlook begins early. Females bond with other females at a young age, reflecting their tendency for negotiation and conciliation. Little girls group in the sandbox or schoolyard, while boys are more willing to act alone. In groups, boys will contest for leadership spots, while girls tend to act concertedly. A "leadership" role, if taken up in a girl's clique, may rotate among its members. This may result from "talking out" an issue among the girls. With females uttering nearly three times the number of words per day than men do, talking out a situation comes more naturally even to the young.
Once the devastating chemical storms of adolescence quiet down, entering adulthood doesn't mean hormonal fluctuations level off. Instead, the estrus cycle brings a wave of chemical flows that "marinate the brain" with new varieties. During adolescence, a spurt of new cells is generated in the brain. Specific centres, such as that for speech, enlarge and have greater influence on behaviour. Love enters the picture and issues of sex and commitment become prominent. It is in these sections of the book that Brizendine's clinical experience is best brought forth. Running a clinic in San Francisco on "Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic" brings her in frequent contact with the results of the female brain's chemical machinations. As she depicts the circumstances of a client's condition, Brizendine is able to take the reader along on imaginary trips into the female brain to explain which chemicals are performing which tasks. Levels of dopamine, estrogen, testosterone and cortisol are being adjusted by the hypothalamus and amygdala in reaction to various prompts. It's a busy place in there, with little "down time" for the working chemists.
One form of apparent reduced capacity is due to the onset of depression. Studies of depression in women go back many years, but only recently have the neurochemical aspects been discovered. Although there are many causes for depression, menopause is a consistently fundamental one. Brizendine, after a lengthy examination of the issue, concludes that estrogen therapy, initiated as soon as menopause - which "technically lasts for only twenty-four hours" - is applied promptly. Delay renders the therapy useless, perhaps even dangerous. Beyond the general text, the author provides an Epilogue and three Appendixes to address further the issues of hormone therapy, depression and sexual orientation. The package Brizendine has put together is expressive and informative. There are many areas where she concedes "we don't know why" which will surely be attended to by the research this book will spur. While this book may someday be outdated, it's an excellent summation of what we know now - and which a good many should learn about. Read this book to find out why. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]