Why Men Just Don’t Understand Women
Turns out, the average guy doesn’t know jack about the female brain
By: Louann Brizendine, M.D. & Charles Hirshberg
I know it sounds trippy, but it’s true, and if you want to understand the mysteries of the female brain, you need to accept it. Throughout the ?rst 2 months of pregnancy, every embryonic brain is wired for girlhood. If that embryo has female genes, its brain will continue to develop with little interruption. But in a case like yours, all hell breaks loose in the third month, as a pair of extremely tiny testicles begins to send squirts of testosterone through your developing body.
Read Her Mind: An explanation of her most important sex organ
As the hormone enters the nascent brain, it will arrest development in certain regions and stimulate growth in others–notably, the ones that govern your sexual appetite.
That’s just the beginning, for after you’re born, the sex cabinets in your male brain just keep expanding. Indeed, the portion of your hypothalamus that governs sexual pursuit will grow larger and stronger until you reach adulthood. Scientists are unsure of its exact size in humans, but in other mammals, it’s known to be as much as seven times larger in males than in females. It has been estimated that the sex circuits in a typical man’s brain light up once a minute–much more often than a woman’s.
Scary, ain’t it?
Don’t worry, I’m here to help. I’m a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, and for years I’ve had this fantasy: I’m in a classroom that’s stuffed to the rafters with men, all of them listening attentively to my seminar on the female brain. They have good reason to listen–and so do you. You’ve probably heard it said that the most important sexual organ in a woman’s body is her brain. It’s not just a cliché. It’s a biological fact. And after spending 2 decades counseling thousands of couples about their intimate lives, I know that the average man doesn’t know jack about the female brain.
But what if you did know something about what goes on in that mysterious organ? Can you imagine the misunderstandings you might avoid and the rewards that might come your way?
Here’s the best part: I predict that the woman in your life will see as many benefits from these revelations as you do–not only in her sex life, but in all your mutual attempts to build bridges across the gender gap.
Lesson 1: Love’s Stop Sign
A woman’s brain is, in fact, roughly 10 percent smaller than a man’s. But it turns out that in brains, as in so many things, size doesn’t always matter. Women’s brains contain the same number of neurons as men’s; they’re just packaged together more firmly and tightly, like breasts in a bustier, you might say. And in a few unique areas–particularly those involving love, sex, and child rearing–the differences are as significant as those that distinguish our bodies. Every brain is intricately hardwired to satisfy the reproductive needs of its sex. And, at times, the differences in our wiring can cause some pretty spectacular collisions.
You know the kinds of collisions I mean–the ones that, unfortunately, always seem to happen when the big-date preliminaries are over, and you’re alone with the woman of your dreams. At first, everything goes beautifully: You find a private, intimate spot. The two of you commence smooching. You kiss her lightly behind the ear, and she giggles with appreciation.
After a few minutes of that, your hands glide softly across her shoulders and massage that magnificent, polished skin beneath her shirt. She coos, and your wandering hands encounter no resistance. Finally, the tiny third-base coach in your brain starts waving you frantically toward home plate, and of course you obey–he’s the coach. Your eager paw steals down the third-base line, cheating into foul territory.
“Stop right there,” she growls. You’rrrrrre OUT!
Now all you can do is stare at her like some big-eyed, drooling dog that’s been caught trying to steal a pork chop off a kitchen counter. You feel like the loneliest man on Earth.
And yet, you’re not alone. Such disasters are as old as dating itself, and almost as common. All too frequently, they’re caused by the differing biological underpinnings in our brains. And the better you understand those differences, the better she’ll welcome the touch of your south-sliding hand.
One such difference begins with a network of cells that starts at the base of your brain and runs all the way down your spine until it reaches your genitals, stimulating your sexual response. Now, you might suppose this job would require a huge number of cells–millions, even. Actually, it takes only three, each of them as long as your spine and microscopic in diameter. Remarkable? Not so much, when you consider that a woman’s nervous system accomplishes the task with just one neuron. To put it another way, your sex circuits are three times fatter than hers.
In fact, nearly every difference in the brains of males and females affects love and sex in one way or another. Her anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC–a region involved in fretting over options, including whether or not she should risk going up to your apartment–is, predictably, larger than yours. Her prefrontal cortex–essentially the brain’s nanny, which tries to prevent her from making a fool of herself–is larger than yours, too. So is her hippocampus, which preserves in her memory all those minute details of romantic events that you catch hell for forgetting.
As a result of the unique requirements of pregnancy and nursing, women have evolved to consent to sex mainly with mates who are likely to be devoted to them and their children. Males, on the other hand, evolved to regard sex as pretty much all upside, regardless of the mom-worthiness of their partners. This contrast in our evolutionary goals, etched deep in our brains, continues to cause no end to conflict between the sexes.
The old cliché that men are animals is certainly true. But women are animals, too. It’s just that a woman’s animal nature expresses itself differently than a man’s, because of differences in their brains. And your best bet for success is to bear that in mind.
Lesson 2: The Tickle In Her Tummy
Once upon a time, a white-hot, deliciously nubile, very young actress told a reporter that kissing her boyfriend gave her “a tickle in [her] tummy.” A snarky men’s magazine made this memorable reply: “That’s not your tummy, dear. . . .”
Well, that just shows how little most men know about women.
Let’s get back to that date of yours–the woman who stopped you dead in the base paths. When dinner began, you weren’t sure where you stood with her. Then, somewhere between the Caesar salad and the steak au poivre, your eyes locked and sparks flew.
Here’s why: Her eyes sent a vision of your adorable self zipping down a superhighway called the lateral geniculate nucleus, or LGN, all the way to her primary visual cortex. Immediately, her cerebral cortex–which takes up the entire top floor of the brain and is responsible for most of our logical calculations–began a lightning-fast analysis.
Congratulations! The cortex registered you as a hunk, so her amygdala lit up like a firecracker. Her hypothalamus ordered her testosterone spigots to open up, triggering sexual arousal–often described by women as “rolling in my stomach.” (Or for the nubile actress, “a tickle in my tummy.”) A woman’s need to quickly evaluate this rumbling in her gut (caused by sloshing blood in the lower abdomen) might be one reason the insula, where “gut reactions” are processed, is both larger and more active in women.
You might say that her brain is looking for reasons not to select you as a mate. The testosterone and dopamine that washed over her brain when she recognized your hunkishness will, for a short time at least, inhibit the sadder-but-wiser parts of her brain that weigh and worry about risks.
From here on out, your job, essentially, is not to blow it.
Before we cover the many ways you might blow it, though, we can concentrate on what leads a skeptical female to make a gut reaction in your favor. Her state of attraction–which so often seems to occur by accident, or even by magic–is mostly a matter of biology.
David M. Buss, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and the author of The Evolution of Desire, has amassed an extraordinary trove of data on the mating preferences of thousands of people from a wide variety of cultures. His findings, and those of many other researchers, leave little doubt that many of the qualities that attract a woman to a mate are hardwired into the brain.
For instance, women throughout the world almost always prefer men who are older (by 31/2 years, on average) and taller (by an average of 4 inches). And though they might not admit it, or even consciously realize it, most women are more interested in the size of a man’s wallet, and his reputation, than in any part of his body.
But these factors are far less important than the evolutionary logic that underlies them. It’s a safe bet that a woman doesn’t admire a man’s money as much as his willingness to use it on her behalf. Think of a male bird impressing a female by building her a nest; that’s the sort of signal you want to send, and sometimes you can do it just by cheerfully picking up the dinner tab. By the same logic, it is maturity, particularly in the area of commitment, that she’s usually looking for, not a man who’s had more birthdays than she.
Much of the basic definition of handsomeness, too, is hardwired into the female brain. Studies of both sexes have shown the importance of symmetry in the facial features; symmetry in the body; and symmetry in clothing as well as in grooming.
Pay attention, men. Few women, of any culture, will date a man with uneven sideburns.
Lesson 3: Your Friend, Oxytocin
As Sigmund Freud lay on his deathbed, he is said to have murmured a famous question that every man ought to ask (preferably before he’s nearly dead): “Women–what do they want?”
Sexually speaking, the answer is, they want you to slow down!
Think about your trembling hand moving toward paradise. That, my too-eager friend, is where you blew it. Blame her amygdala–the same amygdala that screamed to her hypothalamus that you were a hunk. It’s screaming a cautionary message now, schooled by millions of years of natural selection. It’s warning her ACC that a quick decision must be made about your groping hand–and that the wrong decision could have disastrous consequences. So the female brain sends visceral instructions to the female mouth, which issues this visceral response: “STOP!”
The point, gentlemen: You’re not likely to make progress with a lady until you lower the voltage in her amygdala and sweet-talk her ACC into concluding that you are safe. And that takes time.
Like most of our instinctual behaviors, sex is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This intricate network of neurons is divided into distinct divisions, the busiest being the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, each wired to produce vastly different, and in many cases opposite, behaviors. For instance, if you opened the drawer of your desk and a hissing cobra popped out, your sympathetic nervous system would make your heart beat like crazy and kickstart your adrenaline pumps. But you would have very little appetite for food–and even less for sex.
That’s because sexual arousal is under the exclusive control of the parasympathetic nervous system, which also controls everything related to the enjoyment of food and the digestion of it. Imagine yourself, after a delicious dinner, settling down by the fireside with a glass of wine while a beautiful woman snuggles up next to you. It’s your parasympathetic nervous system that’s in overdrive now. Your heart beats in a slow, relaxed rhythm, you feel content, secure . . . and ready for love.
Now you can begin to see why a wrong move on your part can so completely spoil the mood. Caress her, compliment her, and relax her, and you’ll turn up her parasympathetic nervous system; she’ll smile, she’ll smooch, she might even coo. Parasympathetic impulses from her brain and elsewhere are prompting the release of a wicked cocktail of ligands (hormones and other chemicals that carry messages through the body) directly into her sex organs. This cocktail stimulates the release of vaginal lubricants and opens blood vessels in the labia and vagina, causing them to swell.
All systems are go!
But then you do something stupid, like force the issue. In that case, you will ignite her amygdala, agitate her ACC, and rouse her sympathetic nervous system–which means her parasympathetic nervous system goes off-line. At that point, it is biologically impossible for her to become sexually aroused. Once the mood is broken, you’re going to have to work extra hard to bring her back. It can be done, provided you learn to coax a particular ligand–oxytocin–into working its magic on her brain.
Love, desire, and sexual fulfillment are stimulated by ligands, and though our scientific understanding of their processes is still in its infancy, the little we do know is extremely useful. For instance, men have far more of a ligand called vasopressin, which gives men a laser focus on the object of their love. Studies on animals show that a male’s level of vasopressin rises sharply during sex.
Another ligand that increases during sex: oxytocin. Along with estrogen, oxytocin in women plays much the same role in forming attachments as vasopressin plays in men. But the feelings it creates are quite different. Vasopressin tends to produce sensations of longing. Oxytocin, by contrast, produces a feeling of well-being, a desire to nurture, and a sense of trust. So an excellent way to soothe a woman’s ACC and turn up her parasympathetic nervous system is to raise her levels of oxytocin.
How do you do that? With a nice long hug, for starters. Studies have found that a hug from a partner will produce an oxytocin rush in a woman’s brain–but only if that hug lasts 20 seconds or more. And just about everything that falls under the general heading of “foreplay” is likely to produce a similar effect–provided she’s into you and you do it long enough.
The effects of oxytocin can be incredibly disarming to a woman. Female animals injected with the stuff seem to throw caution to the wind and cuddle up with the first available male. And that is why, when women ask me for advice about men, I warn them, “Don’t hug the guy unless you plan to trust him.”
Lesson 4: Love and Ecstasy
Not much is known about what makes female orgasms happen, at least from a neurological perspective. We do know that an orgasm is essentially a conversation between the clitoris and the nervous system, and that it occurs when a rush of feel-good chemicals washes over the brain.
We also know–or think we do–something about what can make a female orgasm elusive. Just as the sympathetic nervous system must be turned way down before a woman can become sexually aroused, it must be turned back up before she can climax. Only the sympathetic nervous system can achieve the powerful muscular contractions that accompany orgasm, drawing sperm into the cervix and increasing the chance of conception.
If the amygdala must be quieted for sexual arousal, it must be switched off entirely to allow the complex neurological maneuvers that make climaxing possible. Anything that spoils a woman’s concentration at this crucial juncture–bad breath, ill-timed drool, a noise–may stir the amygdala and that old worrywart the ACC, and make orgasm impossible.
But in the quest for climax, the two of you can recruit at least one powerful ally: love. A dose of that can be as powerful as a hit of Ecstasy. Really.
Most drugs produce highs by hijacking portions of the brain’s reward system. But Ecstasy in particular quiets both the amygdala’s ability to alert us to clear and present danger and the ACC’s skepticism about risks in general. Frequently, the result of both Ecstasy and love is a person heedless of the potential consequences of his or her actions–the very definition of a fool.
The upside for you, of course, is that a fool in love is likely to overlook many of your blemishes when you’re in the sack. This is not to suggest that if she loves you, she’ll climax. But it does help explain why so much of the world’s best sex is experienced by people in the pink-and-flush of newfound love.
Appropriately, a complex emotion like love requires a complex mixture of ligands to bring it off in the brain, and oxytocin, dopamine, and testosterone are just a few of those involved. Scientists are continually finding new ligands. One recent discovery is particularly worthy of note, since it shows not only where the joys of infatuation come from, but also why they die down.
Nerve growth factor is better known as “the love molecule.” Enzo Emanuele, M.D., of the University of Pavia, in Italy, discovered that couples who have been in love for a year or two have substantially more nerve growth factor than lonely hearts do. But he also found that in couples who’ve been in love for longer than 2 years, levels of this love molecule are no higher than in people who are not in love at all.
Lesson 5: Love Me, Love My Brain
It’s never a happy moment when a young couple discovers that the exhilarating dopamine-powered sexual chemistry of early romance is a temporary phenomenon. But it often cheers them up when I explain that the declining amplitude in their sex lives is perfectly normal and need not spell the end of a relationship. The most happily married couple you know may love each other as much as they ever have, but they probably don’t love each other in quite the same way as they did in the beginning.
The warmth and contentment of long-term love has clear biological differences from the jungle fire of romance. It is fed, in large measure, by surge upon surge of oxytocin, produced by the long stretches of routine physical closeness that happy couples take for granted. Anything that brings the two of you together–reading on the couch with her legs stretched across your knees, or watching TV with your heads resting together–can produce a splash of the stuff.
But “staying close” is no simple task. I often think of one couple who came to see me in hopes of saving their marriage. The woman–let’s call her Jane–had virtually stopped having sex with her husband, whom we’ll call Evan. They had both begun new jobs, and the hot wires that connected them had gradually gone cold. Jane never felt in the mood. Evan suspected she had a lover. Jane was thunderstruck. How could Evan imagine such a thing?
“Never in the mood” is one of the most common complaints women bring to my office, and one of the easiest to fix. It’s simply what happens when male and female brains miss the point with one another. It was natural for Evan, with his male brain bleating for sex once a minute, to assume that his wife had similar appetites that were being satisfied elsewhere. Jane had no idea that to the male brain, sex is as essential to a relationship as talking is.
We hashed this all out, they went home, then we all met in my office a week or two later. Their sex life was as hot as ever. But they no longer called it “sex”– they called it “male communication.”
And that is what I wish for you and the woman of your dreams–plenty of male communication.
7 Steps to the Bedroom
1. It starts when her eyes send your picture shooting down an information highway called the lateral geniculate nucleus, or LGN, all the way to her primary visual cortex, located in the back of her brain.
2. Then her cerebral cortex–the part of the brain responsible for logical decisions–rates your potential as a mate.
3. If her cerebral cortex likes what it sees . . .
4.. . . it sends a signal to her fiery amygdala, which, in turn, shouts the good news to . . .
5.. . . her hypothalamus. This hormonal air-traffic controller then sets off a release of testosterone that . . .
6.. . . washes over her brain’s worry center, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), signaling it to relax and let her enjoy herself.
7. Bingo! Sexual attraction! As her brain celebrates this good news, her hypothalamus is set to “ready,” preparing her for sex–blood begins sloshing around in her abdomen, ready to prime her vagina. But if you try to move too quickly, her amygdala will shout a warning to her ACC, and you’ll wind up sleeping by yourself.
By: Louann Brizendine, M.D. & Charles Hirshberg