Do men and women think differently?

by Fiona Rae / 11 March, 2018

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Nathan Wallis with rally driver Emma Gilmour.

New local science series All in the Mind examines the differences between the male and female brain.

Hold the phone: someone with a New Zealand accent is talking about science. Are we in oppositeland?

Admittedly, All in the Mind (Prime, Sunday, 8.30pm) is a one-off and probably won’t be the beginning of a science-TV revival. That’s just wishful – and unscientific – thinking.

But how we wish it were a series, because brain development specialist Nathan Wallis, with his charming Southland rolling Rs, is a natural on camera as he investigates the differences between the male and female brain.

Dangerous waters, you might think, but everyone that Wallis buttonholes in the street for comment says definitely, yes, absolutely, no question about it, men and women think differently. One charmer even claims that men “are more superior” and “know a bit more”.

There is a perception that men are more practical, women more emotional. Men are more aggressive and risk-taking, women are more cautious and better at multitasking.

Maybe that’s so, but how much of that behaviour is down to the differences in our brains – which are “very small”, according to Ian Kirk, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Auckland – and how much is a matter of environment and expectation?

Wired up for brain testing.

Wallis’s investigation features experiments with a female rally driver and with mothers and babies that illustrate how we treat girl and boy babies differently. Also, even if parents are aware of placing the same expectations on girls and boys, they’re not the only ones in their children’s lives.

“We’ve got parents, grandparents, friends, aunties, uncles – many of those people like to fuel those gender stereotypes,” says University of Auckland psychologist Annette Henderson. “Then you’ve got toys that children interact with and the media and lots of other social pressures.”

One person who knows something about having an untypical female or male brain is intersex activist and counsellor Mani Bruce Mitchell, who was raised as a girl but didn’t feel particularly male or female. “I realised I had learnt the performance of being female,” says Mitchell. “I didn’t really work out who I was until my forties.”

There is an area where there are striking differences in male and female brains, and that’s neurological disorders. Men are more likely to suffer from Parkinson’s, women from Alzheimer’s. There are clear differences between boys and girls with autism, and ADHD is three times more common in boys.

This article was first published in the March 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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