Several decades ago, some researchers believed that men and women are essentially the same when it comes to cognition and that what made them different is how they were treated by their parents and society. However, studies have found that no matter how they are treated, men and women have innate differences.
The physical aspects are some of the most obvious qualities that differentiate men and women. Here are a few of them:
While women’s brains are 8 percent smaller than men’s, they have more interconnections. Consequently, women are better at situational thinking and looking at things as a whole. On the other hand, men are better at specific tasks, such as solving problems, and predicting patterns based on the spatial relationship of objects. (1)
Men’s brains age faster than women’s since they lose more of the cortex and they do so at a faster rate. In addition, as they age, the volume of grey matter in the male brain diminishes faster, which may be why men are more likely to develop neuropsychiatric disorders as they grow older. (2)
Composition of the retina
Men and women look at things differently, literally. This is because of the differences in the composition of their retinas.
Men have thicker retinas with more magnocellular cells, which are larger and are spread out across the retina. Magnocellular cells are involved in tracking the movement of objects.
Women have thinner retinas with more parvocellular cells, which are smaller and more concentrated around the center of the retina. Parvocellular cells are involved in identifying objects and analyzing their texture and color. (3)
The sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen, determine the differences in the facial features of men and women.
Men who have high levels of testosterone in their systems tend to have stronger brows, cheekbones, and jaw lines. These qualities make men look more “masculine” and create features that are more angular and make the face look more square-shaped. The level of testosterone also determines how hairy a man will be.
Women who have high levels of estrogen in their systems tend to have wider faces, higher eyebrows, and fuller lips. These features make women look more “feminine” and usually result to heart-shaped faces. (4)
Most of the differences between men and women stem from the fact that their brains are wired differently. Knowing and understanding these differences could help lessen relational conflicts.
Generally, the connection between the front and back regions are stronger in men’s brains while the connection across the left and right hemispheres are stronger in women’s.
Men tend to think more logically or rationally because their brains perform tasks to a greater extent on the left side. Women’s thought processes are more a little more complex because of their larger corpus callosum, which makes their brains transfer data between the right and left hemispheres of the brain at a much faster pace than men. (5)
Hearing and language abilities
In the parts of the brain where language and hearing are located, women’s brains have 11 percent more neurons than men’s.
As a result, women hear better and can distinguish between a wider range of emotional tones in humans. Experts believe that this is because women are naturally designed to be nurturers so the ability to hear and interpret a baby’s cries is crucial. It seems that this skill manifests even in infants because female babies are more likely to respond to the cries of another baby.
Furthermore, men and women process white noise differently. While women have a strong reaction to both music and white noise, men responded to the music but tuned out the white noise. This trait may be due to testosterone’s impact on the auditory system during male fetal brain development, which makes it block out repetitious stimuli as well as unwanted noise. (6)
Verbal expression of negative emotions
Women are better than men at verbalizing their emotions. This is hardly surprising, but what’s interesting is that both males and females start out the same in terms of their ability to verbalize their emotions.
Young kids, whose amygdala (where negative emotions were localized) has very few direct connections with the cerebral cortex (language and reasoning center), generally have a hard time expressing how they feel verbally.
However, when females enter puberty, a huge chunk of their brain activity linked to negative emotions goes from the amygdala to the cerebral cortex. This doesn’t happen in males, which is why they rarely want to talk about how they feel, especially when they are going through a rough time. (7)(8)
Men are more likely to take risks than women, making them more likely to die in an accident. (9)
In men’s brains, the aggression pathways are directly linked to brain areas for physical actions. On the other hand, the aggression pathways in women’s brains are more closely tied to verbal functions. Accordingly, men generally resort to physical violence when angry while women resort to verbal hostility. (10)
The limbic system of women is larger than in men, which is why women are more in tune and expressive with their emotions. Their thinking is generally more empathic and broader in scope as well. Despite their ability to view things and situations as a whole, women’s thinking can be influenced by their emotions. This is not always a bad thing but neither is it always good. (11)
Because men are not as in touch with their emotions as women are, they can view situations with detachment, which allows them to make more rational choices and decisions. They are also able to focus on the exact issues and dismiss details that have no bearing on the subject. While men are able to think more logically, they have a hard time understanding emotions unless they are clearly verbalized. (12)
Ability to recognize facial cues
Women’s brains uses more estrogen and oxytocin, which makes women better able at recognizing facial cues, particularly sadness. Even young girls are better than young boys at distinguishing fake facial expressions. (13)
Ability to empathize with others
The mirror neuron system or MNS is one of the two emotional systems in humans. MNS is involved in emotional empathy or feeling what another person is feeling. The other emotional system is the temporal-parietal junction system or TPJ, which is involved in cognitive empathy. TPJ allows a person to distance themselves from another person’s emotions and focus on analyzing ways to solve the problem.
When having to deal with a person who has a problem, both men and women begin their empathy process with MNS. However, men’s brain promptly switches to the TPJ. (14)(15)
Effect of stressful situations
Generally, men become more sexually stimulated in stressful situations. Women, on the other hand, have the opposite reaction because when placed in a stressful environment, cortisol (the stress hormone) blocks the reception of oxytocin in female brains. In addition, when a woman’s amygdala (anxiety, aggression, and fear center) is active, she will be unable to reach orgasm. (16)
Areas of the brain involved in sexual arousal
When a woman is sexually aroused, the ventromedial hypothalamus and cerebral cortex are involved, making her sexual experience more associated with what is happening in her mind as well as her surroundings.
When a man is sexually aroused, the medial preoptic area of the hypothalamus and the amygdala (anxiety, aggression, and fear) are involved, with the latter creating the motivation for sex. Consequently, men are more likely than women to relate violence with sexuality. (17)
Nature of sexual fantasies
In most men, sexual fantasies are purely visual nearly all the time. By contrast, women’s sexual fantasies often include romance. (18)
Men have twice the amount of brain space as well as processing power that is devoted to sex. This development starts in the womb (at about 8 weeks after conception) and during puberty. As a result, men generally have two to three times more sex drive than women. (19)(20)
Effect of orgasms
When a woman reaches orgasm, oxytocin and dopamine are released, which makes her want to talk and cuddle. When a man reaches orgasm, however, the chemicals are released into his hypothalamus, which makes him want to sleep. (21)
Attitude toward casual sex
Men are more likely than women to sleep with a stranger. (22)
Ability to multitask
Women can do several different tasks at once while men are better at performing a single task at a time. (23)
In a study of almost 100 one and a half year old babies, researchers found that girls had a preference for dolls while boys had a stronger preference for trucks. Even when encouraged to play with gender opposite toys, the results were the same. When given the choice, girls preferred dolls while boys preferred trucks. (24)
Desire for social approval
Women are more concerned with preserving relationships and getting social approval. Because conflict tends to produce negative chemical reactions, such as fear, sadness, and stress, women try to avoid disagreements.
Moreover, women’s brains have more circuits devoted to monitoring their relationships, and if a woman feels that one of her close relationships is at risk, she could experience a negative brain reaction that is similar to a small seizure.
Experts believe that this evolutionary adaptation in women developed because females are more vulnerable in the wild so social ties play a crucial role in their survival.
Men, on the other hand, experience a rise in positive brain chemicals when they are confronted with competition and conflict. (25)
Characteristics of one’s mate
A study of more than 10,000 people from 37 different cultural backgrounds showed that men and women have universal preferences when it comes to choosing their mate.
Men want their mates to be young, healthy-looking, fertile, and have symmetrical features. They are more inclined to gauge a woman’s suitability as a mate based on physical attributes. In fact, a man’s visual cortex is pre-wired to notice a woman with an hourglass figure.
While women also tend to consider physical attributes when choosing a mate, they also value other qualities that include generosity, trustworthiness, and the ability to provide security. Whether they were financially stable or not, women generally prefer men with the resources or the potential for resources. They also want their mate to be older (by about 3 years), taller (by about 4 inches), and have a high status in society. (26)
Reaction to crying babies
Mothers exhibit stronger reactions than men in some brain regions when they hear their babies cry.
Furthermore, men’s brains usually remain in default mode when they hear a baby cry while women’s brains will turn their attention to the crying. (27)
Interaction with children
Mothers get a boost of oxytocin after expressing affection with their offspring. This is why women provide stability, comfort, encouragement, reinforcement, and nurturance in the home.
On the contrary, fathers get a boost of oxytocin after engaging in exploratory play with their offspring. Consequently, men show their affection to their children through teasing, roughhousing, and stimulation through unpredictability. (28)(29)
Having a complete understanding of the differences between men and women can be difficult, if not impossible. For one, the differences are lengthy. Then, there are the exceptions to what experts have defined as traits for men and for women. There are also differences that aren’t completely clear and others that are yet to be discovered.
While the list of differences in this article is detailed, it is by no means exhaustive. It is, however, a good start if you want to understand just what makes men and women think and act the way they do.