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Biology versus behaviour

Biology versus behaviour
March 13, 2001

What comes first: the chicken or the egg? Are we born with the behavioural legacy of our gender differences, or do we learn them? Is the brain male or female? Wendy Champagne looks into the age old conundrum.

This age-long debate continues into the 21st century - fuelled by our need to explain the escalating violence in our society; by the feminist push to contribute biological evidence for social theories about the equality of the sexes; and by each individual's desire to solve the mystery of life.

According to science, our brains do develop under the control of different sex hormones - girls and boys are different, no doubt about it. But just how much of that is determined by testosterone or the lack of it?

Science shows that women's brains are slightly smaller than men's, but recent studies suggest that despite the difference in size, women have exactly the same number of brain cells. In general, men are considered better at tasks involving spatial skills and maths; while women are better at verbal and language skills.

The urban myth that men make better navigators was tested at the University of Rochester in the United States. Students were blindfolded and walked through a maze of tunnels underneath the campus - men proved quite accurate in maintaining their sense of direction, but women did not.

On the other hand researchers at York University in Canada asked students to sit in a room and await a lecturer. Later the students were taken individually to a different room and asked to recall what they saw in the first room. Most women described things in great detail, while the men appeared inarticulate and excused themselves for not having good memories.

In general, it is believed that a male brain is more visual than a female brain - it looks for images. There's less cross-talk between the right and left hemispheres in young boys, fewer parts of a boy's brain light up when he reads. This means that not so much of his brain is brought to the reading experience, he memorises more because he is not taking in as much data as a girl.

Perhaps one of the most culturally accepted differences is aggressiveness in males and passivity in females, but this is also the most argued issue in the realm of behavioural science. While many still suggest that differences are merely a reflection of cultural conditioning and perception, there is increasing evidence that the primary forces of these differences are predominantly biological.

Historically the male hormone testosterone is related to the exhibition of territorial, competitive and aggressive behaviour in males. In an attempt to prove the testosterone theory, US researcher Michael Lewis conducted a study with one-year old girls and boys. He erected a barrier separating the child from its mother whereby the child could see the mother but was prevented from reaching her. The majority of boys in the experiment tried to knock down the barrier, while most of the girls stood still and cried.

Michael Gurian, author of "The Wonder of Boys" also favours the "biology theory", suggesting that these differences require the parents to offer gender-specific attention to their children. "Much of who we are is determined by body chemicals, brain differences and hormones, and then by society's efforts to honour this biology through its socialising influences," he says.

In everyday situations: - Boys look at objects for shorter but more active periods than girls. Girls pay attention to care-givers longer than boys; a tendency that continues throughout life.

Boys and men take in less sensory information than girls. Boy's brains need to move quickly from object to object in space. Boys have three times more reading difficulties than girls, and pre-school boys often refine their verbal skills almost a year later than girls.

In the extreme, boys are more likely than girls to display aggression, distractibility, impatience and noisiness. Whereas girls - perceived as more passive, affectionate and agreeable - are whining, manipulative, sneaky and highly emotional when pushed into their worst behaviour.

Perhaps the old snakes-and-snails-and-puppy-dog's-tails versus the sugar-and-spice and-all-things-nice scenario is closer to the truth than we realise!

Reprinted with permission from Editforce

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