The Male Brain. By Louann Brizendine, M.D.
New York: Broadway Books, 2010. www.crownpublishing.com. 271 pp. $24.99.
Psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, currently of the University of California, San Francisco and formerly of Harvard Medical School, has published the predictable followup to her bestselling book The Female Brain. This may be the most accessible book I have ever read that has slightly more than half its length taken up with appendices, notes, references, and the index. In 135 easy-to-read pages, Brizendine lays out the basic functioning of the male brain. Despite the number of books addressing these general topics, the author stands out due to her knack both for memorable formulations of information and for bringing up little-discussed aspects of the brain and tying them into everyday aspects of life to which we can relate.
Her prefatory material is fabulous in itself. We get two pages summarizing the ten principal areas of the male brain, followed by a three-page Ã¢â‚¬Å“cast of neurohormone charactersÃ¢â‚¬Â that sets the tone as it gives us the list of players as if we were in the theatre: Ã¢â‚¬Å“TestosteroneÃ¢â‚¬â€Zeus. King of the male hormones, he is dominant, aggressive, and all-powerfulÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.Ã¢â‚¬Â Or the less familiar Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mullerian Inhibiting Substance (MIS)Ã¢â‚¬â€Hercules. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s strong, tough, and fearless. Also known as the Defeminizer, he ruthlessly strips away all that is feminine from the maleÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.Ã¢â‚¬Â One more: Ã¢â‚¬Å“AndrostenedioneÃ¢â‚¬â€Romeo. The charming seducer of women. When released by the skin as a pheromone he does more for a manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sex appeal than any aftershave or cologne.Ã¢â‚¬Â Next are two pages summarizing the phases of a manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life.
Then the book proper begins! Brizendine explains that male and female brains do differ considerably. Ã¢â‚¬Å“In the female brain, the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and oxytocin predispose brain circuits toward female-typical behaviors. In the male brain, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s testosterone, vasopressin, and a hormone called MIS (Mullerian inhibiting substance) that have the earliest and most enduring effectsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. We have learned that men use different brain circuits to process spatial information and solve emotional problems.Ã¢â‚¬Â The author aligns her chapters with the different principal phases of a male brainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life—the boy brain, the teen boy brain, the mating brain, the brain below the belt, the daddy brain, manhood, and the mature male brain.
In the chapters on the boy brain and the teen boy brain, the doctor provides tales drawn from her own experiences raising boys.Ã‚Â By the time we get to the mating brain, things are really starting to heat up. She provides a detailed travelogue of an imaginary train trip along the brain circuits of Ã¢â‚¬Å“the male brain in love.Ã¢â‚¬Â One key area of the brain involved in pair bonding is the ventral tegmental area or VTA, whose cells manufacture dopamine, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the brainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s feel-good neurotransmitter for motivation and rewardÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. Filled with dopamine, the train would speed along his brain circuits to the next station, the NAc, or nucleus accumbens, the area for anticipation of pleasure and reward.Ã¢â‚¬Â And later, Ã¢â‚¬Å“[a]s the train sped into the final station, the caudate nucleus, or CN, the area for memorizing the look and identity of whoever is giving you pleasure,Ã¢â‚¬Â weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d see al the tiniest details about the woman who started the train going in the first place.
Interestingly, to reach orgasm, Ã¢â‚¬Å“both men and women must first turn off a few parts of the brainÃ¢â‚¬â€like the amygdale, the brainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s danger and alert centerÃ¢â‚¬â€and the areas for self-consciousness and worryingÃ¢â‚¬â€the anterior cingulated cortex, or ACC.Ã¢â‚¬Â Now thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a topic that I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t heard feminists talk about much. Although I had heard this before, I appreciated the authorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s reminder that, womenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s complaints that men donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t care enough about them to stay awake and cuddle to the contrary, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the truth is that the hormone oxytocin is to blame for a manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s so-called postcoital narcolepsy.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Being a father myself, it is fascinating to read about the daddy brain and then to consider how nature has equipped males to do such different tasksÃ¢â‚¬â€fight, conquer a woman, and then nurture children. Certain brain circuits are designed to induce men to fall in love with their children. Ã¢â‚¬Å“[C]lose physical contact releases oxytocin and pleasure hormones in dads, too, bonding parent to child.Ã¢â‚¬Â And of course, as the author reminds us, men are critical to a childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s well-being. Active discipline from fathers plays a crucial role in a childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s success in life, and a girlÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s close relationship with her father can set the stage for getting along well with men throughout her life.
In the manhood chapter, the author explains that both men and women have both a mirror-neuron system (MNS) and a temporal-parietal junction system (TPJ) but the female brain stays in the MNS longer while the male brain quickly switches over to the problem solving, action-oriented TPJ. These different brain circuits function adaptively and helpfully, for the most part, even though in modern society we may sometimes deny certain aspects of the behaviors they produce. The TPJ induces men to, for example, aggressively stare down guys they may catch checking out their wives, and womenÃ¢â‚¬â€whatever they may sayÃ¢â‚¬â€generally feel flattered by such behavior. Like it or not, Ã¢â‚¬Å“[r]esearch shows that angry men get noticed moreÃ¢â‚¬â€not only by other men but also by women.Ã¢â‚¬Â Not only that, but Ã¢â‚¬Å“couples who argue have a better chance of staying together.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Finally, the mature male brain has grown in comfort with its established rank in whatever hierarchies apply to the manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s life, and it feels less called to prove itself than it did when it was younger.
What a great book! A quick, easy, and pleasant read, yet a very enlightening and instructive one. The model of integrating small amounts of core text with large quantities of prefatory and supplementary material is one other authors should consider adopting. DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t miss this fabulous work. Three cheers!