Boys' brains are from Mars

ANNE MARIE OWENS

"Girls and boys are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down," JoAnn Deak says at the outset of her talk, which is called Taking the Mean Out of Teen. "I've come to believe that the brain is the most genderized part of the body."

Boys at Eton School 1930s

In a conference room in the massive Hilton New York complex in midtown Manhattan, people are crowding in to hear a woman speak about why teenage girls are so mean. All the chairs are full, so those arriving now are climbing over each other to crouch on the floor between the aisles, along the side walls and in front of the speaker's feet, as if in devotion.

"Girls and boys are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down," JoAnn Deak says at the outset of her talk, which is called Taking the Mean Out of Teen. "I've come to believe that the brain is the most genderized part of the body."

Deak, who is squat and matter-of-fact and seems more like a volleyball coach than a school psychologist, has attracted what is probably the biggest crowd at one of the largest education conferences in North America.

People have come from some of the leading private schools on the continent to listen to her expound on why the girls they teach can be so rotten to each other and what they can do about it. But above all, they are absolutely enthralled by her take on the latest science and how it goes a long way to explaining female behaviour, particularly during the teenage years — what others see as irrational, emotion-ruled antics, Deak sees as logical outcomes of brain functioning.

She talks about the differences between the female cortex and the male cortex, and how these explain why girls tend to think in more detail than boys and why, she says as an aside, laptop schools spell bad news for girls, who spend too much time focusing on such things as margins and page settings.

She talks about the differences in the way the brain functions and how both sides of the female brain are wired to respond no matter what the task, while the male brain selects a side of the brain to respond depending on the task at hand: "We are programmed to multi-task; we are built to massively connect and communicate," Deak says to her mostly female audience. "Male brains are built to streamline and to go right to what they have to do."

To illustrate her point, she shows a slide that depicts cross-sections of female and male brains, with the appropriate brain sections lighting up depending on the sub-topic at hand. The two images, male and female, are completely different in just about every instance.

This is the first of many moments in Deak's talk that elicit knowing nods from the audience.

The same slide had been shown at another lecture the day before, titled The Case for Boys' Schools. That lecture was about how boys learn and elaborated on the many challenges peculiar to educating boys.

Leonard Sax, a pediatrician smitten by the single-sex schools movement, was talking about how boys are hard-wired in so many ways for qualities that are not typically valued by schools or teachers: action, directness and loudness.


Leonard Sax, a pediatrician smitten by the single-sex schools movement, was talking about how boys are hard-wired in so many ways for qualities that are not typically valued by schools or teachers: action, directness and loudness.


With his brain map projected before his rapt, mostly male audience, Dr. Sax detailed the differences between how boys and girls hear, how they process emotions, how they respond to aggression and what it all means for classroom dynamics.

"We are really only just emerging from what I call the dark ages of research, where even those of us studying psychology, studying medicine, were taught that gender differences were socially constructed," he says. "We now have clinical, reliable evidence that that is simply not the case."

So there it was again, the same brain map, that shows what is surely incontrovertible evidence of how boys and girls think differently because of the structural differences of their brains.

The brain maps are intriguing, but what is more compelling is the sea change that must have taken place to allow these experts to show such slides in benign cookie-cutter conference rooms, pointing out the differences with clinical detachment, without any hint of confrontation or controversy. Doesn't talk of brain differences conjure up images of Canada's own Philippe Rushton and his racial brain delineations? Substitute blacks for boys in these talks and surely these speakers would have been drummed out of such a respectable gathering.

But there is no hint of quackery here. Here's an Ohio feminist with A-list credentials, a female psychologist specializing in girls' empowerment, and she's using the gendered brain maps. Here's a Maryland pediatrician, whose articles have been published in leading academic journals and who is a known champion of advancing boys in school, and he is using the gendered brain maps, too.

These were the ideas that thousands of educators from North America's most elite private schools were talking about by the end of last month's conference of the National Association of Independent Schools: What should we make of the science-based differences between boys' and girls' brains? What are the practical implications for educating boys and educating girls? Do traditional single-sex schools need to reinvent themselves to take advantage of this new knowledge? Can co-ed schools continue to make the case for mixed-sex programming in the face of this scientific evidence?

The science that shapes this latest educational debate has emerged over the past decade in a body of papers published in specialized journals with names that make them sound inaccessible to most readers: Developmental Brain Research, Behavioural Neuroscience, Cerebral Cortex and so on.

One landmark study, in 1996, plotted brain development by measuring the major structures of the developed adult brain (the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, etc.), and found that the brain of a 17-year-old boy looks quite like the brain of an 11-year-old girl.

Several studies on sex differences in the functional organization of the brain have shown that men are more likely to use a small area of the brain on just one side for a particular task, such as reading comprehension, while women typically use more of the brain, and both hemispheres, for the same task.

At Harvard University, researchers have found that while young children of both sexes locate their emotional activity deep in the brain, in the amygdala, by the time girls reach their teenage years, that emotional activity has moved up to the cerebral cortex, which is believed to be the most advanced section of the brain and which allows girls to explain their feelings. Boys, however, retain the locus of their emotional control in the amygdala, and are also pre-wired to use the hippocampus, an ancient area of the brain that functions as a cognitive road map. In girls, the cerebral cortex typically has larger cells and more inputs, while the boys' cerebral cortex has smaller cells and fewer inputs.

Studies have also uncovered a range of other fascinating brain-based differences too: Girls have a sense of smell that is anywhere from 200 to 1,000 times better than boys; girls are about twice as sensitive to touch as boys; girls hear two to four times better than boys; and girls find it almost impossible to tune out extraneous noise.

Scientists are redefining the debate about how best to educate our children and are finding considerable clout in a climate where parents are more and more involved in their children's education and, in many cases, paying top dollar for the services.

In another one of the look-alike conference rooms at the independent schools conference, a panel of administrators from some of New York's most exclusive schools were grappling with the question of how best to pitch their respective brands of education — single-sex, all-boys, all-girls — to an increasingly discerning and wary group of parents.

"If having only one gender in your school means you don't think about gender, then you're doing something wrong," says Eileen Mullady, head of Horace Mann, one of the city's oldest private schools, now co-ed.

Dorothy Hutcheson, head of the prestigious Nightingale School for girls on the Upper East Side, says, "It's not just the absence of boys that makes our girls' schools good for girls. There has to be more to it than that."

She says the new research into brain functioning is fascinating, but all the new knowledge will be meaningless unless educators transform it meaningfully into their pedagogy.


"The research has made us all pay attention to something we didn't want to pay attention to, and that's that boys and girls are different. The good co-ed schools have always known that — you have to pay attention to the differences."


Mullady agrees: "The research has made us all pay attention to something we didn't want to pay attention to, and that's that boys and girls are different. The good co-ed schools have always known that — you have to pay attention to the differences."

She says it is easy enough to spot those differences walking into any ninth grade classroom: The boys will always raise their hands, shooting them up in the air, quick as they can, even when someone else is talking, so eager are they to give the answer, and girls will preface everything with "Like" or "This may sound dumb but ... " or "This may not be right, but ... "

In Hutcheson's girls' school, "perfectionism goes to the extreme. Our girls wear their stress like a badge of honour. You'll have girls coming in saying, 'Oh, I worked on this for 36 hours straight.' There are days I pray for the boys who come in and say, 'Oh, I didn't study' ... even if they did."

What people such as Sax and Deak have been able to do, and what has made them so popular among their educational believers, is bridge the gap between these new scientific findings and the pragmatic needs of educators and others who work with children. It is little wonder both of them are being held up as soothsayers by single-sex schools advocates. Think of the boost they are giving to schools whose relevance was becoming somewhat of a tougher sell in a co-ed world, by cleverly mixing a little science with a little practicality.

Sax quickly became the darling of advocates for boys' schools after he managed to pull a few of them aside for a quick primer on scientific findings in between sessions at a meeting of the International Coalition of Boys' Schools a year ago. His talk at this most recent conference of independent schools was delivered on behalf of the coalition and he is to be their featured speaker at an upcoming regional gathering in Toronto this summer.

He implores teachers to raise their voices when dealing with boys (and points to the studies that show girls hear two to four times better than boys); suggests they will get nowhere if they insist on assigning boys school work that asks them to describe feelings (and points to the studies on the different ways the sexes process and intellectualize emotions); and has suggested in one of his journal articles that boys should be held back a year before starting kindergarten, because of charted differences in brain development between boys and girls.

"There's not a gender gap, there's a gender chasm," insists Sax, who is so impassioned that he pursues his single-sex education interests as a hobby to his Maryland pediatric practice.

Deak's work and her book Girls Will Be Girls have been embraced by those who run girls' schools, and her Ohio-based consultancy lists the National Coalition of Girls Schools and the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls among its many clients, in addition to dozens of prestigious girls' schools, including Toronto's venerable Branksome Hall. She has won praise from the national executive of the Girl Scouts movement in the United States and has been hired as a consultant on a coast-to-coast girls' Outward Bound program.

She uses the program to demonstrate how teenage girls and boys respond in dramatically different ways to an adventuring challenge, using a pointer and gendered brain maps to illustrate the scientific impetus behind the reactions. "The challenge is simple: 'Here's the cliff. Go jump', " she says. "In boys, the amygdala lights up immediately. The response is, 'Ooooh sweet.' The boy jumps.

"In girls, the cerebral cortex responds first, which kicks in with the complex intellectual reaction — 'It's 100 feet down. I could get hurt. I might die. I might not die, but be paralyzed forever ...' and on and on. By the time the amygdala kicks in, the emotional response is, 'I'm scared. I don't want to'. "

The solution, says Deak, is to get girls to a point where they will connect with each other as a way of tackling the challenge together, because they view the connection and the bond as what is most meaningful at this stage.

She says recognizing this importance of connecting also helps explain what is going on behind the new breed of mean girls: "We are wired in such a way that we only think we are any good if we are part of something," she says. "As soon as I have one friend, I have the sense that I am part of something. During adolescence, when girls affiliate with a clique of girls, that's all they think they need ... because we don't have babies yet, because we don't have husbands and still we are driven to connect and to care; it's our connections that define us."

Deak says the meanness comes from the fact that girls deem their connections to be so critical that when one of the friends inevitably turns on another, it is catastrophic. She argues that instead of telling girls they should not care so much about these things, we should be broadening girls' connections, so that they see themselves as part of a universe larger than their immediate clique.

She says teachers and schools run a great risk if they eschew the latest findings on the differences between boys and girls and the way they learn.

"This is my prediction: In five years, the families that are coming to your schools will take their children in for brain scans and bring them in to you," she tells her teacher-filled audience. "The brain scan will be the new assessment tool ... so you'd better be able to show parents how you're incorporating all this brain science into your teaching."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Anne Marie Owens, "Boys' brains are from Mars." National Post, (Canada) 10 May, 2003.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Anne Marie Owens writes for the National Post.

Copyright 2003 National Post


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