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Weekend House Call

Aired December 6, 2003 - 08:30   ET


JIM MORET, CNN ANCHOR: Weekend House Call with Elizabeth Cohen begins right now.
ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning and welcome to Weekend House Call.

If you have a significant other who drives you crazy sometimes, well, this is the show for you. We're talking about how men's and women's brains are wired differently. Women often complain that men just don't listen and can't remember those special anniversaries, while men wonder why women get so emotional and want to talk all the time about how they feel.

Our Holly Firfer takes a look at the science behind some of these common complaints.


HOLLY FIRFER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For thousands of years, men and women have baffled each other by their differences.

DR. RUBEN GUR, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: We are still the same animals. We haven't changed physically since we were roaming the savannahs. We haven't really changed in our brain. So all those differences that we were evolved into are still here.

FIRFER: These differences are the results of the hard wiring of our brains. Why is it that women seem to do all the talking and why are men considered the strong, silent types?

Dr. Ruben Gur of the University of Pennsylvania has been studying gender differences in the brain for more than 20 years. He says while men's brains can be 10 to 15 percent larger in size, some research suggests women have more fibers that connect the two sides of the brain together in an area called the corpus colosum (ph). That would mean...

GUR: That there is more tissue available for transferring information between the two sides of the brain. That's why we think that women have better inter-hemispheric communication.

HELEN FISHER, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: And I think that this was, is a woman's tool.

FIRFER: Anthropologist Helen Fisher has written many books on how men and women use these differences to survive. FISHER: I think that women's ability at communication evolved millions of years ago on the grasslands of Africa as women held that baby in front of their face, cajoling it, reprimanding it, educating it with words.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As far as Leo stopping to ask directions, he'd say well, we're just going to go a little further, just a little further, just a little further. How many miles do we go out of the way?

FIRFER: Ever wonder why men refuse to stop and ask directions? Well, researchers say males have an internal compass that tells them where they are in relation to where they need to be.

GUR: Men are organized so they within each hemisphere can move information more easily from the front to the back, because they have more white matter inside the hemisphere, and less likely to have the two sides of the brain cooperate.

FISHER: I mean for millions of years they set out just about every morning to go out, to surround and track and follow and kill and then bring home the wooly mammoth. And if they lost their way home, certainly they were dead and their family might have died out, too. So spatial ability was essential to men's hunting skills.

FIRFER: In fact, over 80 percent of engineers and 90 percent of mechanics are men. The majority of architects are men, as well, a translation to today's society.

Holly Firfer, CNN.


COHEN: According to that research, women are the better communicators and men are better at certain kinds of problem solving. For example, men are good at spatial tasks, like working with three dimensional objects. Men also are more accurate at targeted motor skills, such as playing darts where you have to guide the dart to the target. And men tend to be better at mathematical reasoning.

Meanwhile, women excel at mathematical calculations and have better fine motor skills, for instance, placing pegs in holes. In addition, women usually perform better in tests where you have to quickly match similar objects, called perceptual speed.

So how do these differences impact your every day life?

You may be surprised.

Give us a call with your questions at 1-800-807-2620, or e-mail us at

With us here this morning to help answer questions is Michael Gurian, a family therapist who's authored several books on this topic. His newest one is called "What Could He Be Thinking: How A Man's Mind Really Works." I know many women out there are dying to know.

Good morning, Michael Gurian.

Thanks for waking up so early. You're in, on the West Coast, and we appreciate your joining us.


COHEN: Great. Well, we actually have a phone call already from Dean in Florida.

Dean, go ahead with your question.

DEAN: Yes, good morning, folks.

At birth we're all given a certain amount of X, Y chromosomes and I was wondering, my question to the doctor is how much of an impact does it have on a study such as this? And also, in one way, depending on how much X, Y chromosomes, is it truly just not the different wiring, because it just makes us all human, instead of just male and female, it just makes us just more sensitive and perhaps that does have a true effect on the male-female attitude.

GURIAN: Well, the chromosomal differences are very important because there are markers now that we've been able to identify that are pre, right, so pre in utero. The stuff that Ruben Gur was talking about, a lot of that is stuff that happens -- the bombardment of hormones, while we're in the womb, that sets our brains up for those differences.

But we now know that there are something around 35 markers on the Y chromosome and 50 markers or so for the female. So you've got male- female markers that are on the genome that are setting the brain up to the be different.

Does that mean that we're completely different? Of course not. We're overlapping and, yes, we're all human, absolutely. But there are three primary markers for why we're different. One is the chromosome and those genetic markers. The second is the bombardment of hormones on the fetus while in utero. And then the third is upbringing. And upbringing usually follows the signals sent by the child, the male or female child, who comes out of the womb wired a certain way.

COHEN: Michael, how do you account, then, for women who have brains that are more like a man and men whop have brains that are more like a woman? I mean we all know that not everyone fits into these molds.

GURIAN: Right. Right. And "What Could He Be Thinking?," of course, is arguing there's a broad spectrum, a very broad spectrum for what's male and female, not one type is female, one type is male. On that broad spectrum, we all will find ourselves. And, for instance, I took the male brain questionnaire in my own book and I'm about 60 percent male, 40 percent female in these things. And I think most of us will find we're in these percentages.

Some women who get a lot of bombardment of testosterone in utero when they were a fetus, they will have more spatial mechanicals. They're going to tend to be engineers. They'll, you know, etc., etc. There would be a long list.

Some men who get less testosterone bombardment in utero are -- will tend to have more verbal emotive skills. So, in other words, they can immediately connect their words to their feelings, which is a more female thing to be able to do, a female brain. And so some of that has to do with the bombardment of hormones.

It also can be on your genome. You can have more or less markers for male or female on your genome.

Now, the upbringing piece of it is an important piece. But it doesn't have as big an effect on these things. If you're spatial- mechanical, you're going to be spatial mechanical. And how you're brought up is probably not going to affect that much. If you're verbal emotive, whether you're male or female, you're going to be verbal emotive. You're going to be able to connect the words to the feelings and how you're brought up, unless you're traumatized, how you're brought up won't have a big effect on that.

COHEN: We have a question from an e-mail from Renee (ph) in Pennsylvania. This question I think a lot of women have this on their mind. "Why is it that men can be perfectly content channel surfing?" Sometimes they just sit there with the remote and go from channel to channel.

Why is that?

GURIAN: Yes, that's actually a really fun one, I think. You know, I -- in the book I only have like two pages on this, but I'll tell you, I think this question gets asked the most. You've got a man and a woman and they're sitting together in front of the TV, they're zoning out, they're both trying to relax. But the two brains relax differently.

The male brain goes to what's called a rest state. And Ruben Gur identified this. The male brain goes to a rest state. What that means is that the blood flow is shutting off. So when you scan that brain, you see that most of the brain is shut off.

The female brain, though, in order to renew itself, doesn't necessarily go to a rest state. She actually likes the stimulation of the verbal emotives, you know? So she's going to tend to want to go toward Lifetime or Oxygen or anything that has drama and emotion and conversation. But that's the very thing that's going to over stimulate him. It's going to pull him out of his rest state.

So what he's trying to do is kind of, you know, kind of zone out. So he's going to change channels every 30 seconds or 60 seconds to make sure he doesn't have to get emotionally engaged, whereas she's going to be hoping they can get emotionally engaged. And that can create all sorts of stress. COHEN: Well, I suggest turning to CNN to get emotionally engaged. But that's another discussion.

GURIAN: Ah, there you go.

COHEN: Well, when we come back, do the men in your life forget birthdays and anniversaries? Coming up, is the male brain wired so it won't remember sentimental moments? Oh, that would be so sad.

Give us a call and get your questions answered. That's 1-800- 807-2620. Or e-mail us at

Stay with us.


COHEN: Welcome back to Weekend House Call.

We're talking about the biology that makes men and women act differently. Are men wired to be less emotional than women?

Holly Firfer has this report.


FIRFER (voice-over): He can't remember where he left those car keys. She cries at the drop of a hat. What's going on here?

JOE MATASSINO: I think Cathy's very, very compassionate and caring and she's always being very considerate of other people.

FIRFER: An MRI experiment at Dr. Ruben Gur's lab at the University of Pennsylvania shows men and women slides of faces portraying different emotions and then tracks the activity in the brain while looking at those photos.

As suspected, the area of the brain that is thought to control emotion showed a much stronger response to varying emotions in women than it did in men.

Dr. Mark George and his colleagues at the Medical University of South Carolina have also found women's brains seem to be more sensitive to sadness than men's. In another test, when hearing the sound of babies cry, women's brains seem to light up like Las Vegas in the areas that control emotion, while men's brains showed very little response.

DR. MARK GEORGE, MEDICAL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA: And it seems to be very important in bonding, both the bonding between a man and a woman and the bonding between a mother and a child.

FISHER: If you can empathize with the baby and sympathize with the baby, then you're going to be willing to get up in the middle of the night, climb down out of that tree five million years ago and go and get the baby water or go and get the baby food and more willing to sacrifice yourself to raise your DNA. LEO SHABABY: I consider myself having halfheimers disease. So I write things down now. I really do. If I were to tell you a biography of my own life, I'd probably have to write it down so I could make sure I remembered that part I want to remember. It's terrible.

FIRFER: Ruben Gur says as we age, men's brains deteriorate three times as fast as women's.

GUR: They lose attention, verbal memory, spatial memory and spatial abilities. The main difference is that men lose frontal and temporal parts of the brain. The frontal part of the brain is the big inhibitor, is the part of the brain that tells you stop, think about the consequences. And the temporal lobe is the part of the brain that deals mostly with memory. And that may explain why men tend to lose the ability to pay attention.

FIRFER: Many say these basic differences, the minutiae of detail, allow us to work together to survive, that we need to behave differently if we're to continue to perpetuate our species.

Holly Firfer, CNN.


COHEN: We're talking with family therapist and author Michael Gurian.

Let me start with a question that many women have asked. Is there a reason why men sometimes don't remember emotionally significant events like anniversaries or first dates? Many do, but probably many don't.

GURIAN: Yes, the memory differences are quite profound. The temporal lobe and also the hippocampus part of the brain that does memory storage, and then the neural pathways that are attaching, you know, these memories to these different parts of the brain. So there are significant differences in the brain and it's very important if you're a -- especially if you're a man who has those sorts of memory problems, it's really important to write things down. Get them in the Palm Pilot or on the calendar, especially things that are important to someone you love.

COHEN: Well, we have a phone call now from Charlotte in Ohio.

Charlotte, welcome to Weekend House Call.

You can go ahead with your question.

CHARLOTTE: Thank you.

I've got to say, Dr. Gur's work definitely confirms what I've suspected for a long time. I've been married 28 hours and I wonder if the doctor here has any suggestions on how, given the differences between men and women and how they approach life, how can you avoid some of the inevitable conflicts that come up because you -- a man and a woman do see a life event or even just every day life so differently and respond so differently? How can you improve the communication so you have fewer conflicts around these issues? And I'll listen.

Thank you very much.

GURIAN: Yes, thank you.

I think the most important thing to do is to understand. A book like "What Could He Be Thinking?" is set up to help people understand. And once people understand, their intuition, I think, takes over. People are really very smart and they know what they need to do in their relationships.

But, they may not have the information and very often we think that the other person is somehow defective if they're not like us. And really that's just nuance differences, right, that we have to accommodate in order to stay together.

So, I -- that's the key to it. Once people really understand it, once they delve deep into it, then they -- they just get relief. You know, they say oh, that's how he is. OK. You know, I can handle that.

COHEN: We have an e-mail now from Julie from California.

She wants to know, "Why do men in general not share emotions?"

Now, Michael, my first question is is that a stereotype? I mean plenty of men share emotions just fine.

GURIAN: Right. Generally, people when they say that, they're comparing males and females. And, yes, in general, males share less emotions. We express less emotions. We actually feel less emotions than women do. And, yes, that's in general. There are some exceptions.

What it's going to do, it's going to depend mainly on how, what chromosome markers you got and then the bombardment of hormones in utero. So, in other words, how you came out. By the time you're born you're going to have certain capabilities, the way your brain's going to grow, to do this. And, on average, men don't have as many neural pathways between the emotion centers and the verbal centers, and men don't have as many verbal centers in the brain. So we don't have as many -- we're not going to produce as many words in general and then we're not going to produce as many words to fit our emotions.

So that's a given in most relationships. And what people probably need to do more of is to let go of it. There is no proof that a man sharing his emotions all the time is in some way better than not sharing them, actually. That's just kind of a myth that's been created. And there's also quite a bit of proof that sharing your feelings all the time can debilitate you. So the middle ground is what we're looking for.

COHEN: Well, when we come back, we'll be talking about nature versus nurture. Coming up next, we know biology has a role in how we act, but can our upbringing counter some of that biology?

We'll get to those answers.

Stay with us.


COHEN: Welcome back to Weekend House Call.

Researchers have found that boys get language skills later in life and they're also more likely to fail in classes stressing verbal skills. So, is this due to their brain makeup or are they socialized differently?

We're talking with family therapist and author Michael Gurian.

Let's get right to an e-mail.

Delores from Georgia wants to know, "How much of a role does genetics play in men's social attitudes in behavior?"

And, Michael, talk about some of this upbringing versus nature. Is it genetics or is it the way we're raised?

GURIAN: Yes, the -- "What Could He Be Thinking?" follows along with other books I've written, like "Boys and Girls Learn Differently," on education. And they all, all of them are based on looking at brain and genetics research from around the world. And that way I get out of the nature versus nurture, because it's nature and nurture working together.

The stuff that we're talking about here like reading later, boys reading later, or like men and the remote control, this stuff is in here. It's in the brain and it starts with chromosomes and then in utero hormones. And then upbringing can affect the big, you know, big things, like if we're traumatized, if we're hurt terribly, if we're abused, that can affect the way the brain grows and might have an effect on what we're talking about.

But otherwise, if you give kids normal attachment, that boy and that girl are going to develop along the line of their brain. And the nurture is going to help them do that.

So nature and nurture are completely working together.

COHEN: We have a phone call now from Netsine (ph) in Arizona, who has a question about education for boys and girls.

Netsine, welcome to Weekend House Call.

NETSINE: Yes, good morning.

Given your previous comment, it sounds like you've written on this extensively. But I wanted to know how can we as parents bring up our children or educate our children, given these sex differences in the brain? GURIAN: Well, actually, education, the educational culture is having to change now because males are our failing students. Seventy percent of our Ds and Fs are boys and only about 40 percent of our As. And across-the-board, boys are failing in education. And now people are starting to say wow, well why? And the Gurian Institute, what I do sets up trainings for people to help them understand the brain. And once people understand the brain, they realize they weren't educated in how the male brain thinks. So they don't know how to teach to that brain. And that male brain, a lot of these males are not as verbal as the teacher is, but they learn differently kinesthetically and spatially.

So the educational system itself is going to be changing in the next decade to accommodate boys and then parents of sons are going to be advocating for these changes, because they'll see that some of their boys are failing.

COHEN: We have to take a quick break now.

But don't go away because when we come back, we'll give you a couple of places to get more information to help understand all those differences between the sexes.


COHEN: For more information on how men's and women's brains think differently, try going to the "Psychology Today" Web site. That's And, of course, you can always go online to, where you'll find all the latest medical news and a medical library for you to look up the recent articles and research.

We've been talking today about the differences between men and women's brains with family therapist Michael Gurian.

Michael, how do people put all of this interesting scientific information about the differences to work in their own life?

GURIAN: Well, I think what they want to do is realize how profound these differences are. And that means they need to get into it. And I would love to see people get into this together, couples, men and women, look at "What Could He Be Thinking" together and get into figuring out a plan. Because you really need a plan to handle the profound differences between the male and female brain. And I call that intimate separateness. The male brain's trying to pull us toward a little bit of more independence as human beings and the female brain is trying to pull us closer, toward more intimacy.

And intimate separateness is what "What Could He Be Thinking?" is trying to teach. And I hope that men and women will do it together, will developing it together.

COHEN: Great.

Well, thank you, Michael Gurian, for joining us.

We're out of time, unfortunately, for today.

GURIAN: Thank you.

COHEN: Thank you for being with us this morning, everybody.

This new book is called "What Could He Be Thinking: How A Man's Mind Really Works."

And thank you for all your e-mails and phone calls today.

Make sure to watch tomorrow's Weekend House Call when we talk about the risks and rewards of weight loss surgery.

Thanks for watching.

I'm Elizabeth Cohen.


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