Brain Science and the Difference between Boys and Girls

Chemistry lab in an all boys schoolBoys and girls learn differently for a very simple biological reason – their brains are built differently.  Given, their differences, boys and girls perform better provided different stimuli. Our current education system denies this fact and therefore denies the everyday results of these biological differences. Here’s a brief list of these biological differences and some of the physiological ramifications:

Boys are Wired Differently

  • Males prefer mechanical and structural thinking.20

Executive Function, Why Boys Touch the Stove

Fight or Flight

  • Male brains, are more often at rest in the brain stem, which directs fight or flight response (rather than more in the limbic system for females, promoting communication). This may make males more likely to take physical action if given a threat stimulus.15
  • Males have a larger amygdala, a center for processing anger and fear. This makes males more aggressive.14
  • Males tend to have a larger cerebellum, resulting in better sensory perception, coordination, and motor control; coupled with the higher levels of spinal fluid in the male system, messages between the brain and body tend to move more quickly and with less impulse control in males.14
  • The limbic system, which contains structures including the amygdale and hippocampus, has fewer connections in males to verbal processing areas, giving them less access to emotively descriptive language and less speed than women in responding verbally to stress and highly emotional situations.17

Boys Talk Less

  • Boys speak their first word later than girls.20
  • The frontal lobe matures later and tends to have less blood flow in the male brain, and may cause less verbal communication skills and more risk taking.17
  • Males’ arcuate fasciculus, a curving bundle of nerve fibers in the central nervous system that has to do with linguistics, develops slower than females’.14
  • Broca’s area, the motor area for speech and processing grammatical structures and word production, is less active in males.14
  • Males’ corpus callosum tends to be less dense, allowing for less connection between the hemispheres, which impedes cross-talk that would allow links to form between logical/rational thinking and emotional/metaphysical thinking.16

Memory and Sight

  • Males tend to have fewer neurons that promote higher intellectual functions and memory, and that interpret sensory impulses in their cerebral cortexes, resulting in slower processing speed.16
  • Smaller hippocampi in males lead to less memory storage available for accessing information for recall.17
  • Differences in males’ and females’ occipital lobes make males more likely to see better in bright light.18
  • Males have better narrow vision and depth perception.20

Male Hormones and Motivation

  • Male puberty starts anywhere between ages 9 and 14.23
  • Male brains have less oxytocin (the “tend and befriend” hormone) functionally present, resulting in males being less motivated biologically to please parents, teachers, and peers as they establish and maintain relationships.18
  • Males’ cortisol (the stress hormone) levels tend to drop quicker after the stressor is removed.19
  • Males have much more testosterone, resulting in more aggression, competitiveness, self-assertion, and self-reliance.19
  • Boys’ testosterone develops the body at a ratio of 40% muscle mass to 15% fat.22
  • By the end of adolescence, boys have 10 times more testosterone than they did before puberty.25

Focus vs. Multitask

  • In males, less data move through the parietal lobe; making male brain better at “zoning out;” males tend to have less tactile sensitivity.18
  • Male brains tend to have more gray matter (cell bodies of nerve cells), making them less efficient multitaskers and better at learning through task and project focus.18
  • Boys’ brains overall operate with 15% less blood flow than do girls’, and they are structured to learn with less multitasking.27
  • Males’ basal ganglia is likely to engage more quickly, resulting in males generally being quicker to respond to attention demands in their physical environment.14

Brain Rest Matters

  • When males feel overstimulated and frustrated, there is marked swelling in their amygdala, an anger and aggression center in the brain with significantly higher volume of tissue in males.27
  • The male brain has an essential rest state that it reverts to while switching between tasks to recharge.28
  • Female resting brain is significantly more active than the male resting brain.29

What Does the Science Tell Us?

So, what does all this science tell us? Perhaps what we already know and have known for centuries.  Boys and girls are different.  If you say to a casual observer the points below about human nature, they would not appear to be surprised, and yet few schools adapt their education institutions to the following:

  • boys tend to be more physical, more aggressive, more likely to roughhouse than girls;
  • boys are less communicative or verbal than girls;
  • boys tend to be more impulsive than girls;
  • girls are more efficient multi-taskers than boys;
  • boys are more competitive and assertive than girls;
  • boys are more mechanical than girls; or
  • boys are stronger than girls

How do we Help Boys do Better in School and Society?

For many of you, you will recall the days of Dr. Spock and the amazing readership of his books and how to raise kids. Today, we can help our boys do better and live better if we pay attention to the science and apply it at home and in schools.  A few suggestions:

  1. Stay Informed and Respond to Differences Positively
  2. Seek out a school that is the right fit for your son
  3. Allow Boys to Be Boys

Our boys need us now in ways they have not before.  They are being raised in a very complex world and many of their support systems and developmental frameworks have crumbled.  As we bring our passionate attention to boys today, and come together to nurture, support, and educate them well, we give a gift not only to them, but to our families, communities, and culture.  I hope you will agree that it is time for a coordinated grassroots effort to help our sons.                                                                                                             

-Michael Gurian

 

References:

 

14 Michael Gurian with Kathy Stevens, Boys & Girls Learn Differently, p.20.

15 Ibid, p.20, 32.

16 Ibid, p.21.

17 Ibid, p.22.

18 Ibid, p.23.

19 Ibid, p.24.

20 Ibid, p.34.

22 Ibid, p.36.

23 Michael Thompson, Ph.D. and Teresa H. Barker, It’s a Boy, p.242.

24 Ibid, p.268.

25 Ibid, p.272.

27 Ibid, p.50.

28 Ibid, p.50-1.

29 Ibid, p.51.