Summer rains had brought along with it dust storms to the capital city. Despite the hundreds of Delhi trips over the last decade, it still brings in an air of novelty. But this time it was even more special as I was to meet with a childhood friend over dinner. ‘Dada’, as we friends fondly call him, has dedicated himself to the Indian Navy. While relishing the homely hospitality, I also got the opportunity to interact with his teenage daughter. A young achiever in her own rights, I couldn’t help but notice the definite maturity, energy and sense of purpose in her. This made me wonder how teenage girls think differently from boys of a similar age.
Long flights are best opportunities to catch-up on some reading and for the flight back home from Delhi, the topic had to be teenage brains and behavior. Adding to the motivation was to score some brownie points over my wife in parenting and teenage management. As I flipped through the chapters of the New York Times best seller, it slowly dawned that most things I was reading on teenage-parenting were already being put in to practice at home by my better-half, and she is no neuroscientist. Mom, wife or daughter, there is something special about the female way of thinking. And by the time the turbulent flight landed, I was even more determined to decipher the gender code, at least some of it.
Decoding early signals
Our brains are made up of ‘neurons’ which are little cells that keep sending electrical signals to each other. With about 100 billion neurons packed within, the human brain has connections that are much like our roadways over which traffic moves. When connected end to end, these neurons can stretch long enough to encircle the globe four times. Neuroscientists have known for long about the anatomical and physiological differences between the brains of adolescent girls and boys.
Real-life experiments have demonstrated that when asked to fire-off as many words starting with a specific letter in one minute, girls in early teens invariably comes up with almost double the number of words than a boy of a similar age. This is made possible by two things: speech and language processing abilities as well as rapid decision-making, both of which are controlled by different parts of the brain. In early teens, those two areas of the brain are better wired together in girls, thus giving them a clear edge. Psychologists confirm that girls’ language development, especially reading and writing is about one and a half years ahead of boys’. Moreover, the thin strip of nerve tissue that links the right and left parts of the brain, called the corpus callosum, is at least 25% larger in adolescent girls than boys. This means better communication between the two sides and hence may also explain the greater ability of girls to switch between tasks.
Educators often confide that boys take longer to develop organizational and attention skills. Neuroscientists define a process called ‘myelination’ of nerves that takes-up almost the first three decades of life to be completed. Adolescence witnesses the greatest disparity in myelination, with a clear advantage to girls, thereby making them better planners and organizers. During adolescence, boys are probably lagging by a couple of years when it comes to certain parameters of brain development. Understanding this is of great value to parents as well as teachers.
We have observed that girls may have an advantage on many parameters during the developmental phases, but is there a difference during adult life? Adult male brains are on average six to ten percentage larger than female brains. Scientists have been engaged in studying four primary areas of difference in male and female brains: processing, chemistry, structure, and activity. While the exact causality is yet to be established, they have discovered approximately hundred gender differences in the brain.
While tracing the evolution of humankind, eminent historian Dr. Yuval Noah Harari highlights the different hierarchies of societies. Some like caste and race were prevalent in select societies and not so much in others. But in his best seller called ‘Sapiens’, Dr. Harari highlights that gender divisions that valued men more were prevalent in all known human societies since the agricultural revolution. One of the reasons is the greater physical strength that has been attributed to men, but this may be true only for certain types of strength. Through human evolution it has been observed that women have been more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men.
In a new development, a team of researchers turned to data from UK Biobank, an ongoing long-term study of people living in the United Kingdom with five lakhs enrollees. They examined volumes of sixty eight regions within the brain. While men invariably had higher brain volumes, they found that women tended to have significantly thicker cortices (outer layer of brain) than men. Thicker cortices have been associated with higher scores on a variety of cognitive and general intelligence tests.
As research evolves, comparisons on ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ brains will get demystified further. While anatomy, anthropology, genetics, hormones and history are all influencers, today what matters equally are the environment and ideals at home and society. All these could make the gentlemen delete the old self, edit own learnings, and hit the ‘Ctrl+R’ button on their millennium old understanding about the other gender. As Darwin put it, only those who adapt can survive, even more so in the evolving world order. And while the world is at that, I have a bigger task for survival. Since parenting books are not helping the cause, let me explore simpler and effective means to impress my better-half. Did I hear someone say roses?