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Women and Men: Researching The Difference

For the record
Science &
Women and Men
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M. H. Panhwar
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From Diana J. Choyce
Dec 20 - 26, 1999

Over the last millennium science has used men in their research for more than it has used women. The last decade has seen a great increase in the inclusion of women. One of the most sought-after questions is how do men and women think and what are the differences? That is a debate I imagine that will go on for centuries. But recently science has begun to look into it with a new fervour. Perhaps out of desperation, but more likely because it's needed in testing theories and adjusting therapies according to gender.

For decades people have believed that the larger the brain the smarter the person. And since women have smaller brains, men must be smarter. But men and women score equally well on intelligence tests despite the size difference. Even scientists have thought the bigger the animal brain the smarter it was. However, a study done by the University of Pennsylvania has found that its not the size but what's inside that counts. They used 80 volunteers divided equally by men and women, and magnetic resonance imaging in their project. The brain scan showed definite differences in the sizes of some key components inside the male and female brains. The part of the brain called "gray matter" is what allows us to think. Women typically have a 44 ounce brain but its made up of 55 per cent gray matter. Men have 50 per cent gray matter in their 49 ounce brain. They also found that men have more "white matter" which transfers information between distant regions of the brain. This may help explain why women are better at verbal tasks and men are more adept at spatial tasks which is knowing where they are in relation to the world. This could explain their reticence in asking for directions!

Scientists at John Hopkins University have been studying the gender differences in the part of the brain that estimates time, judges speed, sees 3-D objects, and solves mathematical problems. The study shows that a region of the brain known as the inferior parietal lobe (IPL) is much larger in men. The IPL allows the brain to process information from the senses such as vision and touch, and is located in two parts on either side of the brain. The left IPL is involved in perception such as judging speed, estimating time, and mentally rotating 3-D images. The right IPL dictates spatial relationships such as between body parts and awareness of one's feeling and emotions. They are not saying that men are automatically better at things like math and physics, because there are many exceptions to the rule. But in general there is a grain of truth to the belief that men are better at Math and women are better in English. Another study has suggested that these differences don't show up until after middle school ages. Also women who normally score lower in math tests did much better when the time limit for the test was not used. This suggests that women simply use a different process in their thinking to solve these types of problems.

Research at the Henry Ford Health System has concluded that men have a greater age related brain shrinkage than women. They used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain size of three hundred and thirty men and women over the age of sixty six. Brain shrinkage is measured by the amount of fluid that develops around the outside of the brain. They found that men had far more fluid in the frontal and temporal lobes. These lobes control thinking, planning, and memory. Shrinkage was also found at the back of the brain in the parieto-occipital region of men. This area is responsible for thinking as well as sensory information. So the next time your husband says he forgot to bring home the milk, give him the benefit of the doubt!

Another study, by two doctors at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, has focused on matters of the heart. We have always known there are definite differences there, but this study concerns the gender specific biology of the structure of the heart. Up until recent years most studies have been on men, but every year 350,000 women die of heart disease. And half a million have heart attacks every year. This makes it the number one killer of women. The "sinus node", the heart's natural pacemaker, marks the cadence of a normal heartbeat. When this cadence is interrupted, it's called ventricular fibrillation. It means the heart cannot supply a regular blood flow to the heart. If this natural rhythm is not restored quickly, death will follow. Women have a faster resting heart rate than men. And they also have a longer QT, or separation between beats. This makes them susceptible to arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat. Knowing this fact can help doctors find gender specific therapies and drugs to treat heart problems in men and women.

While the monies for some of these studies would probably be better spent on research related to diseases like HIV, they are certainly fascinating. The differences between men and women will be debated until the end of time, but some understanding is a positive thing. Especially if it creates more patience and caring between the sexes. It's ok for there to be biological and physiological differences, as long as respect and love remain equal.