Ever wonder how a woman’s mind works?

That’s actually the title of this illustration Elizabeth Hemmerdinger recently shared with me (Elizabeth is off this week, so please bear with my guest analysis). It’s a nifty visual, one that humorously acknowledges the multi-tasking abilities and supreme organizational skills that daily life requires.

I’ve come across some versions, though, that include descriptive text, like: “Every one of those little blue balls is a thought about something that needs to be done, a decision that needs to be made, or a problem that needs to be solved or a man’s new nightmare!!!” On occasion the language has been more insulting — and further perpetuates a needless gender divide while simultaneously fulfilling retro stereotypes.

Unfortunately, the notion that men’s brains and women’s brains are as different as Mars and Venus is all too common in e-mail jokes and cartoons (and famously in the mind of a former Harvard president, as well).

The stereotypes deserve some further scrutiny. And what better place to start than this study from the journal Science, which seems to offer a definitive answer to the question of whether women talk more than men.

The short answer: Not.

Both men and women use an average of 16,000 words per day, according to researchers (read or listen to the discussion at NPR).

“I was a little surprised there wasn’t any gender influence, because this stereotype of women talking more is such a powerful, popular idea,” said Richard Slatcher, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Texas and one of the authors of the study. “But we were able to directly test the notion, and it’s totally unfounded.”

Last year there was much publicity surrounding Louann Brizendine’s book, “The Female Brain,” particularly the claim, “A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000.” Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman, a professor of phonetics at the University of Pennsylvania, deconstructed the flimsy support for this false assertion, which had been cited elsewhere, too. (A useful archive of Liberman’s writing on “The Female Brain” — and stories that exaggerate the gender divide — is available here.)

There’s lots of research on the differences between men and women’s brains, of course — but no consensus on what those differences mean or how best to interpret them. Some really smart writing on this subject has been done by Rosalind C. Barnett and Caryl Rivers. In the article, “New Gender Myths Supported by Dubious Research,” they write, “One trendy new theory is that women’s brain structures make them ill-suited for leadership. […] It’s interesting how all the leadership roles in society require the male brain, while the female brain lends itself to the domestic arena. All those women lawyers, journalists, accountants, and investment bankers are clearly out of place.”

Over at The American Prospect website, J. Goodrich, in part drawing on Rivers’ newest book, “Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women,” recently discussed how the media gives more coverage to gender research that seems to support traditional roles for women. (For more on “Selling Anxiety,” see this commentary by Rivers published in May at Women’s Voices for Change.)

One area where the biological differences between men and women is more deserving of study is healthcare. And indeed the subject of how men and women perceive and respond to pain has been getting more attention lately.

“A new report by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) shows that, as the U.S. population ages, patient complaints of pain and use of painkillers are rising, particularly in white women older than 45. Researchers are still trying to learn how much of the rise is sex-related and how much is tied instead to such factors as age, personality and overall health,” wrote Francesca Lunzer Kritz in the Washington Post in December.

The story included information from a 2006 University of Maryland conference on gender and pain research. Kritz’s piece also reviews recent studies about how men and women experience pain (see this accompanying graphic) and notes that one of the important points of the UMD conference was to “devise guidelines to help standardize future research.”

“For example,” writes Kritz, “since studies show that men’s tendency to delay pain treatment increases their risk during a heart attack, should pain scales be sex-specific to ensure more-prompt care? Or should women in a clinical trial of pain medication all start painkillers on the same day of their menstrual cycle so that researchers can factor in how estrogen might relieve or exacerbate pain — and whether women need different doses of pain relievers than men?”

Paula Kamen is one woman who can tell you a lot about pain and pain management. The author of “All in My Head: An Epic Quest to Cure an Unrelenting, Totally Unreasonable, and Only Slightly Enlightening Headache” — a funny, feminist book — Kamen has been managing a chronic daily headache for more than 15 years. (Women, by the way, are more likely than men to experience migraines and other severe headaches). If you’ve got  chronic pain, be sure to check her website for patient resources. There’s also a list of related academic books and memoirs.

And please send in your own comments on when or if our sex matters — in everything from our brains to our pains.


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