If you've ever suspected that the men in your life are operating on a different wavelength, you aren't entirely wrong. Researchers recently used brain imaging to map the pathways of thought in 949 subjects ages 8 to 22. The results revealed some distinct disparities in how males and females process information. To learn more, we reached out to study coauthor Raquel Gur, MD, PhD, director of the neuropsychiatry section at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

Q: Let's start with the data. Can you walk us through the difference you noticed?

A: We saw far more connections across the brain's two hemispheres in women than in men, indicating that women tend to adopt a more global approach to processing information. They take it all in, ping thoughts between areas associated with intuition and verbal reasoning and then make a decision. Men, on the other hand, show strong connections from the visual and perception centers in the back of the brain to the executive, action-oriented center in the frontal lobe. As a result, they are more likely to respond impulsively. I have to caution that these results reflect the average response—of course there were exceptions.

Q: Are you saying we're born this way? Couldn't the differences be a result of socialization?

A: What makes the findings noteworthy is that they can't just be socialization; they are rooted in biology, too. Men and women have striking distinctions across several anatomical measures, including brain structure and gray matter (women have a higher percentage than men). And in a new study, we found that women have a higher perfusion of blood flow to the brain than men, particularly to regions critical for emotional intelligence. Our environment influences us, but there is a biological basis to behavior that we can't ignore.

Q: Did the findings cause a stir?

A: They did. When I presented the study to our medical school students, very accomplished young women came up to me close to tears. Women don't want to be seen as different from men, and here we are saying that there are in fact biological differences. But I don't believe these findings are the problem. The problem is that society places value on which trait is better.

Q: So what's the takeaway?

A: Understanding how men's and women's brains work differently can help us be more sensitive to some gender-based traits. I hear women say, "My husband isn't in tune with the way I feel." Well, you have to work at it with him. If we cut each other some slack, we might just get along a little better.


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