I recently read The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (Basic Books, 2003) by Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Cambridge University. Anyone interested in the source and nature of gender differences (i.e., everyone) will find this an interesting book, and people with an interest in understanding autism are particularly encouraged to find a copy and read it.
First, some context. One line in the Proclamation proclaims, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” What exactly is “essential” to “gender” and “identity,” and how those terms relate to body and spirit, has been the subject of much speculation (for example, here, here, and here). These questions make the general topic of some interest to many LDS readers, but I don’t plan to directly address any of those questions. I’m just going to talk about the book, which is interesting enough all on its own.
Empathizers. The author was kind enough to summarize the book on page 1 as follows: “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” But he quickly relabels the “female brain” as type E, the “male brain” as type S, and notes that these attributes are distributed on something like a normal curve in both sexes. So there will be women who have type S brains and are good at systems stuff, and men who have type E brains and can hold deep, meaningful conversations with other humans, although the distribution for women is skewed in favor of type E and for men in favor of type S.
He defines empathizing as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion.” He offers a whole chapter of evidence of the female brain, type E, as empathizer, drawn largely from developmental studies of children:
- Style of play – Girls will bargain and persuade to get what they want, whereas boys will often just unempathetically push and shove. Given a set of ride-around cars, boys will play the ramming game; girls will generally avoid that sort of thing.
- Concern – “Baby girls, as young as twelve months old, respond more empathetically to the distress of other people, showing greater concern for others through more sad looks, sympathetic vocalizations, and comforting behavior.”
- Theory of Mind – “[B]y the age of three young girls are already ahead of boys in their ability to infer what people might be thinking or intending — that is, in using a ‘theory of mind.’”
- Jealousy – Men report subjective distress to a partner’s imagined sexual infidelity; women react more to a partner’s becoming emotionally involved with another.
- Hierarchies – In a group, boys are quick to establish a “dominance hierarchy” (I know this comes as a complete shock to most readers). Girls hang back, first being nice and establishing relationships. Later, they vie for social dominance using more subtle strategies like verbal put-downs and withholding communication or eye contact.
- Eyes and Faces – “There are claims that from birth, female infants look longer at faces, and particularly at people’s eyes, while male infants are more likely to look at inanimate objects.”
Systematizers. Guys may be emotional and relationship clods, but they do have their own way of getting things done. The operative word here is “things.” “Systematizing is the drive to understand a system and to build one.” A system here means not just a mechanical system, but any input-output relationship or mechanism, which the author extends to include “math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, logic, music, military strategy, the climate, sailing, horticulture, and computer programming.” He missed pinball machines and computer games, but it’s still a nice list. This even extends to motor systems (guys just need to perfect swinging a golf club, juggling, or mastering that elusive but coolistic guitar riff) and classification systems (meticulously arranging that collection of 300 CDs in just the right way or collecting books full of observations from birdwatching or trainspotting).
Okay, that’s the first half of the book, and I didn’t even talk about the unnerving chapter on summer camp. Mull over this empathizing/systematizing model for awhile and a few strange things about your childhood might suddenly make some sense. The second half of the book covers culture (it does play a role), biology (the role of testosterone in the development of the male brain, even before birth), and the evolution of the male and female brain. While the thrust of the book is exploring differences, the author points out that although differences are real and measurable, they are still small differences in normal people. [We all, both guys and gals, learn to speak a language, make friends, and successfully order a cheeseburger and fries.]
Autism. But what about people at the extremes? That’s where autism enters the story. Baron-Cohen sees autism as an effect of “the extreme male brain”: very weak empathy and an overdeveloped need for systematizing things. This may make an individual only mildly dysfunctional and possibly quite successful, as in a man who simply has no interest in casual conversation and is happy spending all day alone in his laboratory or workshop tinkering with this or measuring that. Or it may become so extreme that an afflicted individual cannot relate to other people or even speak, and will exhibit obsessive interests in various unusual topics. The author also discusses Asperger Syndrome and the “autism spectrum.” These are not subjects I am really very familiar with, but what struck me is how understandable, even how natural albeit extreme, these conditions are following the author’s model and his discussion of empathizing and systematizing in the earlier sections of the book.
Meanwhile, back in Zion … I’m not sure how all this relates to our opening quotation — “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” — but it does seem to place gender differences in a natural rather than an artificial or culturally-induced context. And there seems to be some application of empathizing and systematizing to the functional roles that men and women occupy in the organization and function of LDS wards. Maybe women do compassionate service because they actually care about other people and talk to people who are sad or lonely. Whereas men (systematizers) will compute a home-teaching percentage which they put in a report that gets transmitted up the hierarchy to be discussed in a meeting (which is organized by a 9-item agenda and which produces a list of action items). Yes, it all makes a little more sense now.