Brain Differences Between Boys And Girls

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Feb 2, 2011

You'll learn about evidence that boy psychology is not just socialized but also hardwired into our sons. I will argue that every boy is driven from deep within to try to become (in our metaphorical language) a magical boy, an adolescent seeker, and an adult hero. I believe these drives (which we can under-nurture if we don't understand them) to be central to human development: basic drives toward purpose that have been building in male genetics and the male psyche for almost a million years.

Thankfully, recent evidence from neurobiology can now help us see the inner world of boys. Neurobiologists have been able to track over one hundred biological differences between the male and female brain. The following are just a few that we'll see apply beautifully to the male way of developing empathy, social maturity, and purpose, and most importantly, to his need for our help in nurturing, fully, his development of these assets.

  • There is 15–20 percent more neural activity in a girl's brain than a boy's at a given time. Neither the boy's or girl's brain is superior or inferior, but differences in brain activity enable different parts of the female brain to work simultaneously in ways that the male brain does not. The male brain tends to compartmentalize its brain activity into fewer brain centers than the female brain does.
  • Girls and women have a greater number of nerve fibers in their skin as boys and men. Thus, pressure receptors on the skin and pain receptors in the brain are less sensitive in the male brain than in the female. Males feel pain, of course, but their bodies and brains feel less pain and move less experience of felt pain through the brain at any given moment than does a girl's body and brain.
  • Boys' brains have more gray matter, and girls' brains more white matter. Gray matter, a kind of neurotransmitter, localizes, compartmentalizes, and keeps brain activity in a single place in the brain—for instance, in an aggressive part of the brain—rather than spreading activity throughout other parts of the brain, such as in an area that reads emotions. White matter, however, constantly networks brain activity to different parts of the brain, including emotion and empathy centers.
  • A boy's brain "shuts off" (enters a rest state) more times per day than a girl's brain tends to do—as a result, boys and girls generally have different approaches to paying attention, visioning their future, completing a task, de-stressing, feeling emotions, relating to others, becoming bored, and even having basic conversations.
  • In the male brain, especially in the right hemisphere, there are more neural centers than in the female brain that focus on how objects move around in physical space. Boys spend more time than girls manipulating and testing cubes, footballs, other kinds of balls, rocks, and other physical objects, and also relate to other people more than girls do with balls, darts, sticks, paint guns, bulls, fences, and thousands of other objects as "relational intermediaries"—objects that make relationship comfortable for males.
  • A girl's brain processes information and experience in different parts of the brain at different times than a boy's does, including the aggression-emotion center, the amygdala. Because of such structural differences in the brain we all tend to sense that "boy energy" and "girl energy" are different. Boy energy tends more than girl energy toward physical hitting of each other as a bonding mechanism, jabbing at one another, bantering, and other dominance and aggression activities through which to relate and show love.
  • A boy's hippocampus (a major memory center in the brain) is generally less active than that of a girl, especially during most emotional and relational experiences. Living out his developmental journey, a boy may not recall portions of it that a girl will recall, and not be sure what to do next, but a girl can often more fluidly multitask in memory and in her daily life. More than girls, boys will often wish they received more external guidance for what memories are important to their inner motivation, their future success, and their personal power.
  • A girl's occipital, parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes are all generally more active than those of a boy. One outcome of this is less linkage in a boy's brain between memory centers and other centers that pick up sensation (seeing, hearing, touching), and to the word-making centers of the brain. Therefore, girls will often have a greater sensorial experience of their surroundings at any given moment, store more of this in their memories, attach more of the experience to emotions, and finally connect more of those sensorial experiences, memories, and emotions to words.

                                            Understanding Purpose

                        Biochemical Differences Between Boys and Girls

The structural differences between boys' and girls' brains are augmented by chemical differences, as follows:

  • Boys have between ten and twenty times more testosterone than girls do. Testosterone is a risk-taking and aggression chemical.
  • Boys have less of the bonding chemical, oxytocin. Boys certainly bond, but they do not tend to reach out to and bond with as many people as girls do. They often need more help in finding crucial bonding opportunities and "moments." They will often need us to structure for them team games and mentoring systems in which they can form "boy bonds," where talk and emotionality generally follows action and doing.
  • Boys often have less serotonin, a chemical that calms us down, and they often have less serotonin moving through their frontal lobe (the decision-making part of the brain). With less serotonin, boys are generally more physically and socially impulsive, have more trouble controlling themselves than girls, and their decision making is often less "thought through" than that of girls, especially in adolescence.
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