Sunday, November 4, 2007

All in my head

Blustery weather yesterday after a hectic week propelled me to do something I haven't done in years: read a book start to finish in a single day. I picked up Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain" some weeks ago, intending to save it for travel reading. My fried brain was drawn to the subject yesterday, however, rewarding me with an eye-opening, unsettling, and thought-provoking afternoon.

Brizendine is a neuropsychiastrist with expertise and clinical practice on interactions between hormones and mood. The book explains the interaction between hormones and brain operation in women, with contrasting references to these interactions in men. Chapters cover the various stages of women's hormonal transitions, from birth, childhood, puberty, early adulthood, parenting, middle adulthood, and menopause. Each chapter explains the hormones and hormonal cycles that are most active within each of theses phases; these are related to brain functionality and how this predisposes women to pay attention to different issues at different phases of life and periods within the hormonal cycle. It's engaging and informative, with extensive citations and reference notes.

Brizendine wants women to understand how hormones influence brain function so they can anticipate and plan behavior accordingly. Knowing that we are hormonally predisposed to being more attuned to the needs of others in the first two weeks of our cycles, for example, may help women evaluate requests to take on additional tasks during this time (is this how I get talked into more committee work?). Understanding how hormone phases reduce our pleasure or anger responses may help us maintain stronger relationships, especially when the contrast to men's hormone and brain functions is clear.

The book was eye-opening because I didn't know about the hormonal phases over a lifetime, or much about how particular hormones predisposed me to certain responses. Looking back over my life for the last several weeks, the info presented in this book could explain a lot. And that's precisely what I found unsettling about it: it was too easy to agree with the findings she reports, too easy to wave a flag of womenhood and proclaim that "my hormones made me do it, and differently than he would have" (for appropriate values of he). Brizendine is well-aware of this potential and emphasizes the complementing role of nurture and our ability to choose how to react to biologically-motivated impulses. Any fault of overeager application of this book would be my fault, not hers.

But on some level, I do want to believe that the findings of these studies are valid. How wonderful to narrow the range of my influence in how I react as I defend my differences from the plethora of males around me. Responsibility is great, in moderation. And it's nice to have a readable reference that my reactions both are and are not "all in my head". I want to jump for relief having read this, yet bounce instead from the (appropriate) brakes of my scientific training. I also wanted a home-hormone test kit, so I could try mapping the results against my own moods and responses over time.

My most thought-provoking moment came in the section on puberty, discussing how girls in this stage become intensely focused on social bonding in contrast to boys who retreat. Against the imagery of girls obsessed with social connection and position, computing and science don't stand a chance as currently presented. If we truly want more women in these fields, we have to question something, whether it's how we expose pre-college students to these subjects or how we get students to stop selecting away from certain topics too early in life. I wonder whether those of us who did make it to college majors in these areas had different hormonal ratios than our female peers. Timing may be more problematic than we, or at least I, thought in thinking about how to make these fields more inviting to young women.


JustinZ said...

Did Brizendine say much about hormonal changes during pregnancy and breastfeeding? My wife is nursing our third child and has suffered a variety of swings, headaches, etc. due to the hormonal changes. If Brizendine talks about these much, if might be worth it for us to pick up this book.

Kathi Fisler said...

She has a chapter on pregnancy and chldrearing, including breastfeeding.