Women's Intuition: It's a Real Thing. Ask a Neuroscientist

Women's Intuition: It's a Real Thing. Ask a Neuroscientist

Why you should care

Thinking too much about what others are thinking is a good thing.

Author John Gray wrote in the ’90s that if men are from Mars, women are from Venus. But differences in communication styles — for example, men often want to solve problems, women want to talk about them — might actually come down to differences in women’s and men’s brains, new research suggests.

A study in the August issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease shows that women’s brains are significantly more active in many areas, compared to men’s brains. But also:

Women may exhibit more empathy, intuition, collaboration, self-control and appropriate concern because of increased blood flow in the brain.

Scientists at Amen Clinics used SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) imaging studies to monitor blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. They evaluated 46,000 studies on more than 25,000 men and women, including healthy individuals as well as those with a variety of psychiatric conditions, such as brain trauma, bipolar disorders, mood disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In total, 128 brain regions were analyzed on participants when they were at rest and again while they performed a 15-minute concentration task.

“I thought there would be differences, but I had no idea they’d be this significant,” says Daniel Amen, founder of Amen Clinics and lead author of the study. In addition to enhanced activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brains of women also showed more blood flow in the limbic or emotional areas, which involve mood, anxiety and depression. The hippocampus, or the memory center, was also more active in women’s brains. “If I make my wife mad, she doesn’t forget it,” Amen half-jokes.

The findings also suggest that “the female brain is wired for leadership.”

Men’s brains, on the other hand, showed more blood flow in the visual and coordination centers. Amen says the study supports the concept that men have very good tunnel vision, while women may have better peripheral vision.

The findings also suggest that “the female brain is wired for leadership,” Amen explains. The increased activity in a part of the brain called the insular cortex suggests that women might spend too much time thinking about what other people are thinking, but it also shows that they can connect well with others, since it takes a lot of brain activity to read and interact with people, he says.

Of course, the brain alone can’t take all the credit for an individual’s level of empathy and intuitiveness. “The role of the environment and learning may be more significant,” says Norma Feshbach, emeritus professor, chair and interim dean at UCLA. She questions whether the differences in the cortex and emotional behavior in adult populations are a function of experience and suggests that it may be necessary to study the issue developmentally. And Boston-based psychologist Aline Zoldbrod believes “huge differences in socialization” between men and women play a big role in their ability to be empathetic.

Beyond providing some scientific reasoning about why a husband might lack empathy about his wife’s bad day, the study has broader implications — such as the role of precision medicine in treating mental illnesses in the future. “Perhaps the medications or supplements that we use for depression should be different for women and men,” Amen says, noting that serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or antidepressants, commonly prescribed for patients with depression are probably more effective for women. “If you have sleepy frontal lobes, as many men do, you don’t want to calm them down — and doing so can actually hurt them.”

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