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The Space Between: Louann Brizendine, USCF Neuropsychiatrist

Photography by Timothy Archibald

It’s a cliché, but Louann Brizendine doesn’t doubt that the penis has a mind of its own. Autopilot erections are uncontrollable and don’t necessarily mean a man wants to have sex. That’s just one of the stereotypes the Sausalito resident examines in her book, The Male Brain, the followup to her best-selling The Female Brain. Using research and anecdotal evidence drawn from her practice, Brizendine shines a light on how men’s brains develop, what makes guys fall in love, and why they finally commit.

What made you want to take on men’s brains?
People think that the male brain is obvious and simple. Everyone joked that my book on men was going to be small, the size of a pamphlet. But men are incredibly complex. Whatever wave of feminism we’re in now, it’s a feminism that embraces differences between men and women, honors them, and capitalizes on them.

What makes us so different from each other?
Well, we’re more alike than different. We are the same species after all. But the differences have to do with the fuel running male and female brains: hormones. The biggest difference comes from the tsunami of testosterone that marinates the male brain in a growing fetus. It causes some areas of the brain to grow larger or shrink. In fact, the area for sexual pursuit in men grows 2.5 times larger than in women during puberty. It causes boys to start looking for the female figure, to start noticing a woman’s flat stomach, which means she’s not pregnant with another man’s child, and breasts, a sign that she’s fertile.

Communication is a big sticking point for a lot of couples. How do men process emotions?
I always hear about a woman coming home, bubbling over with a problem. Before she can finish telling him the issue, he’s telling her how to fix it. All she wants to hear is that he understands how she feels. She doesn’t want him to fix things for her. But his impulse and the way he expresses love for her is to take the pain away from her because he immediately goes from his mirror neurons, which allow for emotional empathy, to the temporal parietal junction, how the brain searches for solutions. If you understand that, you have a better sense of the way you communicate.

Does this come up at home, with your husband?
Of course. I finally wrote on a sticky note for my husband: Honey, I understand how you feel. The note’s on his computer, and it’s what I need to hear when I tell him my problems. It’s scripted, but it works.

In scientific terms, what’s love?
Falling in love is a hormonal and brain circuit phenomenon. A man’s testosterone level goes down when in a monogamous relationship, and his sexual energy focuses on one person. His brain can no longer think of a future without that other person. We call that emotional bonding. It’s a good question to ask yourself: Can I live without this person? Falling out of love can also be captured by the answer to that question.

What’s the daddy brain?
When a woman is pregnant, her changing hormones affect her pheromones, which waft into her partner’s nose and cause his hormones to change. Prolactin increases, and testosterone decreases, making the father’s brain more tuned into taking care of a helpless baby. Even his auditory circuits retune to hear an infant’s cry. Pregnancy seems like such a non-shared experience, but it isn’t.

Why do men cheat?
In studies, they found a monogamy gene. Men with the longer version were more likely to be married, and their wives reported happier marriages. But biology does not give men a free pass. After all, everyone needs to learn to behave in a civilized fashion. Hormones may increase certain urges, especially sexual ones, but controlling those urges is what we all learn to do.

So we’re different yet the same. Now what?
It’s good to put on male-colored glasses to see what it’s like. It helps us get along better and appreciate each other. But that might just be my female way of looking at it.


—Lauren Ladoceour

* Published in the February 2011 issue of 7x7. Subscribe to 7x7 magazine here.