Jewish World Review July 30, 2002 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5762
Sound familiar? A new study says it may be no accident that there's a battle between the sexes, at least when it comes to the emotionally laden issue of . . . emotions.
The prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just reported the findings of a study showing that men's and women's brains are hardwired quite differently for emotion. When the genders were exposed to a series of photographs, both neutral and highly evocative, the women were much more emotionally responsive overall, and in many more areas of their brains, than were the men as measured through an MRI. And three weeks later the women could remember the photos they'd rated as emotionally intense at significantly higher rates than could the men.
The authors of the study posited that the physical design of a woman's brain is much better suited than a man's for sensing, processing, and remembering emotions. (Apparently this study is consistent with other research.) Sure there will be wide variations. But generally speaking, it seems we gals feel things a lot more intensely than the guys. And we don't forget those feelings, either.
Memo to the National Academy of Sciences: This is not news.
What may be news, at least to this generation of men and women, is that these differences do not mean there has to be a war between the sexes.
A wise older friend of mine once observed that historically women had wonderful networks of women friends with whom they shared strong emotional connections. Women who really did understand each other's highs and lows and cherished the richness of each other's emotional complexity. Those friendships often strengthened the marriages of women who didn't resent their husbands for not always being able or willing to share that complexity.
But then, boom! Along came the woman's movement. Men and women aren't just equal, they're the same, we were told. Friends are fine, but women should be looking to their husbands or boyfriends to meet every emotional need. And if he can't or won't change (read: improve) into what she needs him to be, then he's just a brute.
Fast forward to "Oprah" and tearful discussions bemoaning a world dominated by insensitive men. You know, the kind who buy red roses for her birthday when HE KNOWS she likes yellow ones best.
Meanwhile, guys feel under attack for picking the wrong color flowers when they thought they were showing how much they cared by getting those roses in the first place. So they just throw up their hands and think, "It's just flowers and she's just too emotional." How to get out of that destructive spiral? Simple. Forget the "man bad/woman good" message of today's culture and celebrate the hardwired differences.
Being emotional is wonderful for nurturing friendships, children, and romantic relationships. But it's not great for decision-making. (Women, for instance, are far more likely than men to think the federal government should spend more on education but they are far less likely than men to have an idea of the size of the federal education budget.) Sometimes a more detached stance really is a healthier one. (It's not surprising that women are far more likely than men to become clinically depressed.)
Most often it's a balance of the differences that enhances a relationship. That happens when men and women learn from each other. He may not ever be "in touch" with his feelings as much as she is - which contrary to popular opinion does not make him a lower life form - but he should understand that her feelings really are important. She's not being overemotional when he picks the wrong color flowers. That color means something to her and it's up to him to appreciate and respect those feelings - even if he doesn't fully understand them.
Meanwhile, she needs to realize that being a woman doesn't mean being "better." That maybe sometimes she needs to look at the situation more objectively, even while embracing her emotions. So, she might recognize that as much as he loves her he may not be able to meet her every emotional need or desire, and that's where friendships with women - as long as they don't sit around man-bashing - can be wonderfully enriching to herself and her relationship with him. And anyway picking the wrong color flowers doesn't have to mean everything. He did get some terrific roses, after all.
In sum: Vive la difference.
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