Women's Secrets: Clues to a Female Brain?

I was sitting on the train yesterday and couldn't help eavesdropping on the two women sitting in front of me. They looked about 40-something, casually dressed, and from outward appearance rather healthy.

Then they started talking about how they're cope with their ailments. One woman has epilepsy and talked about raising a toddler when she worries she may drop her if she seizes, and how she can no longer drive and has to rely on other people to chauffer them around. She also said that because her husband is working crazy hours and she needs a solid night's sleep, they sleep in separate beds during the week. The other woman, who suffers from vertigo -and well, I couldn't hear all the details of her diagnosis--talked about when and how you reveal your illness to someone you're dating.

About 45 minutes into their conversation, one woman said, "Oh my name is L." To which her train companion said, "Nice to meet you, I'm S."

Women share in ways that I totally get but my husband never would. To me, this one snippet of a conversation revealed a scientific truth: Men's brains and women's brains are wired differently.

Except for one thing. An Israeli study found just the opposite. Scientists at the University of Tel Aviv tried to divide 1,400 brains by gender. Was the amygdala, the emotional center, larger among the female brains? Was the gray matter, the nerve cells, bigger in the males? "There was no type of male brain or female brain." Daphna Joel, the leading investigator from Tel Aviv University told Science magazine. The study was published in the November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before we had the sophisticated brain imaging to study brains, we looked at hormones to understand gender differences. The thinking was that girls had estrogen and boys had testosterone. But in the 1920s, scientists spotted estrogen in men's urine and the facts got in the way of a good story.

"We are not yet able to explain this anomalous and disconcerting discovery," Dr. Robert Frank wrote in his 1929 book, The Female Hormone. The two hormones in one person should cancel each other out, he wrote. Maybe, he added, it wasn't so much that men had estrogen but they ate estrogen-like substances in their food (beets and caviar, for one) and peed it out.

In the most recent study, the scientists, concluded that regardless of the "observed sex/gender differences in brain and behavior (nature or nurture), human brains cannot be categorized into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain."

From my three studies, that include (1) the 45-minute women-on-a-train; (2) my 25 years of marriage and (3) raising two boys and two girls for more than a decade, I have to concur with the Israeli researchers. I've observed gender differences, but I haven't figured out the biological basis of it all.

Does it even matter? Well yes. As the Science article points out, some diseases strike men more than women, and vice versa. Boys are more likely to have autism, for instance. Girls are more likely to get rheumatoid arthritis. Gender-based studies are not trying to squeeze us into categories, but may one day lead to better treatments. Or maybe these scientific explorations will shed a glimmer of light on why some people who are complete strangers, like my fellow train riders, find solace in confiding with one another. It's a sisterhood that I know I need. Well, then again, maybe it's not so much a sisterhood, but a personhood, or just the way some of us are wired.

For more in depth reading on the subject by leading scholars in the field: