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The title of this audiobook pinpoints the situation: men's brains share an important aspect, gender, but what can really be said about "The male brain," or male brains in general? Furthermore, how much can be said about it, and with what degree of certainty? How do we know what is due to nature and what belongs to nurture? These are interesting questions indeed, notoriously difficult to answer. However, the title of The Male Brain does not hesitate. It is unequivocal and all-encompassing, making me curious to find out about the truths that I must have missed but which now seem to be available in audio format.
Louann Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist interested in hormonal influences on brain and behavior. Previous publications include the bestseller The Female Brain (2006), which has been criticized for its lack of scientific support by some and welcomed with a deep "finally..!" by others, after which it is now time for The Male Brain, "a book on the development of the male brain throughout the lifespan especially related to hormonal and cultural aspects of psychological development and behavior", according to Brizendine herself.
The book takes us through the different stages of the male life cycle: "The Boy Brain", "The Teen Boy Brain", "The Mating Brain", "The Daddy Brain" and so on. Related to each of these chapters are stories of patients who exemplify the inevitable – his male brain's effects on his choices and behavior. In many of these cases, the case example is identical to the most common stereotypes about men and boys. The examples do, however, give coherent explanations to why boys will be boys and men make houses while women make homes; I am sure that many readers of The Male Brain will find themselves thinking "why hasn't anybody told me this before?! Now I understand!" But is it true? There is no way of knowing.
Brizendine writes with the authority of an expert, but it is more than unclear which parts of the book depict well-researched phenomena and which ones are closer to fiction. Furthermore, in my audiobook version, Kimberley Farr reads the text so that it sounds like a fairy tale rather than a text to think about and reflect critically upon. Metaphors and catchy phrases abound, such as the male brain being a "lean, mean, problem-solving machine" and "boys were programmed to move". This, in combination with Farr's storyteller-voice, makes me almost embarrassed when a colleague enters my office while I'm listening to it. And that's not all: to add even more fairy tale feeling to The Male Brain, probably with the intent of making the text more accessible, "the cast of neurohormone characters" are referred to as, for example, "Zeus" (testosterone), "Hercules" (Müllerian inhibiting substance), "The Gladiator" (cortisol) and "The Energizer" (dopamine). Oh, we must not forget oxytocin, "The Lion Tamer": "with just a few cuddles and strokes, this "down, boy" hormone settles and calms even the fiercest of beasts. He increases empathic ability and builds trust circuits, romantic-love circuits, and attachment circuits in the brain.[...] He promotes feelings of safety and security and is to blame for a man's "postcoital narcolepsy"." At times I think I am reading the Sunday supplement.
The biggest difference between hearing The Male Brain and listening to other researchers in this area of study is that Brizendine doesn't share any doubt or uncertainty, like most researchers do; she just gladly explains the big and true picture (in a 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth' fashion). I now sound very critical, but please don't get me wrong; there is a lot of "good stuff" in this book, for sure, and it has been both interesting and enlightening to hear Brizendine's thoughts and understanding of how the male brain develops and functions throughout a boy's/man's life. The problem is that I don't know how to "weigh the evidence" that I am presented with, so to speak. This becomes particularly important due to the elusive nature of neuropsychology; fMRI data don't speak for themselves (nor are they easy to interpret even for a pro), and they certainly aren't necessarily evidence of a fact (even if they have the "scientifically proven"-look).
The Male Brain is a book about "the male reality", which is claimed by the author to be "fundamentally different from the female one, and all too frequently oversimplified and misunderstood". If this is true I am afraid that The Male Brain itself is the epitome of reasons for this being the case. In many ways I liked Brizendine's story, but I don't feel like I know all that much more about "the male brain". Men are still a mystery to me, and it's all good. With time, experience and research, I and the rest of us will find out more, but this book isn't a shortcut.
© 2011 Minna Forsell
Minna Forsell is a psychologist, graduated from the University of Stockholm. She currently works in a psychiatric health care center in Volda, Western Norway.