Does it make you uncomfortable to think that there really are biological differences in the brains of men and women? Not me; I’ve seen those differences play out over a lifetime in precisely the ways suggested by a new study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered many more neural connections running from the front of the brain to the back within each hemisphere in males, while in females there are far more connections running left and right across the two hemispheres.
According to lead investigator Ragini Verma, Ph.D., the wiring in men supports greater connectivity between sense perceptions and coordinated actions. In contrast, female wiring patterns facilitate greater connectivity between analytical and intuitive capabilities. “These maps show us a stark difference–and complementarity–in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others,” the researchers concluded.
For instance, they report that on average, men tend to be better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women tend to display superior memory and social cognition skills, making them on average better equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.
Why do studies like this matter? Sure, sex discrimination in the workplace remains real and limits income and upward mobility for too many talented women. But don’t we now see enough women of power and accomplishment in business, industry, education, the professions, and government that we may be ready to celebrate and make good use of our differences rather than insisting on biological sameness as necessary foundation for sexual equality?
Might these differences also have implications for the work of conflict resolution professionals? I’m not suggesting sexual stereotyping, but we’ve now got hard science to support our intuitions about how clients process information. Since these gender-based brain differences are real, I’m suggesting that awareness of the differences might be a tool that could help us quickly figure out what’s going on during negotiations and how we might help.
Consider that the “homework assignments” we give clients to prepare for negotiating sessions can serve more than one purpose. There is specific information we need them to gather that is an essential foundation for bargaining toward settlement. At the same time, we may be able to help emotionally overloaded clients to calm down and feel more competent if we make sure that the homework we give them includes tasks that play to their strong suit, whether it’s drilling down on a specific problem and solution, or whether it’s intuitively imagining what the human needs and challenges might be in connection with various options for resolution.
What do you think? Are these biological differences in the architecture of male and female human brains a useful perspective for illuminating how our emotionally-distressed clients–or even our professional colleagues– may be approaching problem solving?