I have a few things to say about this book, and mostly they are below the fold. First, a general gripe. Why, in this day and age, isn't there a niche for the 80 page book? Because I am sick of books that have been stretched and extended to make 150 pages. I would buy an 80 page book (although not for $24.95, don't get me started) and I would be glad to read a compellingly written 80 page discourse.
This book is 164 pages, if you count the 11 page "Introduction" preceding Chapter 1, which the page numbering folks decided to do. There are various appendices and endnotes and an index that stretch the package out to 278 pages, but really there's about 80 pages of substance here. The author inserts anecdotes and some handwaving and some editorializing to get this manuscript to book length, and I really wish she hadn't. The substance interests me; the anecdotes and handwaving don't.
Another bit before I get into the details of the book. I've read a fair number of books on related subjects: brain chemistry and/or structure, and how evolutionary imperatives created the way we perceive, interpret, experience, feel the sensations and moods that make up reality. Listening to Prozac is one such book, probably the best I've read. The Moral Animal is another I haven't reread in years, but that made a strong impression in 1995. I think it's possible to write a good, mainstream book about brain structure and human experience and behavior that blends science and anecdote. I don't think The Female Brain succeeds in this endeavor as much as some of those other books.
So here's a summary of the book: Womens' brains are different than mens'. The difference is not only in size (womens' are smaller, consistent with smaller skull size), but in structure, chemistry, and function. Some functional areas of the brain are bigger in men and some in women; some pathways or connections between areas are more direct and wired for speed in one gender, and some in the other. Besides the structural differences, women's brains are susceptible to changing hormonal levels that have a pretty big impact on the function of different areas of the brain. The two times in a womans' life that hormone levels approximate the kind of steady-state that male brains have are in girlhood, from age 3 to puberty, and after menopause. At all other times, there are big hormone-induced changes going on in the female brain, so it changes pretty radically (and pretty differently than mens' brains) during infancy, puberty, adulthood, motherhood, and menopause.
The book goes through each of these stages in a chapter (plus a chapter on sex and a chapter on emotion). Ostensibly, the book describes the life stage, the hormone mixture and its impact on the brain, the studies that highlight brain processing differences between women at this stage and women at other stages, and/or between women at this stage and men, and then includes some discussion of what the adaptive advantage of this difference in brain function might have been, evolutionarily. And it discusses the problems or opportunities this brain difference presents in modern life.
The problem with the book is that the author seems consumed by the fear that someone is going to use this book to make damning generalizations about women. She makes up for this by stridently declaring, at every discussion of apparent structural, chemical, or functional brain difference between men and women, that women's brains are superior. She stretches to do this, contradicting earlier statements (e.g. that the size of a portion of the brain doesn't have anything to do with intelligence or functionality -- once she says size doesn't matter (when mens' brains are bigger), and once she says it does (if an area of a man's brain is smaller)), and being unnecessarily pejorative about men. Her stridency undercuts the trustworthiness of the science she is presenting, and it makes the book really irritating to read.
Nonetheless, here's what I think I learned. You can draw your own conclusions about what it means for the world. If it sounds familiar and like cliche, that shouldn't be too surprising, but I'm only putting things in here that I was satisfied have some basis in brain chemistry. Here you go:
Women have more brainspace devoted to detecting and interpreting the emotions of other people, and success at forming relationships releases dopamine and oxytocin, a pleasure chemical, for women that reinforces a sense that relationships are of primary importance.
Women are more susceptible to stress and worry: their "anxiety" center is bigger than that in men, and abstract dangers are more real to them than to men (men have a higher threshhold, or require something to be more immediate, before responding to a threat). At different times in their menstrual cycle, the worry trigger can be extremely sensitive.
Conflict and competition are often fun for men, and can trigger pleasure centers for them, while womens brains are much more likely to respond to conflict with stress and fear.
There's a pheremone in the smell of a baby's head that produces oxytocin (the pleasure chemical) in the smeller -- so a woman *can* get baby lust from the soft smell of a baby's head. I knew it.
Pregnancy spikes progesterone in the bloodstream, which has a sedating effect, and the brain shrinks, although it gains size again right around birth. Focus shifts to vigilance and protection, and spatial memory improves. Dopamine and oxytocin, pleasure chemicals associated with intimate communication and orgasm, are also released by contact with the baby, including breastfeeding. Breastfeeding causes a "fuzzy brain" state -- unfocused, forgetful. The structural changes in spatial memory, adaptiveness, courageousness, and flexibility persist all through a woman's life after motherhood, but the fog goes away after breastfeeding stops.
Women detect and remember emotion differently and with more sensitivity than men. This creates lots of misunderstandings, as does the fact that men's anger threshhold is much lower and its processing center much more direct than women's.
The drop in estrogen and oxytocin at menopause make women less interested in emotion, conflict avoidance, and tending to others. The chemical feedback that provided pleasure from relationship building dries up, as does the level of testosterone that drives an interest in sex. Meanwhile the ratio of estrogen to testosterone changes and so women's anger pathways become more like men's, and makes women less likely to avoid arguments. In combination, these changes make a pretty dramatic worldview shift for many postmenopausal women.