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Men/Women : Emotion and Multi-tasking

by Helen Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 07:41:10 AM EST

Not actually a political diary, but women's politics matter in modern Europe and sometimes it may help to understand how different men and women are.


In the last decade much evidence has emerged that there are genuine physiological differences between the brains of men and women and how these differences are exaggerated or diminished in certain ways by the actions of hormones in the bloodstream. However, the difficulty is that there are no clear cut black/white differences that can be pointed at to back up these findings, merely psychological tests and statistical analysis that suggest men are more likely to be this, women are more likely to be that. The problem is that it's very difficult to arrive at an unbiased view of the state of being male and female, most of us are one or the other all our lives and comparisons are hard.

However, I have, in the last three and a half years, been taking that fairly rare journey from some form of masculinity to a kind of femininity. Those who met me in Paris last May already know, or at least suspect, this. So, to some extent, I'm actually qualified to talk about the differences. These are some of my thoughts and observations which might interest you. It is entirely unscientific, unapologetically impressionistic and based on a statistical sample of one - me !! So take it with however many tons of salt you feel appropriate.  

The overwhelming difference that I've encountered is in the quality and quantity of emotional imput. Men, or at least me anyway, and I wouldn't say I was entirely untypical, have relatively simple emotions. I won't say they only come in primary "colours", but they generally come one at a time. Men are happy, sad, nervous, angry etc etc. There might be a bit of background to them but, emotionally, guys are WYSIWYG.

Even "better", actually having to take account of emotions can be pretty much optional. When I remember how I used to feel before I began my transition I visualise my emotions as being in a bucket down on my right hand side. I could put my hand in, touch them, taste them, and experience them whenever I wanted. But if I had to, I could look away and they weren't there.

However, within about 4 months of starting to take feminizing hormones, things changed a bit. The first thing I noticed was that one day there was a kaleidoscope of emotions all hitting me at once. Initially they came singly, but changing every 3 - 4 seconds, then over a couple of days they began to layer so that I simply didn't have a clue how I felt from moment to moment. I'd never experienced anything like it and it was a somewhat disorientating effect

Also the ability to ignore emotion had gone, I felt that now I was viewing the world through a bubble of emotions. Everywhere I turned, they coloured my understanding. However, given that I was pretty aware that women had a different relationship with their emotions I was prepared to ride it out on the premise that my mind would probably adapt.

And funnily enough within three or four days things did quieten down as I learnt to be more comfortable with the input. I "played" with the feelings, teasing them apart, learning the nuances of these blends and layers.

I imagine it's something that all teenage girls do very soon after the onset of puberty, but then, like all teenagers, their world is changing so fast in every aspect that they forget this learning ever happened. All through this process I have found myself being forcibly reminded of things that happened to me as a teenager whenever something similar was re-enacted in my brain. At first I'd feel shocked that I could have forgotten something so profound, but gradually, as each new one comes in you realise that teenage is about changing, the process of becoming an adult. After a while the shock of the new displaces the memory of the old. It's a strange thing to have to be forcibly reminded how rapidly and profoundly we change during that period. There is a reason for the forgetting, which I'll come to.

After a few months of coming to terms with this and the other little changes in my head, I began to understand these emotional changes, not as representative of how I was feeling consciously, moods that I was imposing on my world-view. Instead I began to recognise them as communications from non-verbal parts of my brain. The multiple emotional states I experienced could be seen as several messages coming in at once from different parts of my brain. Blending was complementary, layering was difference. From this I began to experiment with feedback. I was literally trying to establish communication from my conscious directing ego to those other parts of me. The ghost in the machine was learning the internal language of my own mind.

According to brain scans, women "live in" more of their brain at any one time than men do. whilst it is impossible to gain any qualitative idea of what is occuring from these scans, my experience suggests that this dialogue is ongoing. Indeed, perhaps women's sensitivity and alleged intuition comes from the ability to better interpret impressions and react to insight from different parts of the brain.

This is what led me to the conclusion that this is how women's ability to multi-task comes about. They can delegate and supervise processes in a way that men cannot. I think it settles in so early in teenage that most have forgotten they ever had to learn it; it simply becomes their natural internal landscape. It is only because I can consciously compare it with a previous and different internal self that I remain so aware of it. Unfortunately, having been created male I do not have the necessary structures in place to move from this precursor state into the ability to multi-task. I can see how it works, but it isn't within me to get there.

However, this changed emotional landscape leads to a phenomenon that all transgendered people share. Which is that we lose contact with the person we used to be. When I was a male I felt a sense of continuity with myself , I may have felt I was stupid in my behaviour when I was younger, I may disagree with the ideas I had at that time but I could easily put myself into that person and know that he was me.

However within a few months of taking hormones I felt a sense of discontinuity. I ceased to be him, even to be sympathetic to him. My internal emotional landscape has changed so much that my memory of what it felt like to be him no longer mapped onto my current self. Even whilst sharing the memories, I now find it hard to settle easily into his head. He has become a stranger to me.

I think this is possibly why all of us find it so hard to recover childhood. A similar discontinuity happens at puberty as we enter into a new mental environment. We think of it as maturing, but childhood is another country to us.

Of course, there are so many other differences in brain structures of men and women that I cannot suggest that this is represents a definitive view of how differently men and women perceive the world. It is just my view that a difference exists and that it is a pretty profound one. It leads on to a discussion of how emotional input shapes reasoning processes for women. But this is already a long diary and that's another topic.

Display:
Helen, thanks a lot for sharing your experiences. I once worked with someone who went from female to male, even though it is some time ago, I remember how overtime the style or quality of the talks changed. Not better or worse, just very different.

One difference I observed between my male and female students for yoga and meditation is their approach to doing it. It seems the man when they decided that this is good for them thats it, the decide once and then they just do it. The women on the other hand get up in the morning reflect, about how their doing their yoga would affect the children, the cat, the husband, etc.... and by the time they considered everything, most of the time it is to late to do it. On of the few things I found I prefer the male pattern. Okay, I know it sound cliché, but it really seems to work like this for most.

by Fran on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 08:16:03 AM EST
So, does Nike's Just Do It™ appeal mostly to men? Or is it ultimately addressed at women?

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 08:18:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Good question!
by Fran on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 08:22:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In terms of sales, for a very long time it mostly appealed to men. They started in the last couple of years to attempt to modify the images connected with the slogan to capture more of the female market.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 01:31:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To echo Fran, yes...thank you very much Helen for sharing this very personal sie of yourself. I can only imagine what this journal might be like.

Sychronistically, Lil and I were just taking about male and female braing differences the other day. She said she read someplace where the man's brain is more split, where the woman's brain has more connections between the two halves. Men are thus more singular and focused, whereas women tend to be able to multi-taskers. I didn't bug her about providing resources ;)) but on reflection, wondered if this may have something to do with evolution, where the men hunted and the women gathered (and kept the rest of the family scene together while the men hunted)? Probably too simplistic...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 08:30:39 AM EST
I fear that the subject is still too little understood for anyone to confidently extrapolate from a few disputable data points any ideas of what evolutionary advantages there are to any particular aspect of the differences.

We can speculate all we like, but we should accept that our cultural assumptions will determine the nature of the discussion much more than any examinations of "facts".

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 09:03:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fascinating. Many thanks.
Anne Moir has written about this in "Brainsex" and "Why men don't iron".

Incidentally the multi-tasking capabilities are more complicated than "Women good, men bad". For example something like simultaneous map reading and talking is an example of where men outperform women. Apparently with this combination of tasks it's an advantage to be more specialised and use more distinct parts of the brain for different tasks.


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sapere aude

by Number 6 on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 12:38:59 PM EST
Yea, I've read Brainsex. I believe that other researchers feel is was a trite mis-representation of their work. But I felt it was a useful intro to the ideas.

Men's ability to invoke visualisation for reading maps is not really a part of this. I can remember with horror the first time I turned a map around to orient it to the landscape. I now consciously avoid doing it amd make the effort to reclaim the ability.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 02:43:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"If there is a discrepancy between the map and the terrain, the map is correct."


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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 07:36:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read of the map-reading difference a lot, but never observed it myself. In fact I had an opposite experience: when I was a child, and the family went on holiday, it was my mother who read the maps.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 08:07:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
OK, so who drove?

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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 08:10:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Both of them, taking turns, though my father had more time behind the driving wheel. And he wasn't too fond of maps in any situation -- preferring reading signs and asking passers-by.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 08:13:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Cool.


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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 08:23:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think this is one of the facilities that falls into the statstical sampling basket. From my own experience, I've emt many men and women who are perfectly capable of reading maps fluently.

However, I have also noticed that the worst male is never as bad as the worst female and vice versa.

And left-handedness complicates it. Left handed women are generally slightly betterthan right handed men. Left handed men are invariably better than right handed men.

ps I am left handed and miss that knowing whenever I need to check a map.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 08:33:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fascinating stuff.  Thank you for sharing.  

I've known too many people of both sexes who don't fit the mold, and I wonder if that has something in part to do with the fact that we now live in an era/culture where there is less necessity to fit a mold.  At any rate, it makes life more interesting.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 12:51:32 PM EST
Thanks for sharing. Very interesting observations you've made. I hope you don't feel too pained by the new distance between your old self and you.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 01:40:16 PM EST
Thanks but no I don't feel bothered by having lost contact with my old self. I was a person in a great deal of distress, which taking hormones cured me of utterly.

I am happier now than I could have imagined. There is nothing I might have lost that could compare with what I've gained.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 02:29:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am happier now than I could have imagined

That's really good to hear, Helen. Thanks for this diary.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 03:20:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
thank you. the discussion threads are getting interesting.

I might post more on this subject, but I don't want to bore everybody.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 03:27:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"bore"? erm... it ain't boring, you know...
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 03:52:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, give it a week or so. Too much of a good thing all at once..ha ha ha

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 04:02:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Your diary made me think of the work of Ann Fausto-Sterling - http://bms.brown.edu/faculty/f/afs/afs.html - who I heard speak recently.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Mon Jul 17th, 2006 at 10:20:59 PM EST
Her combination of disciplines seems very odd. At first glance it sounds like an unholy marriage of hard science and post-modernism.

Does "biology" survive intact?


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sapere aude

by Number 6 on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 07:39:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's worth a second look. She comes out of the hard sciences and still has a foot in the lab while simultaneously looking at how scientific knowledge is produced and disseminated. Her presentation, which I attended last year, didn't have any of the trappings of post-modern discourse and was certainly rooted in biology. It was about The Emergence of Gender Difference in Young Children and how her new work applies dynamic systems theory to the study of human development, more specifically looking at sex differences in bone development and the emergence of gender differences in behavior in early childhood.
She describes her research areas as:
  • science & technology studies -  how is scientific knowledge produced?
  • gender, race & science - how do race and gender impact the ways in which scientific inquiry is conducted?
  • sexuality studies - what is the biological nature of human sexuality?
  • biology : planaria - asexual reproduction of flatworms.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 12:01:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What were her conclusions?

(I'll just echo everyone else's comments that this is a fascinating thread.)

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 12:16:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ann Fausto-Sterling's current study is still work in progress but here are a few quotes from her about her current work:


I pursue an ongoing discussion among feminist theorists about the sex/gender distinction. I argue that this distinction is of limited use when thinking specifically about the body and biology and that we need to develop new theoretical approaches in order to analyze the interplay between biology and culture. To work in that direction I consider sex/gender differences in bone development. Bone is often considered to be a hard, permanent substance, a reflection of pure biological (sex) difference. Use, diet, and cultural habits, however, shape bones. The biology of bone is as much a result of culture as it is some inchoate pre-existing biology. I challenge feminists to use dynamic systems and life course theories to look at difference, even biological difference, as something that is never finished, but continually and dynamically produced from moment to moment.

... one goal of this project [the study of the emergence (or not) of sex differences among young children] is to break away from the centuries old nature/nurture debate in order to offer a more productive approach to understanding human development.

Her web site has a lot more links to her past work including pdf versions articles and some books you can read excepts of through Amazon.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 02:09:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cool quote!

That even many biologists can't get loose of thinking of expressions of genes and culture as sharply distinct (e.g. nature vs. nurture, rather than interplay of both) is one of my big annoyances.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 02:18:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's Fausto-Sterling's ability to describe the complexities of studying this interplay of nature and nurture and how to move beyond the dichotomy which made her presentation particularly interesting to me. I guess I'm just hard wired to find the complexities of thing/life more fascinating.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 03:04:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think that this comes naturally that environment is a sociological phenomenon and genes is a biological one. Such diverse disciplines don't share concepts or language sufficiently to interact readily.

I see now why what I wrote had parallels. I have more extensive writings (I'm developing a transition diary) that detail my attempts to accept culture and deny nature (outwardly succesful, but created miserable internal issues).

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 03:25:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm glad ThatBritGuy's question forced me to elaborate a bit more and thus clarify why your fascinating diary reminded me of Fausto-Sterling's work. One of the challenges in doing interdisciplinary work such as hers, and one of the reasons I think she makes important contributions, is the difficulty of understanding the concepts and language of the various disciplines as well as the ability to talk to the different audiences in a language that they understand and can take seriously.

Thanks you for sharing your "entirely unscientific, unapologetically impressionistic ... statistical sample of one"! And doing so with great rhetoric style.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 04:08:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Personally I feel that there are real differences beyond cultural pressures. I simply don't believe we are born a blank canvass on which experience writes our character. Our individualities are determined before birth, life chances will encourage, gift or deny us from our happiest expressions, but our primary tendencies are long set before culture gets its claws on us.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 04:35:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nature/nurture interaction would involve influencing the growth of various brain regions and hormone reactions during early and later childhood and adolescence, that sounds a bit stronger than experience writing character. Even the color of a baby's clothes and the tone of the mothers' and fathers'/aunts'/uncles' voice might be such an influence.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 04:51:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, speaking personally, I had a normal boy's upbringing, not only was I encouraged in all boy's pursuits, but I specifically denied myself anything ambiguous, even from an early age (I self identified as a girl at 18 months and was terrified of that knowledge, doing everything I could to deny deny deny).

I have a fair sized description of how the process works and what I did to embrace nurture and deny nature. But nature won in the end. I just wish it had happened 30+ years before.

Culture is only powerful when it works with the grain of personality, when it goes against, unhappiness results. eg gayness

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 04:59:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is an interesting conversation. I unfortunately have to make this a short reply as other duties call. I hope we can continue the discussion in the next diary or later here.

Your description reminds me of several stories I've heard  before and why I agree that nurture is not enough of an explanation. It just seems to me there is a dynamic process at work not a static one and biology by itself is not always that clear.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 05:22:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I know happy gays. Aren't you going a little far in your identification of sexual orientation and gender?

The unhappiness of gays seems mostly externally (i.e., socially) motivated.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Jul 19th, 2006 at 02:29:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I self identified as a girl at 18 months

You remember being 18 months? That's spectacular! (My first memory is from when I was 26-27 months old, and nothing much self-conscious -- a boat trip on a river in then Yugoslavia.)

I have a fair sized description of how the process works and what I did to embrace nurture and deny nature. But nature won in the end.

To reiterate what I wrote, nature-nurture interaction can involve influences during babyhood, which lead to biological developments that stay with you for life (thus also limiting possibilities of further culturally-induced biological changes in later stages of development). On the other hand, you (still) like football and trains, two areas with rather strong gender imbalance, so maybe you did effect some later lasting changes in yourself, too.

A further point to make is that what is "manly" and "womanly" can on ocassion differ greatly between cultures. There is that African tribe (the Bororo?) in which it is young men who paint themselves, whose beauty concept involves perfect teeth, gracility and dance, and who perform in a beauty competition for the sturdy women to pick from among them. These men have a concept of manhood which compares to the concept of womanhood of a "cross-dresser" in Western culture, though in the first case it's nurture and in the second nature that seems dominant.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 19th, 2006 at 04:21:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I see the anthropologist in the family has some influence ;-)
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Wed Jul 19th, 2006 at 09:25:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean my brother?

He is more into Central to Southeastern European ethnography than anything beyond. I think I got to this myself even before he got to learn about it.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Jul 19th, 2006 at 10:13:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I did mean your brother but I see I should have ment you!
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Wed Jul 19th, 2006 at 02:44:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Speaking of dynamic systems and the brain I was reminded of interesting brain research being done in a Boston lab.


Quote from a Boston Globe Article last January:

So if, as scientists' findings suggest, the visual cortex need not be devoted solely to sight, how does the brain adapt after injury or new environmental influences? Does the brain forge new connections that did not exist before, or are the connections already there lying dormant, pressed into service by the circumstances?

Pascual-Leone's current work with his colleagues at Beth Israel Deaconess aims to answer those questions. For the past few years, they have been studying sighted subjects who volunteer to be blindfolded for five days and learn certain nonvisual tasks, including rudimentary Braille. In every case, before subjects donned the blindfold,functional MRI (fMRI) scans revealed little activity in their visual cortices during tactile tasks. After the subjects wore the blindfolds for two days, however, the scans showed bright patches of activity in the visual brain when the subjects used their fingers for tactile or Braille-reading tasks. By day five, the visual cortex glowed steadily during these same tasks. Yet two hours after the blindfolds were removed and the subjects' eyes had readjusted, scans of the visual area of their brains were as dark as they'd been on day one. Once the blindfolds were removed, touching, handling objects, and Braille-reading no longer activated ''sight" in the seeing.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 02:47:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Very interesting, Alexandra. Thanks for the links.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Jul 18th, 2006 at 03:27:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting. Thanks.

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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Wed Jul 19th, 2006 at 04:37:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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