Compartmentalisation

So how do the brains of men and women differ?

In the words of the late Caroline Aherne’s Mrs Merton character: “Let’s have a heated debate.”

Twenty five years ago  John Gray’s book told us how  “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” – well not literally, but the concept was that by understanding each other’s thinking and likely reactions to events then we could all be more understanding of each other.

As a guy, I have often surprised myself that I can focus on work or even on watching soccer at a time when other parts of my life present real challenges… and I notice how my girlfriend can find it difficult to focus on anything other than whatever is troubling her.  John Grey’s book taught me to stop trying to respond to her problems by trying to fix them;  but to just be empathetic and supportive. Thanks John.

So, while sitting in my “man cave”  (and in joke for those who read the book) I started to wonder about how good or bad men and women are at compartmentalisation.

Compartmentalization is a defence mechanism in which people mentally separate conflicting thoughts, emotions, or experiences

I found a great blog post on thrivinglivescounseling.com/by Jennifer Crumb Perez   here.   It explains how women may see men as “distant” because men are often focusing elsewhere or avoid serious issues of the here and now.

“Men tend to compartmentalize their feelings and thoughts about, well, pretty much everything. If you were to look inside a woman’s brain, you might find a comfy quilt made from her thoughts and feelings, all stitched together. Women naturally process thoughts and feelings and integrate them into one cohesive ‘thing’.”

It turns out that back when we were all living in hunter gather communities, men and women played different roles. Women were responsible for raising healthy and functioning members of society; so they needed to be able to think and feel at the exact same time – to multi-task and to avoid neglecting any current “family raising issues”.   While Men were tasked with hunting and fighting; so to keep focused they needed to avoid any distracting emotions or “issues”. It would not have been helpful to think and feel at the same time.   The guys needed to focus to stay alive and to complete their current tasks. So, compartmentalization of thoughts and feelings would be very helpful for the men… yet unhelpful for the women.

Today, being compartmentalised may not be so important (how much focus do you need int the  store?); and it can apparently be a barrier in relationships – unless your partner has read John Gray’s book.  The advice to men is to begin to integrate their thoughts and feelings. As a start, Crumb Perez suggests, men should admit they have them!

A piece on WebMD.com “The Mind of a Man” highlights how strange women may find guys’ apparent inattentiveness to important issues or their distractednesss (code for not listening).  The piece quotes Michael Gurian, author of the book “What Could He Be Thinking?” who explains how our hormones have caused our brains to develop differently.  This difference can be seen on MRI scans:
“If you line up PET scans of 50 male brains and 50 female brains, you’ll see more colors lighting up in the female brain because there’s about 15% more blood flow, on average, in the female brain. If you show those 100 men and women a picture of someone looking sad, you’ll notice that less of the male brain lights up as the men try to figure out the emotion involved. There’s less involvement of the emotive centers and less going on in the hippocampus, where memory storage is.” Says Gurian.  So women are more sensitive to emotions.

Yet if the men and women were asked to do a math or science problem, the PET scan would show, on average, that women used more of their brain to get the answer than the men did. “The male brain tends to be more efficient to lateralize and compartmentalize, which has the advantage of making him more task-focused. The female brain has more [nerve] connections and constantly cross-signals and takes in more, so it tends to see and feel more than the male brain,” Gurian says.

Are these pictures showing compartmentalisation in actions? I think so.

So, there we have it – men’s brains are different from women’s brains… including by being more “compartmentalised” – which is helpful in some aspects of life but  not in others.  We can break to break free of these limitations by women becoming more compartmentalised  in their thinking or men becoming more focused on their emotions and feelings.

Or we can just understand each other… and cut each other some slack, maybe.