So why do men take more risks than women and why do they get very angry more easily? The answer to this lies in the brain, specifically in the frontal lobes. The area of the brain under our forehead is where we decide whether to do something or not – where we weigh up the risks and possible outcomes. If someone cuts us up in our car, is it worth leaping out at the next junction and taking it up with the driver? It is our thinking cap – or where the board of directors live. Every waking moment, our brain is bombarded with stimulation, from the feel of the seat of the pants on the chair to the noise of the traffic going past outside, or the tweeting of the birdies. Most of it we ignore. However some sensations do get through to the frontal lobes and a male/female difference is how strong those sensations have to be to make us pay attention to them.
If the frontal lobes can be likened to the board of directors, then these directors have a secretary that screens all callers, only allowing the important ones access. This area of the brain is called the Reticular Activating System, or RAS. It sits on top of the brain stem – the grey bit in the picture to the left. In men, the secretary is sleepy and it takes a bit of a bang to get her going. In women, the secretary is very active and lets much more information through to that board of directors to make decisions about.
There are several upshots of this is. One is that women see the risks more clearly than men. If we look on Youtube, there are many examples of ‘skateboard fails’ – many quite horrendous – and all involving young men or boys. Because the male brain is sleepier and takes more to get it going, this makes men want more adventure, to take bigger risks, to walk on thinner and thinner ice. Looking at it from a hunter-gatherer point of view, it is clear as to how this developed. Men had to go out hunting for the next meal. To do this, they have to be able to concentrate totally on the job – and have to courage to tackle an animal possibly much bigger than them. Women looked after the babies and children whilst foraging, making clothes and keeping camp, all the while making sure Junior does not wander off into the jaws of the local sabre toothed tiger. So whilst she was busy doing things, she had to keep very alert.
I have a client who lived for a while in Switzerland, and whilst there had some ski-ing lessons with an older instructor. He told her that women had to learn to ski before they had children or they lacked the necessary nerve to take the risks that ski-ing involves – they get too tense. I have certainly found this to be true – women without babies enjoy skiing and the risks much more than mothers do. Most mothers still enjoy ski-ing – but not the really gnarly stuff.
Another reason why men tend to take more risks than women is their brains are lower in an enzyme called monoamine oxidase or MAO. MAO keeps the balance between the 2 neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Now dopamine is the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward whereas serotonin is the neurotransmitter of relaxation and digestion; dopamine is an accelerator and serotonin the brakes. Generally people who take risks have lower levels of MAO, so for them taking a risk is pleasurable. And so for most men their risk taking is much more pleasurable than it is for us women.
Not only do men need more stimulation to get their their brains going, they also get bored much more quickly than women – their brain goes back to sleep. The next male/female brain difference blog will explore this tendency of men to go apparently blank.
The more sensitive female RAS explains why it is much more common for the mother to wake to the cries of her child than the father. It takes less to stimulate the female brain into action and so the mother leaps up whilst he snores on. If this is familiar and the mother is exhausted from frequent wakings, then she has to give the sleeping partner a good prodding to wake him up to take his turn sorting out the child. If a typical female, she will then lie in bed feeling guilty instead of falling back into a lovely slumber.
Finally in the above video clip we see the lad bang his skateboard down in frustration which brings us to the subject of men and anger. The frontal cortex, when stimulated by the lower parts of the brain, gives us the ability to choose how to react to a situation. With men’s more sleepy ‘secretary’, the lower parts of the brain can act without brakes – and so men can become very angry much more quickly than women.
So there we have it; because their decision making part of the brain is more easily activated, the women can see the risks more quickly than the men and for them risk taking is generally less pleasurable. Women tend to wake from sleep more readily than men, which can lead to some serious rows between partners. And men tend to have less control over anger outbursts than women. Of course, all this is generalisations and we are all variants of the overall rule – but it is undoubtedly true that the death rate amongst young men up to the age of 24 from transport accidents, suicide, violence is higher than it is amongst young women. This is also explained by when the brain reaches maturity; in girls full maturity is reached at about 22 years whereas boys brains do not reach full maturity until nearly 30. Some women would be surprised it is as young as that.