In the largest brain imaging study ever, Dr. Daniel Amen and his team compared the scans of 46,000 male and female brains using a study called SPECT, which looks at blood flow and activity patterns.
Out of the 80 areas tested, females were significantly more active than men in 70 areas. These differences help us understand the unique strengths and vulnerabilities of the female brain, and give important new insights into how to optimize our brains.
They found that females have stronger activity in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved with planning, judgment, empathy and self-control. This is the part of your brain which keeps you on track and stops you from saying or doing stupid things.
When the prefrontal cortex is low in activity, we can struggle with short attention spans, get easily distracted and struggle with impulse control. When it works too hard, as it often does in women, it can cause us to get stuck on certain thoughts or behaviors, such as worrying or holding grudges.
Because of this increased brain activity, females often exhibit greater strengths in the areas of empathy, intuition (gut feeling), collaboration, self-control, and what Amen calls “appropriate worry.” But this increased activity also makes females more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, which they suffer from twice as often as men, insomnia, eating disorders, pain, and the inability to turn off your thoughts.
An area deep in the prefrontal cortex called the anterior cingulate gyrus was found to be more active in females. It is involved with error detection which is why we can sometimes focus too much on what is wrong with ourselves, our body, our children, and our husband.
A study from Canada showed that women produce 52% less serotonin than men. This is very important as serotonin helps calm and relax the prefrontal cortex. When serotonin levels are too low, people often struggle with anxiety, depression, pain syndromes, trouble sleeping, because you cannot let go of negative thoughts, obsessive worry, and carbohydrate cravings.
Researchers have also found that females have more activity in the part of the brain responsible for gut feelings and intuition, the limbic, emotional and bonding areas of the brain. This is why women tend to be primary caretakers for children and the elderly, and why they often excel at collaboration.
Based on these differences, female brains tend to have five special strengths: empathy, intuition, collaboration, self-control, and a little worry. But these strengths also can have dark sides…
Empathy can morph into an overwhelming sense that the world is riding on your shoulders, and that you have to take care of everyone else before you take care of yourself. Intuition can make you feel anxious as you “know” something’s wrong, making you worry about something that is perhaps not true. Being too collaborative can slow you down. Self-control can turn into trying to control everything around you, and worry, which can be so useful in small doses, may stress you out to the point where it hurts your brain and does not allow you to rest.