Excerpt: 'The Female Brain'

Baby girls are born interested in emotional expression. They take meaning about themselves from a look, a touch, every reaction from the people they come into contact with. From these cues they discover whether they are worthy, lovable, or annoying. But take away the signposts that an expressive face provides and you've taken away the female brain's main touchstone for reality. Watch a little girl as she approaches a mime. She'll try with everything she has to elicit an expression. Little girls do not tolerate at faces. They interpret an emotionless face that's turned toward them as a signal they are not doing something right. Like dogs chasing Frisbees, little girls will go after the face until they get a response. The girls will think that if they do it just right, they'll get the reaction they expect. It's the same kind of instinct that keeps a grown woman going after a narcissistic or otherwise emotionally unavailable man - "if I just do it right, he'll love me." You can imagine, then, the negative impact on a little girl's developing sense of self of the unresponsive, flat face of a depressed mother - or even one that's had too many Botox injections. The lack of facial expression is very confusing to a girl, and she may come to believe, because she can't get the expected reaction to a plea for attention or a gesture of affection, that her mother doesn't really like her. She will eventually turn her efforts to faces that are more responsive.

Anyone who has raised boys and girls or watched them grow up can see that they develop differently, especially that baby girls will connect emotionally in ways that baby boys don't. But psychoanalytic theory misrepresented this sex difference and made the assumption that greater facial gazing and the impulse to connect meant that girls were more "needy" of symbiosis with their mothers. The greater facial gazing doesn't indicate a need; it indicates an innate skill in observation. It's a skill that comes with a brain that is more mature at birth than a boy's brain and develops faster, by one to two years.

Hearing, Approval and Being Heard

Girls' well-developed brain circuits for gathering meaning from faces and tone of voice also push them to comprehend the social approval of others very early. Cara was surprised that she was able to take Leila out into public. "It's amazing. We can sit at a restaurant, and Leila knows, at eighteen months, that if I raise my hand she should stop reaching for my glass of wine. And I noticed that if her dad and I are arguing, she'll eat with her fingers until one of us looks over at her. Then she'll go back to struggling with a fork."

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