Excerpt: 'The Female Brain'

Empathy

This superior brain wiring for communication and emotional tones plays out early in a baby girl's behavior. Years later Cara couldn't understand why her son didn't settle down as quickly when she picked him up as her daughter, Leila, had. She thought it was just temperament, a fussier personality. But likely it was also the sex difference in hardwiring in the brain for empathy. The baby girl is able to resonate more easily with her mother and respond quickly to soothing behavior, stopping her fussing and crying. Observations made during a study at Harvard Medical School found that baby girls do this better with their mothers than do boys.

Another study showed that typical female newborns less than twenty-four hours old respond more to the distressed cries of another baby - and to the human face - than male newborns do. Girls as young as a year old are more responsive to the distress of other people, especially those who look sad or hurt. I was feeling a little down one day and mentioned it to Cara. Leila, at eighteen months, picked up on my tone of voice. She climbed onto my lap and played with my earrings, hair, and glasses. She held my face in her hands, looked right into my eyes, and I felt better immediately. That little girl knew exactly what she was doing.

At this stage Leila was in the hormone phase of what is called infantile puberty, a period that lasts only nine months for boys, but is twenty-four months long for girls. During this time, the ovaries begin producing huge amounts of estrogen - comparable to the level of an adult female - that marinate the little girl's brain. Scientists believe these infantile estrogen surges are needed to prompt the development of the ovaries and brain for reproductive purposes. But this high quantity of estrogen also stimulates the brain circuits that are rapidly being built. It spurs the growth and development of neurons, further enhancing the female brain circuits and centers for observation, communication, gut feelings, even tending and caring. Estrogen is priming these innate female brain circuits so that this little girl can master her skills in social nuance and promote her fertility. That's why she was able to be so emotionally adept while still in diapers.

Inheriting More Than Mom's Genes

Because of her ability to observe and feel emotional cues, a girl actually incorporates her mother's nervous system into her own. Sheila came to me wanting some help dealing with her kids. With her first husband she had two daughters, Lisa and Jennifer. When Lisa was born, Sheila was still happy and content in her first marriage. She was an able and highly nurturing mother. By the time Jennifer was born, eighteen months later, circumstances had changed considerably. Her husband had become a flagrant philanderer. Sheila was being harassed by the husband of the woman he was having an affair with. And things got worse. Sheila's unfaithful husband had a powerful and rich father, who threatened to have the children kidnapped if she tried to leave the state to be with her own family for support.

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