February 28, 2008

Memory: Girl Brains and Boy Brains Differ

[By Crabby]

I'm always fascinated by gender differences. While I've personally never fit all that comfortably into the "feminine" world (the subject of an upcoming post, I think), there are still many ways in which I feel distinctly a girl, not a boy. Even if you'd have to threaten me with a lethal weapon to get me to wear false eyelashes or a pair of stiletto heels.

And while exceptions are everywhere, men and women do seem, in many ways, kinda different.

How much of that is how we're wired, and how much of that is because each gender is taught to behave and think differently? The question used to seem really threatening, because any hint of innate difference was seen as a reason to discriminate against women.

Feminism still has a LONG way to go, but we now have at least a little more freedom to wonder about this stuff. I think the main thing that's changed is that it's not as common anymore to assume that the "boy" way of thinking is always better, and the "girl" way is always worse. (People do, however, tend assume that the "boy" way is normal, and the "girl" way is different, even though we are half the freakin' population.)

(There is a book I've been meaning to read called "The Female Brain," which I think explores this subject more thoroughly. Anyone read it yet?).

Anyway, so there's a new study out that suggests women and men remember things differently. In short, "women excelled in verbal episodic memory tasks, such as remembering words, objects, pictures or everyday events, and men outperformed women in remembering symbolic, non-linguistic information, known as visuospatial processing." The example cited is that "a man would be more likely to remember his way out of the woods."

As someone who can barely find my way out of my own bedroom, I've decided to embrace my deficient visuospatial abilities as one of the few ways in which I'm apparently quite feminine. I can always compensate by using my verbal abilities to get someone else to tell me how to get myself where I need to be. Or better yet, I can talk my way out of even having to go anywhere in the first place!

Note: I think individual differences are always more important than overall generalizations, and I know tons of women who can totally kick any guys ass when it comes to finding her way out of the woods. And lets be realistic--which gender usually gets itself lost in the woods in the first place?

So the study also said there were "sex differences favoring women on tasks such as remembering the location of car keys, which requires both verbal and visuospatial processing," and that "women are better than men at remembering faces, especially of females." Overall, they believed "females currently hold the advantage in episodic memory."

It's interesting, then, how often in movies we see women being all flighty and spacey and it's the guys who always remember things. They always get to save the day because they can recognize the terrorist in disguise or remember where the gun was stashed or recall the secret password. Whereas it looks like in real life, it would be the gal who would be more likely to remember that stuff.

There are tons of other ways in which men and women, overall, appear to perhaps function a bit differently; this is just one tiny example. What do you guys think, are these differences significant? Or pretty much imaginary? And if you do see differences, do you think it's mostly because we're born differently or because we're treated differently?


  1. Perhaps because those movies where the women are spacey and flighty are written by men?

    The Bag Lady can sometimes find her way in the woods. But sometimes not. She can also sometimes remember someone's name, but sometimes not. Now, if she could only remember WTF she wanted to say here....

  2. I think women remember other women's faces better because the men weren't looking at the women's faces. I've had entire (brief) conversations with men whose eyes never made it above the neckline ;)

  3. Bag Lady, isn't middle age fun? I'm wondering if men and women lose it at the same rate--seems like we women complain about memory loss more, but I wonder if it's because we had more to start with.

    Merry, too funny! I never thought about that reason for the male/female facial recall difference.

  4. One of the advantages of being a liberated man is I don't feel the need to bash the opposite sex. Is this a fun thing that I need to remember?
    Dr. J

    PS Nice post, by the way!!

  5. I would never dream of bashing a liberated man; they're far too nice!

  6. I should amend my previous comment to read /some/ men weren't looking at the women's faces.

  7. Have to admit, I'm the one that gets lost in the woods and hubbie is the one that finds our way out.

    On the other hand, I'm the one that can find our way round a city mall and hubbie gets lost ten paces from the car.

  8. LOL @ differences in men and women. In my blog post yesterday, I talked about food cravings. If women talk about their food cravings, they are less likely to act on it, but if men do the same, they are more likely to binge.

    It's weird, but I guess that's another reason we're known as the opposite sex...........:)

  9. My boyfriend is AMAZING at finding his way around the city, whereas I couldn't tell you which way was home or north, or anything, if I'm more than 10 blocks from home.

    However, put us into a shopping mall, any shopping mall, and guess who's lost? Yep, he can't find his way back to the car, and I'm zooming around like I own the place. I think it's all relative. ;)

  10. ohhhhhh, the old nature vs. nurture debate. After 4psychology classes (which all at least touched on the debate) it's still hard to say which influence is more prevalent. I think it's save to say that different characteristics are influenced more heavily by either nature or nurture (environmental.) Of couse I can't remember any of these characteristics or I'd be a psyc. major and not a business major!

    I like that we can't blame everything on genetics or how we were raised. It gives us some hope that we can recover and be "normal" even if our family is nuts or we were raised in a less than perfect environment (um, who wasn't?!?)

    Wow! maybe I should have been a psyc major, this post jogged my memory and I remember some of that education I thought I had already forgotten.

  11. I don't get lost in the city, I usually don't get lost on any sort of roads, but in a forest probably, if I can't see the sun. I am horrible at faces and names, but voices I recognize quite readily. That probably has to do with my first jobs being in phone & radio communication.

  12. Oh yeah, I definitely think gender differences are very real.

    BUT I agree that individual differences are much more accurate than the "boys do it this way, and girls do it this way" type thinking. I always get so annoyed when people chalk up differences in their children to gender alone. "Well Billy is a boy and he's a good eater, and Suzy is a girl and she is so picky." That kind of stereotyping drives me nuts. I guess being the mother of three boys, I am AMAZED at how different all of them are. Really.
    I think it would be a lot easier if one of them were a girl to chalk it up to genetic gender differences.
    I do think men and women are hardwired differently. But I also think there is such a HUGE gray area of interest, personality, creativity, that I think sometimes (at least with young kids) the gender card gets misused.

  13. I have heard of studies that prove women are alot better at multitasking then men are, from experience this is completely true. Ever even try and get an answer to a simple question while a man is playing video games/watching television/doing anything else? Impossible. Whereas a woman can answer the question, continue what she's doing at the moment all the while making her shopping list in her head.

    I believe there are certain brain functions that one sex excels more than the other. Conversely to the multi-tasking skill, I've heard that men are much better at spacial thinking, which explains why my dad and my BF are both far superior to me when it comes to packing the trunk of a car for a long trip!

  14. I'm pretty good about getting out of the forest and I can get around in a city, but what I can't do is read a map.
    I remember faces and I remember names, I just don't do it at the same time.

  15. Hmmm...I can get lost anywhere and remember names and faces. My husband is the exact opposite...maybe we didn't get the memo.

  16. Well, as I kind of suspected, it sounds like individual differences are more noticeable in this evolved group than overall gender generalizations. But the mall vs. other locations comparisons crack me up!

    And hurray--Dawn, you found your way back through the internet byways back to Cranky Fitness, following cupcake and donut crumbs, no doubt. That's an awesome feat of navigation!

  17. Dan can drive to a place just once and still get there with no problem years later. However, he can't remember his own zip code and I'm the one who has to supply minutiae of that sort.

    What irritates me is that I've never had a good "alarm clock" memory. I can remember long lists of names, dates, numbers, dollar amounts, attributes...you name it. But what task I'm supposed to do next? What time the meeting is? Nope. If it weren't for my popup meeting reminders, I'd have lost my job years ago.

    Now I have an assistant with the most fantabulous alarm clock memory ever. She's worth her weight in gold, even at today's gold prices!

  18. I agree with merry - of course we remember women's faces better! Very few men look above the neckline.

    However, my hubby seems to be able to find things more often then I do, and he's an awesome cook too. But he's not handy around the house.

    I hate high heels (NEVER wear them, and go barefoot as much as possible) and use just a faint touch of makeup now and then, and I don't get into the whole clothes shopping, beauty parlor going thing either.

    But it's the differences that make the world a very interesting place.

    Nice post Crabby, as always.

    Health and Happiness

  19. It's hilarious how different men and women are. Sarah hit the nail on the head with the multi-tasking thing. My hubby has a one-track mind, whereas I can do twelve things at once - sometimes thirteen!

    In our house, I am the computer guru, the bill-payer, the finder of all lost toys and stuffed animals, the chef, etc, etc.. But hubs takes care of the mundane nonsense (cat litter, anyone?!) and can recall the month and year most every song during his life-span was recorded. Yes, it's all relative. And it's really fun to dissect.

    Great post, Crabby!

  20. "tasks such as remembering the location of car keys, which requires both verbal and visuospatial processing"
    Huh? Verbal? What kind of verbal processing do you need to remember a location? To tell someone about it maybe.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky, not intending to go off and study cognitive theory for years just to figure that out

  21. Mary Anne, I didn't catch that--good question about what sort of verbal ability is used in finding car keys. I guess they don't mean "honey, could you help me find my damn car keys?" which is of course my preferred method of finding things.

  22. short version from a woman with a wailing toddler---
    the female brain is a MUST READ.

    shall we start an online book group?

    we both have so much free time (*wink*)


    ps---totally agree with Merry

  23. I have a great memory for details of events and everyday things that go back as far as childhood. My sense of direction leaves much to be desired though. I need signs, arrows and detailed directions .. especially in the forest.

  24. I definitely think there are differences, but not as many as we've been lead to believe.

    Since being married, I've learned that men in general are the last to get ready and can gossip as much as any women. :)

    I think we get the "flighty" reputation because we tend to actually think about several solutions to a problem, where men usually just go with the first one that pops into their head.

  25. I'm more of a fan of the Left-brain or Right-Brain dominate theory because it doesn't matter what body you're in. What does get under my skin more than anything is the stereotype that men are logical and women are emotional especially when it is used in the context of work.

    I know tons of women who are highly qualified, competent, and talented yet they have a harder time getting to the upper rungs on the ladder because they are automatically stamped "emotional" because of their gender. Companies want people to really care about their jobs but when men get emotional they are "passionate" when women get emotional, we're "too emotional". It blows!

  26. I really liked "Why Gender Matters" - it's all about learning differences and physiological differences.

    Pick it up if you get the chance!

  27. I also think its better to distinguish between left and right brains rather than men and women, but then again men usually have right brains (i think its right) and women usually have left brains- hence the stereotypes. In my case I'm good at remembering names and faces, and not bad at remembering where I parked the car/what I need to do next, but my memory for facts and details in general is terrible especially if it involves numbers...thank god for google!!

  28. haha hilarious all of you... i still think women remember wayyy more then men...


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