Stereotypically, women are thought of as emotional and men as logical, but biology reveals this is false. Curiously, the inverse in true.
Researchers have discovered that men have a larger part of their brain devoted to emotional responses and a smaller region for logical thinking than women. This makes sense if you consider the energy needed to be vigilant for self-protection. Men are hard wired for hunting, competition and dominance. Their powerful emotional outbursts of anger, when seen through the hunter gatherer lens, are helpful to come out on top during a confrontation.
There is a specific region of the brain called the amygdala that processes fear, triggers anger, and motivates us to act. It alerts us to danger and activates the fight or flight response. Researchers have also found that the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that controls reasoning, judgment and helps us think logically before we act.
Men in the hunter-gatherer world needed a large amygdala to quickly respond when scanning the terrain for potential danger: Is this bad? Could it hurt me? If the information registered as dangerous, the amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses: from a rapid heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to tense muscles to the release of adrenaline. Within milliseconds, we can explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before our prefrontal cortex can even grasp what is happening.
The amygdala’s emotional response provides a mechanism to work around the limitation of the prefrontal cortex’s reasoning. For example, the prefrontal cortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, that petite brunette who dumped us for a new lover. It is the amygdala that is responsible for the surge of fury that floods our body when we see someone who looks even vaguely like our former mate.
And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with our collection of past emotionally charged memories. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–our amygdala instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.
This means even vague similarities can triggers fear signals in the brain, alerting us of a threat. This false alarm happens because the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later.
The term “flooding” describes the release of hormones that “flood” or prepare our body for action. These chemicals must pass through our body, be absorbed into the tissues and released into the urine before our body returns to normal.
The fight or flight process takes 20 minutes. We will need a 20 minute respite to completely calm down physiologically. If the stressful situation remains, our heart rate will remain elevated, our body will pump out adrenaline and our thinking will be clouded. We will be physiologically reactive even if we “know” a different response is called for. Most people think they are calm, long before they actually are physiologically calm.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have the luxury of time. If they were confronted with a threat, they had to act immediately or they would die. They could not take a moment to weigh the pros and cons, analyze and act, “Well there is a bear in front of me. Do I look for honey? Shall I catch a salmon? Shape some wood into a spear? Grab a rock? Run away?” No, it was fight (attack) or flight (run away), It was not logical problem solving that helped them in that moment. It was their emotional reactions, which allowed them to survive.
The hunter-gatherer male reality demanded aggression and rules that fostered hierarchy, competition, and dominance. The testosterone drive is part of that. While females also had to compete, sometimes for mates and sometimes for food, their primary goals were social support, childcare, and domestic protection.
Women’s hormones are dominated by estrogen and based on the evolution of their brains, it tells them the way to safety is to gather in a group. Women have learned that they can reduce stress and promote a feeling of safety by connecting. This difference, combined with the fact that women have less testosterone and more estrogen flowing through their brains, enables women to look for solutions to conflict, even if it means they might make more sacrifices to resolve the situation. Women tend to look for ways to compromise and serve the needs of others, even at their own expense.
Testosterone flooding the brain of has the opposite effect as estrogen: social withdrawal and the desire to be left alone. From a biological stance, men are not interested in conversation because testosterone decreases their desire to socialize except in pursuit of sex or competition. Men’s hormones tell them that dominance and control are the more efficient way to promote safety.
Men are hardwired to get stressed around challenges to their independence and authority. They have a biological drive to seek respect and find their place in the pecking order through dominance and aggression. Moreover, the male amygdala has testosterone receptors that heighten these responses, providing a biological reason for why men are more prone to displays of anger and quickly escalate situations into conflict. They don’t look for social connection in same way women do.