Confused Or Frustrated By Your Man? Science Can Explain What He's Thinking

Women are from Venus, and men are from Mars. Sometimes it really does feel like our man is from a totally different planet. How often do we mutter under our breath, “Why would he do that? Why would he say that? What was he thinking? Was he even thinking at all?”

By Paula Gallagher6 min read
Shutterstock/Dean Drobot

Fortunately, science can provide answers to some of our questions about why our men act the way they do. As Dr. Louann Brizendine, a practicing neuropsychiatrist, New York Times best-selling author, and media commentator specializing in the male and female brain, often says, “Male and female brains are more alike than they are different; after all, we are the same species.” Male and female brains have the same basic machinery; they’re just influenced differently by different sex hormones. When a man’s brain is marinated in testosterone during in-utero growth and development, and again during puberty, there is a physical result. The same goes for a woman’s brain under the influence of estrogen.

And the result of brain (and evolutionary) developments are male and female behaviors. So let’s look at how science explains some of the things that make us roll our eyes at our men: 

He Can’t Find the One Thing Right in Front of Him

My husband stands in front of the open fridge. “Babe, where are the pickles?” From the living room sofa, I give him a description of it’s most likely location. A pause. Then he says, “I can’t find it. It must not be in the fridge.” So I get up and locate the jar in the back of the fridge in about 3 seconds. 

When I told this anecdote to a group of women a few days later, they all immediately responded with exclamations of frustration over their own similar experiences. Why is it that men can’t seem to find the ketchup or their keys, etc?

Well, historically, men were the hunters. And over the millennia, their vision has evolved to support that task of aiming at a target. They have “a type of long distance ‘tunnel vision,’ allowing them to see accurately over longer distances, rather like a pair of binoculars.” But that means their focus is narrower, whereas women have greater peripheral vision. As the historical defenders of the “nest,” women needed to have the big picture, and so their eyes evolved to have “a greater variety of cone-shaped cells...which, in turn, gives them superior color vision” and “an arc of at least 45 degrees clear vision to each side of the head, and...above and below the nose.”

Another way to think about it is in analogous terms of predator and prey animals. Wolves are predators. Their eyes are forward facing to support finding and tracking a target. Men, as the hunters, have developed more predator-like eyes. On the other side of this equation is the prey, such as a deer. Deer have eyes on the sides of their heads to give them a wider range of vision for self-defense. And women’s eyes have developed with a wider range of vision for the same reason. 

Men Can Physically Fight Each Other and Then Be Friends

Epic stories both ancient and recent portray this phenomenon. The ancient Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh and the plot of the first three Rocky movies both tell of two men who were bitter enemies, had a fist fight (or several), and then became good friends. 

How is this possible? Dr. Joyce Benenson, a professor of psychology and author of Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes, seems to have found an explanation through her research. By studying how men and women acted after a one-on-one sports competition (in videos of four sports in 44 countries), she found that men recover friendly feelings much more quickly than women do. In fact, “men are far more likely to engage in friendly physical contact - handshakes, back pats and even hugs - following competition than women.” And this ability, called “post conflict affiliation,” occurs in less than 5 minutes after the conflict ends in men. Dr. Benenson explains that this behavior supports the “male warrior hypothesis,” which is the “notion that males broker good feelings after conflict to ensure they can call on allies to help defend the group in the future.”

Men seem to be more willing (and able) to reconcile after a conflict than women, and Dr. Benenson attributes this to historically embedded habits in our instincts and DNA. While historic humans lived largely in family groups, men needed to be able to cooperate with non-blood-related males to protect and provide for the whole community. Inside the community, men would compete with each other, but in times of danger, they needed to be able to set aside their differences and cooperate for the good of all. 

While historic humans lived largely in family groups, men needed to be able to cooperate with non-blood-related males to protect and provide for the whole community. 

In general, women are much more likely to hold onto negative feelings for non-related women longer, but they are able to reconcile and cooperate better with family members. Perhaps this is because, historically, women focused more on family relationships and a few close female friends. Women relied on this small group to help raise and protect her offspring. 

Men Can Compartmentalize Everything - Even “Nothing”

Have you ever asked your man what he was thinking about, and he said, “Nothing.”? We women have a hard time understanding this because when have we ever been able to successfully, truly think about nothing for any extended period of time? I sure as heck can’t. My moments of quiet are constantly interrupted by my mental list of everything I need to be doing or that unpleasant conversation from last week that I just can’t shake.

Women’s brains are internally more connected and communicative, which contributes to our ability to multitask.

Women have nearly 10 times more white matter in our brains than men. White matter is made up of nerve bundles which connect various parts of the brain (like communication roads). So, in a way, women’s brains are internally more connected and communicative, which contributes to our ability to multitask. My favorite description of the way a woman’s mind works is in the book For Men Only, by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn: Women’s “thought lives [are] almost like busy computers with multiple windows open and running all at once, unwanted pop-ups intruding all the time, and little ability to close out or ignore any of that mental or emotional activity until a more convenient time.” Sound like a familiar experience?

A man’s brain, on the other hand, is better described as a series of boxes - one box for each subject, and the boxes don’t like to touch each other or be opened at the same time. Men have the ability to “put away” a subject they don’t want to think about for weeks, or even months. Furthermore, men have what marriage expert Mark Gungor calls  a “nothing box.” It’s a place in a man’s brain where he goes to literally think about nothing. The “nothing box” is an important place for a man - it’s where he goes to destress. Men can go into their “nothing box” through their recreational/destressing activities like playing video games, channel surfing, exercise, or fishing. 

This concept of a “nothing box” is biologically supported by a study done on the difference in brain activity between men and women when sitting at the end of the day. In the study, when the women sat down, their brain activity exploded and more blood flowed to the brain, because they were thinking of all the things they felt like they needed to be doing. But when men sat down, their brain activity dropped radically and less blood flowed to the brain, indicating that his brain was effectively “turned off.” 

Men Don’t Talk As Much As Women Do (Especially about Their Emotions)

Remember that Toby Keith country song that goes like “We talk about your dreams and we talk about your schemes / Your high school team and your moisturizer cream...We talk about your heart, about your brains, and your smarts / And your medical charts and when you start.” We women really like to talk! In fact, research shows that women can speak up to 25,000 words a day, whereas men only reach 10,000. 

Women have specific verbal centers in both sides of their brain, which results in women using more words. 

There are several biological reasons why women not only talk more than men, but also why women are more verbal about their emotions. (Side note: some of men’s propensity to not talk about their emotions is cultural/nurture related. But here I’m just focusing on the scientific side of the question). To start with, women have specific verbal centers in both sides of their brain, which results in women using  more words and gives them the ability to express their feelings more easily than men. Women also tend to use speech as a method for figuring what we think and feel and for coping with stress (the need to vent), whereas men usually resort to their “nothing box.” 

For men, speech is not a specific brain skill. Brain scans of men talking show that “the entire left hemisphere of his brain becomes active as it searches to find a centre for speech, but is unable to find one.” Additionally, one neuro-imaging study showed that “the average male, when tracking emotional expressions in the face of another, has fewer brain cells that light up than females do.” Men are simply less physically equipped to read emotion in others and to verbally express their own emotions. 

What about the seemingly inexplicable (to men) phenomenon of women bringing up something “completely unrelated” during a fight? Well, the physiological reason this happens is because the average woman’s hippocampus is twice the size of a man’s. The hippocampus is the part of the brain where your specific memories about you and your experiences are formed, indexed, and recalled. And when under moderate stress (like during a disagreement), a woman’s brain has eight times more blood flow to her hippocampus - which means she can be flooded with memories. 

When a woman brings up an emotional memory in the middle of a present argument, “her past is emotionally invading her present, and her current reaction is a quite reasonable response to the fact that she is feeling blindsided, surprised, stung, or dismayed by the current experience of an old problem that has never really been resolved or healed.” Connected memories are bombarding her mind, which makes them feel very relevant to the problem at hand.

Women Mature Faster Than Men

Anyone who went to public school in their pre-teen and teenage years knows this is true from experience. As a former high school teacher, it was a common occurrence for all the girls in class to collectively shake their heads over something their male classmates said or did. 

The fact is, girls’ brains are as much as two years’ development ahead during puberty. The average teenage girl’s brain has a stronger connection to her amygdala (an impulse center) and to her prefrontal cortex (a higher-thinking and judging center). Her brain development enables her to have more self-control and to make wiser decisions. Boys’ brains don’t catch up until around age 20 (give or take a couple of years). 

A 2013 study published in Cerebral Cortex gives more details. For the first few years of life, our brains have an “overabundance of neurons.” But as we age “a 'pruning' process occurs for refinement, to make the brain network more economic and efficient." This pruning effect was documented in the study using MRIs to scan 121 people, ages 4-40. The researchers found that this pruning process “tends to happen at an earlier age for women than men,” which could explain why women mature sooner than men - their brains are working more efficiently.

All Men Think about Is Sex

#MyEyesAreUpHere #TheyOnlyWantOneThing #MonkeyBrain

Statistically, the average teenage boy thinks about sex every 52 seconds, compared to just a few times a day for the average teenage girl. One reason for this is that his body is raging with testosterone (because, puberty), and another reason is that his amygdala, which is an impulse center in the brain (sex, hunger, fear, etc.) is twice as big as a female’s.

The amygdala plays a role in responding to visual sexual stimuli. In a Center for Behavioral Neuroscience study, fMRI scans showed significantly higher activity in the amygdala in males who looked at sexual visual stimuli than in females who looked at the same pictures, even though both genders described their levels of arousal to be similar in their self-assessments after looking at the images.

Additionally, men’s “sexual motivation pathways have more connections to the subcortical reward system than in women.” This means a man’s brain is biologically wired to be more greatly rewarded for thinking about sex than a woman’s brain is! 

98 percent of the men said they were affected by a woman with a great body.

According to a national survey done for the book For Women Only, 98 percent of the men said they were affected by a woman with a great body - either feeling drawn to look at her or were acutely aware of her presence in the room. Even men who were in a happy and committed relationship were still “instinctively pulled to visually ‘consume’ attractive women, and these images can be just as alluring whether they are live or recollected.” 

So if men have a larger amygdala and a biologically stronger reaction to sexual stimuli, is it any wonder that they’re more “sensitive” to anything of a sexual nature? 

Closing Thoughts

While it’s unlikely that men and women will ever be able to completely understand each other, science can give us some insights into why men are the way they are (and why we women are the way we are). Hormones and brain development and historically embedded behaviors might be heavy conversation for the dinner table, but it’s fun (and helpful) to figure out what makes the other person tick.