Men Listen, but With Only Half a Brain

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 28, 2000 (Chicago) -- Researchers have discovered what women have suspected all along -- men listen with one side of their brain, while women listen with both sides. The study was presented here at a meeting of radiologists and looks at how the brain processes information.

"Our research suggests language processing is different between men and women, but it doesn't necessarily mean performance is going to be different," says Joseph Lurito, MD, assistant professor of radiology at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. "However, we think there is an underlying difference in the way men process language."

Lurito recruited 10 men and 10 women -- aged 20 to 35 -- to spend a few minutes in a MRI machine while listening to a tape of a man reading excerpts from the popular novel, The Partner, by John Grisham. The scan visualizes areas of the brain activated while performing certain tasks.

Lurito found gender differences in an area of the brain called the temporal lobe, located on the side of the head between the eyes and the ears. While listening to the tape, the left side of the men's brains was far more active than the right side.

But when Lurito looked at women's brains, both left and right temporal lobes were activated equally, although the left side was slightly more active than the right.

"As scientists, we're figuring out what normal is, and more and more often, it seems that normal for men may be different than normal for women," says Michael Phillips, MD, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of radiology.

Hedvig Hricak, MD, chairman of the department of radiology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, says, "Now we have proof that men and women listen differently."

But the study results have a purpose besides the inherent entertainment value. Hedvig points out, "This type of research is going to allow us to study differences between sexes and point the way for treatment of stroke and other conditions."

Interestingly, Lurito says the study came about by accident. He and his colleagues were using MRI in people who were being assessed for brain surgery for cancer or epilepsy. They noticed differences in how men and women processed sounds in those exams and decided to do a more formal study.

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Lurito says that the study leaves as many questions as it answers. "We don't know if the difference is because of the way we're raised, or if it's hard-wired in the brain," he says. Also, "We didn't instruct the subjects to listen carefully or suggest that we would test them for this study, so we do not know if comprehension between the sexes differs," and not just listening, he says.

But Lurito says there are things they do know. Although the study was performed on relatively young people, he would not expect to see changes as people age because there are few changes in the way the brain processes language as people mature.

In addition, hearing requires both sides of the brain, so the fact that men process language on one side of the brain rather than on the other doesn't mean that men hear better through one ear or the other.

"It shouldn't be a surprise that there are differences between men and women," Lurito says. "I think that's a good thing, not a bad one. It could be pretty dull if men and women were the same."

So does this also prove another thing women have suspected: Women are from Venus, men are from Ma ...

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