Believe only half of what you hear about listening

  • Ellen Goodman / Boston Globe columnist
  • Monday, December 4, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

BOSTON — And now another bulletin from the infamous border where pop culture meets gender science. This time, it turns out that there are more differences between men and women than meet the eye. There are differences that meet the ear.

Researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine measured the brain activity of 10 men and 10 women as they listened to excerpts from a John Grisham thriller. The results given to a meeting of radiologists show that most men used only the left side of the brain, while most women used both sides.

The Indiana report was duly summed up and dumbed down in the headline that screeched across newspapers: MEN ONLY LISTEN WITH HALF THEIR BRAINS!

This brought a collective "YES!!!" from women everywhere. "You aren’t listening?" is the universal complaint from wives who spend their lives like guests on Chris Matthews’ "Hardball."

Indeed, ever since the first Cro-Magnon mother returned from berry picking to find her husband painting wall pictures of the mammoth hunt while the baby cried on unheard, women have wondered how they tune out. Men are equally bewildered by women. As comedian Rob Becker likes to say, "If I read the paper, my wife will try to talk to me because she can read the paper and talk to me at the same time. I have to put my finger down."

Don’t you love it when science proves what everyone already believes? The Indiana study is fuel for the goose to say, "I told you so." And fuel for the gander to say: "I can’t help it, it’s my brain."

But I remember the days when scientists used to measure skulls to prove that the bigger-skulled men were smarter than women. I’m a bit skeptical when we assume that the female brain is twice as good or that men can only half-listen.

A longer look at the research provides some hearing aid. It turns out that the differences between Indiana’s men and women were neither unanimous nor uniform. It turns out too that the part(s) of the brain we use to listen proves nothing about our listening ability.

Micheal Phillips, a father of four daughters and lead author of the study that has tweaked the public imagination, says, "we don’t know if using one or both sides of the brain is the better strategy. It could turn out they’re equally good."

Phillips is the first to acknowledge that his wife, a doctor, is better at paying, uh, mind to multiple conversations at once. But he says that no one knows if this ability is hard-wired in the brain or learned in the culture. Or a bit of each.

So it goes in brain research these days. We now know that there are gender differences in cerebral as well as carnal places. We just don’t know what they mean.

Nevertheless, in the popularization of popular science we make fact-defying leaps of logic. It’s become part of the ongoing discussion about men and women.

After a brief hiatus in which we emphasized ways in which men and women are alike — vive la similarite — we are back to emphasizing differences. It’s he said/she said, Mars and Venus all over the planet. We are also back to emphasizing nature over nurture, genes over culture, as the source.

The swinging pendulum is being pushed, in part, by this new science. But it’s also a reaction to the difficulty of changing a culture. If little Johnny still likes trucks — aw, what the heck — maybe there’s a truck gene.

Of course it doesn’t quite work that way. Dr. Sally Shaywitz and her husband did the first brain-scanning research at Yale while watching men and women try to find rhymes for nonsense words. There was a lot of overlap and a lot of individual distinction in how the brains worked. But even when men used one side of the brain and women used both sides, "they were equally accurate and equally quick at the task."

The brain research may mean a great deal about why women recover language after strokes faster than men. But it may not mean anything about tuning in and tuning out.

Are you listening? Want to bet that the biggest differences in hearing are in the subjects, not the scans? If you want to see a gender divide, test those skills when the topic is a designated hitter or a fashion designer.

Our Indiana friends played John Grisham to the subjects. If you think men were only half-listening to Grisham, what on Earth, Mars or Venus would happen if they played Jane Austen?

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