cover image The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain

The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain

Simon Baron-Cohen. Basic Books, $26 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-7382-0844-2

Should the title fail to express Baron-Cohen's certainty about gender differences, the Cambridge Univ. professor of psychology and psychiatry lays out his controversial thesis on page one:""The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."" Defending this bold view is a tough but engaging battle, one that's alleviated by Baron-Cohen's disclaimer that his conclusions refer to statistical majorities rather than""all men"" and""all women,"" but exacerbated by his habit of simultaneously skirting and employing gender stereotypes. His copious evidence ranges from the anecdotal to the anthropological, and from the neurological to the case study (the author and his research team conducted many of these studies). Not all his support fully convinces: e.g., the music-classifying habits of novelist Nick Hornby's High Fidelity protagonist isn't confirmation of the male brain's predisposition to systems-building. After acknowledging cultural and social influences on gender differences, Baron-Cohen""surfs the brain"" (and offers evidence from a number of studies, both human and animal) to establish a biological link. But if male rats navigate their way through mazes more easily than female rats, does that mean men are better at directions than women? His speculations on how binary brain types have evolved over the eons, which have the male brain co-opting traits like power and leadership, leaving the female brain with gossip and motherhood, may ruffle a few feathers. Perhaps the most refreshing section of this cerebral volume is devoted to what he calls""extreme"" examples of the male brain--autism and its cousin, Asperger's syndrome. The author of previous autism books, including Mindblindness, Baron-Cohen offers curious lay readers a provocative discussion of male-female differences.