By Daniel G. Amen, MD Psychiatrist and Brain Imaging Expert Medical Director of Amen Clinics in Newport Beach, San Francisco, Seattle,Washington D.C., Atlanta and New York. Dr. Amen is author of the new book, Unleash the Power of the Female Brain
In the largest brain imaging study ever done, we compared the scans of 46,000 male and female brains using a study called SPECT, which looks at blood flow and activity patterns. Out of 80 areas tested, females were significantly more active in 70, which just explained my whole life – I have 5 sisters, 3 daughters and 14 nieces. These differences help us understand some of the unique strengths and vulnerabilities of the female brain and give us important clues on how to optimize it.
Because of the increased activity, females often exhibit greater strengths in the areas of: empathy; intuition, or knowing something that is true without knowing exactly why; collaboration, which is why women often make better bosses; self-control, which is the reason why females go to jail dramatically less often than males; and appropriate worry. In a large study, it was found that the “don’t worry be happy people,” more typically men on motorcycles, died earlier from accidents or preventable illnesses. (So, if you’re the type who goes for the bad boys, make sure to buy lots of life insurance on them.)
But this increased activity also makes females more vulnerable to: Anxiety; depression, which they suffer from twice as much as men; insomnia; eating disorders; pain; and being unable to turn off your thoughts.
In this article, I’ll show you 5 steps to unleash the power of the female brain. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, once said, “There is no strategy more beneficial to society, than the ones in which women play a central role.” Women admit problems and reach out for help faster. If a couple is having trouble, nearly 8 out of 10 times it’s the woman who calls one of our 6 Amen Clinics across the US for help; or if a child is struggling in school or with his emotions, nearly 9 out of 10 times it is the mother who brings him in, even though both parents work full time. I think that the female’s ability to admit problems and get help is one of the main reasons why women typically live 7 years longer than men.
We found that females have stronger activity in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved with planning, judgment, empathy and self-control. I think of the prefrontal cortex as the brain’s brake. It helps keep you on track and stops you from saying or doing stupid things. When the prefrontal cortex is low in activity, you can struggle with short attention span, distractibility and problems with impulse control. When it works too hard, as it often does in women, it’s like the parking brake is always on and you can get stuck on certain thoughts or behaviors, such as worrying or holding grudges.
An area deep in the prefrontal cortex called the anterior cingulate gyrus is also more active in females. It is involved with error detection which is why you can sometimes focus too much on what is wrong: with your body, your children, or even your own good husbands – not that I’ve ever noticed my wife doing that. A study from Canada showed that women produce 52% less serotonin than men. This is very important as serotonin helps calm and relax the prefrontal cortex. When serotonin levels are too low, people often struggle with anxiety, depression, pain syndromes and trouble sleeping because you can’t let go of the negative thoughts, obsessive worry and carbohydrate cravings.
Researchers have also found that females also have more activity in the part of the brain responsible for gut feelings and intuition. They also have more activity in the limbic or emotional and bonding areas of the brain, which is why they tend to be primary caretakers for children and the elderly, and why they often excel at collaboration.
Based on these differences, female brains tend to have five special strengths: empathy, intuition, collaboration, self-control and a little worry. But these strengths also can have dark sides.
- Empathy can morph into an overwhelming sense that the world is riding on your shoulders and that you have to take care of everyone else before you take care of yourself.
- Intuition can make you feel anxious as you “know” something’s wrong...before you check it out. Sometimes your brain lies to you and you can be worrying about something that just isn’t true.
- Being too collaborative can slow you down.
- Self-control can turn into trying to control those around you.
- And the worry that is so useful in small doses can stress you to the point where it hurts your brain and won’t allow you to rest.
Knowing all this, here are 5 ways to unleash the power of the female brain:
1. Always balance empathy with self-care. Women are doing more today than ever before and the constant stress is stealing their health and making them sick. Women make appointments for everyone else, but not themselves. Take the time you need to get healthy. The supplements l-theanine, relora, magnesium and Holy Basil can help lower stress.
2. Intuition is an important skill that keeps us alive and gives women an important edge. If you tap into it, you can get to solutions faster. But it’s always important to check out your feelings with facts. For example, you might walk by a coworker who doesn’t look up and think she’s mad at you. But, in fact, she might’ve just had a fight with her husband. You don’t know. Once you have a thought, check it out. I often tell my wife and daughters, “Please don’t read my mind. I have enough trouble reading it myself.”
3. Boost collaboration by working to include others. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review was titled: “What Makes a Business Team Smarter?” The answer was “MORE WOMEN.” Men tend to be competitive, while women are more collaborative and focused on group cohesion. This is why women often make great bosses – they have gifts of empathy, collaboration, intuition and also tend to make fewer risky decisions when stressed. But be careful with too much collaboration. Setting appropriate boundaries and learning to say no is critical to effective leadership and your health.
4. Self-control is so important to keeping you healthy. You can boost your self-control by making sure your blood sugar is stable. So you have to eat to stay in control of yourself. When blood sugar levels go low, blood flow to the brain goes low and you make more bad decisions. Also, get at least 7 hours of sleep at night or your self-control disappears. I especially like magnesium, GABA and melatonin to help sleep.
5. Balance worry with wellness. Some anxiety is good if it keeps you on track, but too much is painful. To get your anxiety under control, look for natural ways to support healthy serotonin levels: Exercise can do it, as can certain supplements, like 5HTP, B6 and saffron.