The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain
by Simon Baron-Cohen
Of math and makeup tips
A review by Amy Reiter
"The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain
is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."
That thesis, the cornerstone of Simon Baron-Cohen's new book, The Essential
Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain, appears to reinforce
the worst kind of gender stereotypes: Girls are good listeners who bolster their
friends' egos with flattery and happy makeup tips (yes, that's an actual example
of typical female-brain behavior from Baron-Cohen's book) but are hopeless at
math. Boys gravitate toward tractors, fire engines and VCR buttons as tikes
and grow up to be good at computers and stuff, but are no good at the niceties
of social situations. And in both cases, the author maintains, biology, not
society is primarily responsible.
To be fair, Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University professor of psychology and
psychiatry specializing in sex differences and autism, is painfully aware that
his theory might alarm some of his readers, causing them to reject it out of
hand or to "go halfway down the track" with him only to avert their
eyes from "things that they would prefer not to see." Nevertheless,
he insists that the information in his book "can be used progressively."
"Society needs both of the main brain types," he writes in the book's
But I'm showing my poor systemizing skills here and getting ahead of myself.
Baron-Cohen's research shows that the citizens of the world can be divided
into two groups: those who possess a female or "type E" (for empathizing)
brain and those who possess a male or "type S" (for systemizing) brain.
People with "type E" brains are "individuals in whom empathizing
is stronger (more developed) than systemizing." They are better at identifying
someone else's emotions and thoughts and responding to them than, say, finding
the best route home on a map.
"Type S"-brained people have the opposite skills. They may excel
at analyzing, exploring and constructing systems "the systemizer intuitively
figures out how things work or extracts the underlying rules that govern the
behavior of a system ... a pond, a vehicle, a plant, a library catalog, a musical
composition, a cricket bowl, or even an army unit." But confront them with
someone in tears for reasons that are not readily apparent to them and they're
You do not have to be female to be "type E" (though Baron-Cohen would
say that you "type E" men possess a female brain) nor male to be "type
S," but Baron-Cohen says most women do tend to be the former and men the
latter. There is also a third type of brain, "type B" or balanced,
in which your systemizing and empathizing skills are both equally strong, though
this sort of brain would appear to be rather rare.
Readers can find out which brain they have by taking three of four fairly entertaining
tests appended to the back of the book. (In combination, they're sort of like
that old Myers-Briggs test you took in college that had everyone milling around
saying "Hi, I'm an EFPQ" or whatever the heck it was. Remember that
The first test is called "The 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' Test,"
and as its name implies, measures your ability to gauge a person's state of
mind by looking at photos of only their eyes. Is this droopy-eyed person "terrified,"
"upset," "arrogant" or "annoyed"? Take a guess
and skip to the answers to see how you fare. (Me, I got 27 right out of 36,
which puts me smack-dab in the middle of the "typical" range.)
Two other tests assess your empathy quotient (EQ) and systemizing quotient
(SQ) by asking you how strongly you agree with each of a series of statements.
If you "strongly agree" with the assertion that "I can easily
tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation," for instance, you
get two points on the EQ. "Definitely agree"-ing with the statement
"I prefer to read non-fiction than fiction," meanwhile, will get you
two points on your SQ. (I apparently have an above-average EQ and a lowish-average
SQ, even for a woman.)
Be forewarned, as pop-psych-ish as this all sounds, Baron-Cohen does not see
his book as suitable for the "Mars-Venus" set. Far from it. In fact,
Baron-Cohen apparently believes that his tome is, to some degree, the anti-"Mars-Venus."
"Although it may make amusing reading," he writes. "it is not
helpful scientifically to imagine that 'men are from Mars and women are from
Venus' ... The joke about our coming from two different planets distracts us
from the serious fact that both sexes have evolved on the same planet and yet
tend to display differences in the way we think ... Moreover, the view that
men are from Mars and women Venus paints the differences between the two sexes
as too extreme. The two sexes are different, but are not so different that we
cannot understand each other." Surely, Baron-Cohen is not to blame for
the "Mars-Venus"-esque jacket copy beginning, "We all know the
opposite sex can be a baffling, even infuriating, species."
After all, he is a scientist. Nevertheless, not until Chapter 8 does he finally
arrive at the biological explanation upon which his thesis rests. To get there,
readers have to slog through seven chapters of endnoted but clichéd assertions
like, say, (and I'm flipping through and picking a sentence at random here)
"Girls in later childhood spend a lot of time talking about who is whose
best friend, and get very emotional if they are excluded from relationships
on the playground. Sulking is not uncommon." Or "Boys tend to play
group games (such as soccer and baseball) much more than girls do. This is partly
a sign of the importance of group membership to boys, and partly a reflection
of their interest in rule-based activities."
I mean, really, pages and pages of this stuff, some of it seemingly well researched.
Some pulled from who knows where. For instance, to support his assertion that
boys have a superior mathematical ability across cultures, after allowing that
their work in school might be "less neat" than girls', Baron-Cohen
looks at the entrants in the International Mathematical Olympiad, "in which
the world's best mathematicians compete against each other."
"You can look up the winners on the Web if you are interested," he
writes. "You will notice immediately that they are nearly all male. The
Olympiad winners are listed by name, not by sex, but one can have a good guess
at the sex of someone called Sanjay, David, Sergei, or Adam."
This is valuable scientific evidence?
When Baron-Cohen does get to the biological evidence, he starts out weak, citing
a study that finds that male monkeys "play-fight" more than females
of the species, which he says could be "a sign of males' reduced social
sensitivity to others" as well as an early awareness of a social order,
or system. Female monkeys, meanwhile, show a stronger interest in babies, which
"may be a marker of their increased emotional sensitivity to others, especially
Slightly more convincing is a study of rats in which the males were found to
be better at finding their way through mazes. Baron-Cohen contends that this
marginally supports his theory that men are better than women at reading maps.
"In both the human and rat studies, a male superiority has been established
when geometric (systemic) cues are available. Females tend to rely on landmarks
(objects) in the room," which he says is not very systematic or reliable
method. (Landmarks sometimes move, and then where are you?)
Delving further into biology, Baron-Cohen finally gets cookin'. First off,
hormones appear to play a factor in gender-typical behavior. Higher levels of
testosterone, particularly in early development, he maintains, citing studies
on everyone from rats to men with "very small testes" to male-to-female
and female-to-male transsexuals, lead to an increased aptitude for systems and
a decreased aptitude for emotional relationships. What's more, fetal testosterone
may also affect the rate of growth of the brain's two hemispheres: the higher
the testosterone level, the faster the growth of the right hemisphere, which
has been linked to spatial ability, in which systemizing plays a role. The left
side of the brain, meanwhile, is linked to language abilities, which is a key
component of empathizing, Baron-Cohen says.
One particularly interesting study cited in the book finds that women tend
to have larger left feet than right and larger left ovaries and breasts
as well as dominant left brain hemispheres. These "left-greater" people
tend to score better in language tests. Men, on the other hand, are generally
found to have dominant right brain hemispheres and larger feet and testes.
"Right-greater" people have been found to do better on spatial tests.
Still, Baron-Cohen seems much more comfortable when he turns to his area of
expertise: autism. (He is the director of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre
and has written two books on the subject, Autism:
The Facts and Mindblindness.)
Here, he argues that autism, which afflicts far more men than women and is characterized
by "abnormalities in social development and communication" and "unusually
strong obsessional interests," and Asperger Syndrome, similar to autism
but found in people with higher IQs and less severe communication issues, are
both examples of "the extreme male brain." In other words, these are
people for whom the systemizing/empathizing split is heavily weighted toward
the former. (For the record, I scored very low on Baron-Cohen's appended Autism
Spectrum Quotient test, meaning I show few signs of the syndrome.)
And what of its opposite, the extreme female brain? It's apparently a big mystery:
No one knows what such a creature would look like. "Hyperempathizing could
be a great asset," Baron-Cohen posits, "and poor systemizing may not
be too crippling. It is possible that the extreme female brain is not seen in
clinics because it is not maladaptive." If you're a "wonderfully caring
person who can rapidly make [others] feel fully understood," you can always
get someone else to fix your car, he points out.
Baron-Cohen's defense of the extreme female brain seems almost gallant, and
as discomfiting as some of his shakily supported theories may be, he seems to
have his heart in the right place. Pointing out continually that his assertions
are only generalizations and may not apply to all women and men, he also takes
great pains to emphasize that neither empathizing nor systemizing is better
than the other but rather that each skill has its own intrinsic value.
"I would weep with disappointment if a reader took home from this book
the message that 'all men have lower empathy' or 'all women have lower systemizing
skills,'" Baron-Cohen writes in summing up his findings. "Such group
statistics say nothing about individuals."
You can't help but feel for the guy. But maybe that's the empathizer in me.