Juliet Dunlop: Men and women driven differently

I WAS reminded of my old driving instructor this week. A lovely, patient, unflappable man who somehow got me through my driving test. He specialised in taking on the hopeless cases; the drivers for whom L stood for loser and P plates were only ever an unattainable dream.

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Other driving instructors would palm their problem pupils on to Marvin – sorry, I should say refer and “challenging”, rather than “problem” – usually after admitting that they were going round in circles (sometimes literally).

To begin with, Marvin – a gravelly-voiced chain smoker whose foot, I recall, was never far from the brake – simply couldn’t understand why I had become such a regular at the local test centre. Then, after weeks of close observation (pulling out in front of buses, rolling down hills and failing to parallel park), he hit upon the answer – I was trying to do too many things at once. (He may have used other more forceful words, but you get the gist.)

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I was multitasking – doing that thing that women do – but in this case, not quite pulling it off. Marvin had seen it before and almost always in his female students. He explained how his male pupils – even the rubbish ones – were just that bit better at focusing on one thing at a time. That was the secret, apparently.

Now, yes, there is a point to why I’m telling you all of this. It turns out the long-suffering Marvin was spot on. Men and women are good at different things. We think differently, we function differently – especially behind the wheel of a car – only, now we know why: our brains are just not the same.

This is something that most of us may have suspected for some time, but now a new study by the University of Pennsylvania has come up with the pictures to prove it. Scientists scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 men, women, boys and girls – aged between eight and 22 – and found striking physical differences in the way our brains are connected. It would appear that male brains are wired from front to back, while female brains run from side to side. This is important.

The images may look like someone has gone crazy with a felt-tip pen, but they highlight the pathways between the different regions of the brain. It appears that the male brain runs on lots of straight, vertical lines while the female brain runs from left to right, bridging the two hemispheres. These lines form detailed maps of brain activity; showing thoughts, impulses and feelings. They illustrate how we get from A, to B, to C and back again; how we process information and why the sexes excel at different tasks.

Because women run from left to right, the two sides of the brain are linked – the left side which is used for more logical thinking and the right, which is more intuitive. This means we prefer to multitask (see above) and usually have better verbal skills. We’re also better at remembering faces – and then reading them. We remember names and emotions. Men, meanwhile, don’t make the same connections and tend to be better at learning and performing a single task. They get top marks for spatial awareness and motor skills – which explains a preference for map reading and why they routinely refer to getting buses through the tiniest of gaps.

Even the researchers have been surprised at how the findings seem to support certain male-female stereotypes. But that’s the thing about stereoptypes: sometimes they’re true. The evidence certainly suggests that women are more emotionally involved than men, while men are usually quicker at certain physical tasks.

However, a note of caution. Some experts believe that the brain is too complex an organ to make such broad generalisations. It would also appear that these neurological connections aren’t set in stone – they can change over time. How we respond to different tasks also depends on experience, what we’ve learned along the way.

So although these images throw up uncannily accurate traits, we haven’t quite reached the stage where we can read minds. In saying that, I still think my old driving instructor had a point. I’m sure my driving wasn’t even all that bad. And even if it was, I’d like to think I could blame it on the wiring.