In 1992, American author and relationship counselor, John Gray, wrote the seminal book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. It was one of the first books of its kind that claimed to highlight the fundamental psychological differences between the genders. Spending 121 weeks on the bestseller list, central metaphor became a part of popular culture, spawning stand-up comedy material, sitcom themes, apparel lines, fragrances, and even his-and-hers salad dressings.
Of course, the simplistic binaries and stereotypes of the nineties are no longer relevant today, and the book came under attack for several obvious reasons. But one thing is true––men’s and women’s brains do differ, though not in the way that pop psychology may attempt to neatly categorize the distinctions.
Let’s explore the male vs. the female brain. It may surprise you to discover some unique things that women need in order to succeed and thrive.
One of the amazing facts about all brains is that the left and right sides function quite differently, each side has its primary function.
The left side of our brain is very mechanistic; it is task-oriented, strategic, mathematical, and linear. The left side (or hemisphere) is what is referred to as the “male” brain. I’m not implying that women are not strategic, mathematical, and linear, but research has found that men tend to operate from the left side of the brain more than the right, hence it is deemed the “male” brain.
The left brain is where a neurotransmitter and ‘feel good’ hormone called dopamine lives.
Remember that wonderful feeling you had when you checked off that item on your to-do list? That’s dopamine in action. So what’s cool about dopamine is that you can literally make yourself feel good, just by engaging in behavior that raises your dopamine levels. Even better, you are more likely to engage in that activity again to get the same dopamine hit and rush of good feelings in the brain.
Ok, now let’s look at the right side of the brain…the “female” side. The right brain (or hemisphere) is sensual, creative, emotional, and passionate. Again, men are also sensual and passionate, but these are more “feminine” traits.
This is where serotonin lives, a right brain neurotransmitter and feel-good hormone.
The difference between neurotransmitters: you cannot raise your own levels of serotonin. Serotonin is raised externally, through external forms of appreciation and positive feedback from loved ones, respected peers, and our environment. Furthermore, increased serotonin levels in turn increase dopamine levels.
So, the more positive feedback we (all genders and sexual orientations) get from our external environment through praise and appreciation (serotonin), the more motivated (dopamine) we are to continue engaging in the activity that produced the praise.
Now, hang with me, because this is where things get more interesting. Even though females tend to be more right-brained in nature, men have 50% more serotonin receptors than women!
Women need more external encouragement and support to elicit the same neurochemical feel-good cascade that a man has. If she doesn’t get positive reinforcement from her environment, her serotonin levels will drop, and eventually so will her dopamine.
This biological, relational dance with the external world that ensures a woman’s well-being is very important to know because while a woman cannot raise her own serotonin levels, she can create conditions whereby she is seen, supported, appreciated, respected, and loved. Without those conditions, every aspect of her life will be compromised, no matter how intelligent, ambitious, talented, and productive she is.
Here are two examples…
First, a positive example of the serotonin-dopamine partnership:
A female physician named Jan receives a lot of positive feedback from her clinical practice. Patients constantly tell her what a difference she has made in their lives. This positive feedback loop creates a serotonergic boost from Jan’s external environment, which drives up her motivation to keep doing her work (dopamine). Neurochemically speaking, the outcome is matching her efforts and it makes a very positive well-being environment for this physician.
Second, a negative example of the serotonin-dopamine partnership:
A woman named Susan spends a Saturday planning and making a special dinner for ‘date night’ with her partner. She puts on a beautiful dress, she lights candles. Her partner, Adrienne, comes home and is distracted; she doesn’t notice the effort her partner has made; she’s moody and critical. She only wants to talk about her day and how hard it’s been. Neurochemically speaking, the outcomes for Susan are not matching her efforts. Subconsciously, because the brain was not rewarded (regardless of how understanding Susan may be of Adrienne, how unattached to outcomes she may profess), the motivation to sustain the effort in the future will diminish.
Lowered serotonin leads to lower dopamine (aka, lowered motivation). And what does this do to her motivation (dopamine) the next time it happens? The tenth time? The hundredth time? Women need external support and validation. It’s not because we are needy, or insecure, obsessed about image, or overly reliant on people’s opinions. We’re wired to have a neurochemical interplay with our external environment.
In some ways that might seem like bad news. As a woman, you can’t control if others appreciate you, see you, or value your contribution. You can’t control the world. But you can create conditions whereby your external environment supports you most. If you are a woman (or you love one), here are the four things you need to create those supportive conditions:
Nature – Nature has a positive relational field that affects your nervous system. There is scientific proof that being in touch with nature helps boost serotonin levels. Just being in the accepting embrace of the natural world creates that positive interplay between serotonin and dopamine. This also includes beloved pets.
Solitude – While it may seem counter to the relational imperative of receiving external appreciation and acknowledgment, being in solitude supports your ability to create positive external conditions for yourself. It’s a time to tap into your creativity, your inner knowing, your voice. Solitude gives you time to tell yourself the truth about relationships and endeavors that are ‘serotonin depleting’ for you.
Meaning – When you establish meaning (and purpose) as a main fidelity in your life, you naturally attract those who resonate with the same meaning, and values associated with that meaning. That attraction pulls those into your life who can truly validate, in positive ways, the things that you do.
To be seen and appreciated – Yes, this is important, as we have learned. Learn to respect and validate your need to be seen and appreciated as an essential part of your well-being, which will also benefit your work, your community, and your family. Ask friends and intimate partners to put their phones down when you are speaking with them. Ask to be valued and be clear about what makes you feel valued. Surround yourself with people who deeply know you and love you. Leave behind the critics, the energy vampires, those for whom you don’t feel you matter.
If you design practices, conditions, and circumstances to deliberately meet these four specific needs, you will start to discover that you feel happier, more fulfilled, and healthier. And as your internal feel-good tide rises, so will your creativity, productivity, and success.