Monday, June 30, 2008

The Female Brain

I sat in Joseph-Beth's on Sunday morning power reading The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.

Basically you can boil down the book to one thing: Hormones made me do it.

And while I pretty much agree that estrogen, testosterone, oxytocin and progesterone run our lives, it's always disappointing to read. For instance, as far as midlife goes, Brizendine lays it down. Women, who were wired to nurture, love, put their families ahead of themselves, who avoid conflict for the sake of familial harmony as young women (20's-early 40's), "flip" to a "me first" mentality around perimenopause partly due to the change in hormone levels!

... it is all down to Mother Nature unplugging the "mummy part" of the female brain which she does by reducing the supply of hormones which promote maternal, caring, peace-promoting instincts. ... this change comes about with the menopause - the last big hormonal change - after which the brain is no longer subjected to the surges and fluctuating hormones which came with the menstrual cycle and resulting in moodiness, depression and even the ability to see insults when they were not intended.

... throughout the child-bearing years, the female brain is marinated in oestrogen - a hormone which effects the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the emotional processor and emotional assessment and judgement area of her brain. The effect of this heightens a woman's communication and emotional circuits, giving rise to those maternal instincts which tend, care and do the best they can to avoid conflict to give the family unit the best possible chance of survival.

The menopause ... puts an end to the fluctuating hormone levels and with it comes a much more stable brain and a less maternal woman. A woman who, says Brizendine, is "less worried about pleasing others and now wants to please herself" and that may mean taking on new challenges or a new job and leaving the old life, including her husband, behind.
She added that 65% of the divorces occurring in midlife (aged 40 or older) are initiated by the wives!

This sudden need to find ourselves, to get out of the kitchen and into the world, our impatience with dependency of children, the intolerance for our husband's narcissistic habits might be tied as much to hormones (maybe more) than just co-dependency and dysfunctional childhoods, forgetting to go to the gym and not running businesses or cultivating hobbies.

It also hit me that if hormones have that much power, is it important to not make big decisions while in the throes of hormonal flux and assault? Or does it matter? What do you think?


Sentient Marrow said...

That's easy... I think that sucks. I am not surprised, though. Having an awareness that hormones can effect us in such a way during mid-life is good to know so I'd agree that mid-life would not be a good time for a woman to make decisions. With that said, though, how can you live life while putting major decisions on hold? And, I wonder, how long would the hold be? I assume it would be different for each woman. And, what about men? I could swear that my dh gets his own set of hormonal monthly mood swings... what of that?

julieunplugged said...

I agree. I hope more of us talk about this finding and what it means.

One thing Dr. Brizendine pointed out is that if you have a good marriage going into this hormonal transition, you are more likely to not project your discontent on your husband and will partner together to make life interesting. When you have stuffed feelings over a lifetime, have subordinated personal needs as a means to a peaceful household for children, when that need to protect and nurture goes, so does the marriage (oftentimes!).

It means that the hormones merely give the woman the courage to confront and overthrow what was unhealthy before... because now there is less at stake for the kids (so the thinking goes).

I'm thinking a lot about all this. I find the "second journey" to be endlessly fascinating.

Ampersand said...

I find this fascinating. Not sure how one can separate out the hormonal influence, tho. Because the feelings and the changes are still real ... and powerful ... empowering, even.

julieunplugged said...

Kim, reminds me of when someone tries to say that the reason I'm so upset is PMS. Uh, well maybe PMS intensifies the feelings and causes me to be less careful with how I express them, but usually the source of the aggravation is nonetheless real! I hate when hormones get "blamed" and thereby render the complaint meaningless.

I do think men can also suffer hormonal mood swings. I know that low blood sugar is also a way to become more "moody."

Managing how we project those feelings when hormones are intensifying them seems to be a more appropriate way to address them than using hormones to invalidate or dismiss them.

Anita M. said...

Like anything else I think it is a combination of nature and nurture. All women have hormonal fluctuations, some worse than others. Some women have crummy marriages and finally figure it out after the kids are gone. Other's with good marriages stick with their husbands. You absolutely cannot boil it down to hormones.

Carrie said...

Not all husbands have slovenly ways, not all women are self-sacrificing or even maternal! And even though I've tried to put my famil;y first (which my husband has, as well), I never was much for conflict avoidance. ;-) Generalizations are really tricky.

I realized at some point this spring, with the flurry of wedding-planning and mothering, I'd finally stopped having periods. Yay! While I've seen some signs and symptoms of hormone fluctuations the past few years, some uncomfortable, like increased anxiety, overall I have gone through this transition very smoothly. In my marriage, I might even go so far as to say Will has dealt more problems with reassessing life and "finding himself" than I have. Than again, I guess we fall into the "good" marriage category, and we've pretty much done this thing as a team. I wonder if hormones effect you more if you are already stressed emotionally? (I've had my stresses, just not marital ones.)

I'd like to read the book to get a clearer picture of what the author is saying and look at the science behind it.

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

This book and it's comments imply/suggest, "to me", a reductionistic proposal which can potentially lead to a fatalistic outcome, which may not be the intention of the author...but...I can envision this kind of information being used by "some" to justify or rationalize their behavior...which...can be a two edged sword, imo. I am all for women seeking to meet their own needs and desires through new careers or other means but it can also lead to potentially disrupting behavior in the context of a marriage, particularly, if it is implied through words or actions that the husband has not sacrificed and has been self centered. I know I am throwing out alot of what "ifs" but, as a man, I have been on the other side of reductionist ideas, by others that have not been helpful, imo.I don't mean to imply hormones don't matter but "I" think they are secondary to social conditioning. I'm a nuture kind of guy in the debate over nature verses nuture...because...I think too much nature generally results in too much fatalism which stunts change...Just my two cents worth..

SUSAN said...

I think both sexes begin to step back and assess...whether that is due to hormones or wisdom or boredom, I don't know. Not sure I agree with her assessment that women become less nurturing. I went through menopause at 43 and am still very tied to the nurturing though now I can see that I need to be more balanced. So, perhaps the hormones are making me see the need for balance. Perhaps it's just my life situation but I think men generally make more drastic changes than women at mid-life. Interesting, and sobering, research.


julieunplugged said...

The controversy about whether or not hormones control our behaviors is what makes this a hot topic.

I guess what jumped out at me in reading it the way I did was that I don't tend to account for the impact of hormones and stage of life when I'm evaluating what I want/need etc. My default is to think about my therapeutic needs (what pains/problems/dysfunctions contribute to my current pains/problems and discontents).

To add the dimension of hormones and life phases helps me not to overly read into my reactions and emotional state... to step back a pace and realize more is at work than my racing mind that seeks explanations for everything.

So that's just me.

I can see how others may use these findings in other ways.

Truth is, we are all varying bundles of neurochemical reactions and life experiences merging to create our unique lives.

MaryD said...

I've been reading an interesting book by Pamela Smith called "When Your Hormones Go Haywire. " Her note is that each monthly cycle is a time when our hormones make us more aware of our needs/concerns-- aware of the things in our life that need to change. Menopause and the related hormonal issues-- is the body's final big push to alert us to areas where we really need to find more balance, speak truth, etc.

Although hormones can make us more susceptible to? aware of? negative feelings and etc, I think we're still responsible to choose how to express those feelings, and it's not an excuse for suspending normal courtesy and good communication principles... tempting though it is!

iluka said...

I tend to agree with Bilbo. Although I think being aware of hormonal influence on our moods, behavior is probably good, I don't think we should look at it as any sort of determining factor. Then we get into the whole arena of women can't do this or that as well as men because their hormones make them more emotional. Or men can't help themselves when they behave in inappropriate ways (raping and pillaging) because that's just the way they are wired. Slippery ground.

I know lots of women who have experienced the sort of mid-life crisis where they divorce their husbands, go back to school, etc but I think it often has to do as much with just being fed up with always playing third fiddle and pent-up frustration than hormones. When you have put you needs third for 20 or 30 years, at age 45 or 50 it's your turn. Another thing that is happening is that you no longer have much control (and probably haven't for several years) or what your kids are getting up to. They may have made you proud, they may have disappointed you and you feel as if those 20 years you put in being a mother were a bit of a failure. In any case it's time for their sakes as well as yours to move on. It may be that nature has rigged us so that we will do this but if nature didn't it would be the smart thing to do in any case. My period stopped about 2 years ago. I didn't really notice menopause because of all the crises with my daughter. I'm 52 and I confess that I'm letting go of my kids somewhat - I still worry about them but it is not as all consuming as it was, but I think that is just because I'm tired. At some point you just don't have the energy any more for the sleepless nights, etc. My husband and I have a better relationship than we did - more supportive and more relaxed and I think this is because I'm not running after the kids as much and we have a little more time to appreciate each other. It has been a relief to let go a bit - the grief and sense of responsibility was killing me. If it has been my hormones which effected that change I'm grateful.

Sharon said...

I have the lovely experience of being in the menopausal/post-menopausal season of life - being an introspective person, but not given to much anxiety, I have mostly enjoyed the awareness and changes that have come with this change -- although that has been a 4-5 year adjustment to date.

I'm not sure the author has a sense of a creator or God - which, as in any other season of life, makes a big difference in how we react to those changes in light of our faith, and who we know ourselves and God to be (some things don't change.

Although not a smooth ride (what season has been smooth so far in my life?) I have been able to see many women model this stage of life; learning from both their joys and sorrows.

I feel blessed to not have had extreme physical symptoms - as hot flashes or mood swings or depression, but tried to continue to use natural means (eating, rest, exercise and other new adjustments to an aging life) to help ease those symptoms. For example, both sugar and caffeine intake exacerbated the "flush" so I would try to limit both.

Blessings and prayer to you as you wisely consider what your season of change will look like.