Monday, July 23, 2007

Whose Brains are "Wired for Success"?

"Girls must resist their brains' innate biology if they are to be happy and successful."

That's the provocative message of Dr. JoAnn Deak, school psychologist and author of Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters as quoted in the Australian newspaper The Age.

Dr. Deak claims that
"the brain function of girls can hold them back and damage their self-esteem."
How she comes to that conclusion is a bit of a stretch.
"The part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates survival reactions, is more active in girls, making them, on average, more fearful when faced with challenges. Conversely, boys respond to threats with a surge of testosterone, which, she says, makes them more competitive and aggressive."
No problems with this from a neurobiology standpoint, but notice that she uses the word "challenges" when talking about girls and "threats" when talking about boys.
"Boys tend to be less afraid, she says, as their prefrontal cortex, which mediates inappropriate risks and thinks about rational details, is not mature, plus there is a testosterone surge. In contrast, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex of girls becomes more active."
Dr. Deak clearly considers the male response to be preferable, but this recklessness is a major reason why teenaged boys have significantly higher rates than teenaged girls of car crashes, juvenile delinquency, dropping out of school, homicide, and suicide. Overall, the mortality rate for adolescent males is more than twice than that of adolescent females.

As a parent, it seems to me that the caution of teen girls is generally more conducive to success than the recklessness of teen boys.

If one believes in human evolution, it makes sense for male brains to be less risk-averse than female brains. Early hunter-gatherer tribes were polygamous, where a few high-status men had the lions' share of reproductive opportunities and many men had none. Men, therefore, had little to lose and much to gain by taking risks. By contrast, women tended to all have very similar reproductive opportunities so long as they survived to adulthood.

Here in America, we like to hear stories of people who took risks and had them pay off- the Bill Gates and Sergey Brins who drop out of school to start their own companies and wind up billionaires. We don't like to hear about people who gambled and lost. Statistically, however, the number of young men in jail or hurt/killed as a result of recklessness FAR exceeds the number of startup successes.

Perhaps Dr. Deak is focusing her efforts on the wrong gender!

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