Monday 19 May

Monday 19 May, 9.30pm

In this episode, Brain Power examines the age-old battle of the sexes. Using the latest scientific research and specially designed experiments, the programme will investigate what it means to be a man or a woman and how these differences affect our brains and behaviour.

From the moment we’re born, our gender is central to our view of ourselves. The physical differences are clear, but what about those within the brain? Men’s brains are bigger than women’s – on average by about 30 per cent – but this difference doesn’t translate into a higher IQ. The reason the male brain is larger is because men, as a rule, have bigger bodies. Simply put, more body to control means more brain to control it.
Dr Ian Kirk, a neuroscientist from Auckland University, is studying other physical and physiological brain differences. In some ground-breaking work in collaboration with a lab in Germany, they have tracked the differences in female brain function due to the menstrual cycle. “Early in the menstrual cycle when the [female] hormones are low, the brain might be man-like and so a woman is indistinguishable in many tasks from a man. Later on in the cycle, around the time a women is more likely to become pregnant, it might be argued she thinks in a more general or dynamic type of way,” he says.

So males and females can resemble each other at certain times of the month, but often the opposite sex can appear to be a different species. Jodi and Murry Pretscherer are your average Kiwi couple who volunteered to go under the gender microscope. Their task was to look at the differences between men’s and women’s brains with a navigation task. It’s now been proven that when men and women read maps, different parts of each of their brains are activated. Men tend to use abstract terms like compass points and distance – “Go 100 metres and then turn north”. Women tend to use landmarks – “At the school turn towards the mountains”. Interestingly, recent research has revealed gay men use both male and female strategies.

The ‘Lab Rats’ also take the gender challenge. Armed with clickers to count their sexual thoughts, they tackle the idea that men think about sex much more often than women. Dr Rachel Morrison, Brain Power’s behavioural scientist, ran the experiment. “A lot of research suggests men do have more sexual thoughts. In the past, the evolutionary drive to spread their genetic material as widely as possible meant frequent sexual thoughts ensured they were primed to not miss any opportunity to mate. But the results we got were really interesting – and not what you would necessarily expect.”

Presenter Gus Roxburgh also got in on the act. Never shy of a challenge he looked to science for help to make him appealing to women and then to test it out he went speed-dating. “It’s not something I’ve done before, so it was a little daunting. With all the tips I’d picked up in the making of the programme I felt the pressure was on to get a good result.”

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