Feb 06 2006
The Cuddle Gene
Oxytocin is considered to be the primary human bonding chemical, the so called “cuddle gene”. Diane Witt, assistant professor of psychology states, “All we know at this point is that in animal models, including non-human primates, oxytocin at the level of the brain plays a role in the expression of maternal, sexual, social, stress and feeding behaviors, as well as learning and memory.”
However, we do know that boys’ brains have less oxytocin than girls. Thus, it is more likely that boys will be physically impulsive, and it is less likely that they will overcome this impulsiveness to sit still and empathetically chat with a classmate or friend. We know this because levels of oxytocin drive emotions and emotions drive behaviour.
Boys lateralise brain activity. Their brains operate with less blood flow than girls’ brains (see the brain scan for proof). Boys’ brains are structured to compartmentalise learning. As a result, girls are often better at multi-tasking, have fewer attention span problems and can cope with lesson changes more quickly.
The male brain is set to renew, recharge and reorient itself by entering what neurologists call a rest state. This can result in so called zoning out or turning attention to a new topic after the brain has recharged.
The male brain is better suited for symbols, abstractions, diagrams, pictures and objects moving through space than for what many boys perceive as the monotony of words.
Emotions and Boys
Through the use of powerful MRI imaging neuroscientists at Harvard University have examined how emotion is processed by children’s brains between the ages of 7 and 17. In young children emotional activity was localised in primitive subcortical areas of the brain, specifically, the amygdala. In young children the part of the brain that does the talking, in the cerebral cortex, doesn’t connect to the place where the emotion is happening, namely the amygdala. In adolescence, brain activity associated with emotion moves up to the cerebral cortex. So, the 17 year old is able to explain what she is feeling in great detail without much effort. But, here is the interesting bit, that change occurs only in girls. In boys, the locus of emotional control remains stuck in the amygdala. Asking a 17 year old boy to talk about his feelings is about as productive as asking a 6 year old boy to talk about his feelings.
Hold on to that thought and then consider the type of writing tasks we ask boys to engage in and also very importantly the style and genre of reading we ask them to read and discuss. Could this be another way that boys are not performing as well as might be expected in the language areas of the curriculum?
Males and Hearing
This brain scan shows the brain activity of males and females whilst being subjected to the same listening task. The male brain at the top shows that whilst listening the majority of men showed exclusive activity on the left side of the brain, in the temporal lobe, which is classically associated with listening and speech. The majority of women showed activity in the temporal lobe on both sides of the brain, although predominantly on the left. The right temporal lobe is traditionally associated with non-language auditory functions. What seems to happen when men listen is that there is a deterioration in the capacity to listen to additional items, whereas women seem to be able to listen to more than one source. The old chesnut of men not multi-tasking as well as women may have more than an element of truth in it.
Ways round it in the classroom for boys?
The use of formative assessment techniques could make a difference, the wait time before eliciting responses should be increased. The use of talking partners would also help, though I would like to experiment with like/unlike gendering to see if that can make a difference.
When a boy listens to instructions make sure they are focussed and short, or else he won’t hear or process your second instruction whilst tryting to understand and process your first one, if you attempt instruction three whilst all of this is going on the result is confusion and loss of interest. It is a short step from there to poor behaviour and under achievement.