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June 04, 2013


Grim's recent comment reminded me of something I have promised to find and post a gazillion times - an NPR series on the effects of testosterone on personality and perception:

Consider my wife. Over the years I have learned that the world that she lives in is not like the world I inhabit at all. For one thing it is more brightly and more warmly colored. Many things that seem grey to me are blue or green to her, and purples and reds pop out to her where I wouldn't notice them.

Her world is full of flowers, which leap to her attention. I might walk past a field of wildflowers and never see them at all, but each one stands out to her.

Moreover, it's a world inhabited by very different kinds of people. Her brain contains, science tells us, about 1/30th the testosterone of mine. We have learned that the hormone has a huge effect on your experience of the world. Of course she has entirely different chemicals that likewise transform her experience in ways I cannot but begin to imagine. As a result, the people she meets and knows are completely different from the ones I do, even though they are the same people.

It is actually impossible for me to really understand what it would be like to live in her world.

This series is truly one of the most amazing things I have ever listened to. You may (or may not) be surprised to see me recommend it, given the number of times I've argued that men and women are in many ways as much alike as we are different. But life (and youth) are short. Over the course of our lives hormone levels wax and wane, our experience and understanding deepen, and we respond to - and are changed by - circumstances and events.

My relationships with my husband and sons and my male friends and co-workers continually remind me of just how much we have in common despite our differences. That doesn't mean I don't believe there are no differences, but rather that we often overstate them. Our differences don't always define us, and I will never stop believing that men and women are capable of understanding each other better, if not completely. Certainly, we're capable of loving and honoring each other.

Anyway, enjoy.

Posted by Cassandra at June 4, 2013 02:47 PM

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Hi Cass,
Guess I'd quibble with the notion that men inhabit a different world, but fully agree that on at least some level on many issues that we perceive the same objective facts or even photo or view differently.
For instance, it's demonstrably provable that men, especially young men, are less risk averse than women . . . and hormones may have a role. Men are also inherently more aggressive, and in our modern society (hmmm, guess it's true for any civilized society) we need to find socially acceptable outlets (sports, running, weights, hunting, etc), and train young men to channel that energy into acceptable behaviours.

It's also true that women are *MUCH* more complicated emotionally in some ways due to experiencing more hormones, at levels that vary w/ natural cycle, pregnancy/post-partum, and age.

. . . but we are also sentinent thinking people, capable of rational thought, and many of us also learn to appreciate another person's point of view.

Best Regards,

Posted by: CAPT Mike at June 4, 2013 10:04 PM

Guess I'd quibble with the notion that men inhabit a different world...

I think that's more Grim's view than mine. I do think hormones affect our thinking to some degree - I experienced this myself after giving birth to our firstborn. For nearly 5 months, I cried every.single.day, which completely mystified me because normally I cry only when extremely angry (a rare event) or when I see pictures of babies/cute animals, and here we're not talking sobbing but rather tearing up.

Within 3 days of ceasing to nurse my son, the crying stopped like someone had flipped a switch in my brain.

I haven't posted this before (at least I think I haven't!) because parts of it are a little weird/hard to listen to. But it really did make me think - the most interesting parts to me where the guy who stopped making testosterone, though I wondered if he wasn't attributing some symptoms to the testosterone that might have been depression, and the trans guy who was on megadoses of testosterone. Obviously that's not a great proxy for normal testosterone levels, but it was still thought provoking.

It's also true that women are *MUCH* more complicated emotionally in some ways due to experiencing more hormones, at levels that vary w/ natural cycle, pregnancy/post-partum, and age.

That's true, but the same thing is very true of men and boys (their testosterone levels fluctuate much more with age and environment than is widely known). Marriage and fatherhood lower testosterone levels. So does age. Sports victories, conflict, and erotica raise testosterone levels.

Our endocrine systems are pretty remarkable and complex mechanism that seems to ratchet our hormones up or down in response to external stimuli (adrenaline is a good example). Listening to the radio segments, I kept thinking of gene expression too - I wonder if external events and hormone levels might help switch certain genes on or off?

Fascinating stuff.

Posted by: Cass at June 5, 2013 08:28 AM

I think that's more Grim's view than mine.

I mean something specific by it. Obviously I don't mean that we live in different external worlds. The fields we walk by are the same fields, composed of the same flowers; we meet the same people, and touch the same trees.

But the world that we encounter isn't just these external things; it's also very much composed of how our mind puts it all together into a single experience. It is the mind, and not the things themselves, that paints in the colors, or unifies the sight you are seeing with the feeling coming through your fingertips, and the scents coming to your nose, and tells you this is all one thing: a rose, that feels soft and smells sweet and is richly red.

This assembly of the world is what Kant referred to as 'transcendental apperception,' or as he put it, 'All my experiences are mine.' More recent German biologists have developed an extended theory, the German word for which is umwelt.

It is in this sense that the worlds are different. And they are, demonstrably: hers is more brightly colored, warmer, and different in many other ways that we can begin to prove. What we can't do is experience what it would be like to live in that world, or to have your own self formed (in large part!) by the experience of living in that world for your whole life.

Posted by: Grim at June 5, 2013 09:07 AM

That is very good writing, Grim.

I'd add only this: Even within the *same* gender, individuals can have amazingly different perceptions of the world. The inner world of an Introverted Sensation Thinking Judging person (to use Meyers-Briggs terminology) is very different from that of an Extroverted Intuitive Sensation Perceptive individual.

To the extent that it's possible to bridge these gaps, it probably starts with the conscious recognition that they exist.

Posted by: david foster at June 6, 2013 11:17 PM

That's an excellent point, David.

I first read the Myers-Briggs types because I was having real trouble understanding my mother in law. While I don't believe MB typing is the be-all and end-all, it definitely allowed me to understand how she sees things (and once I understood her way of seeing the world, it was easier not to take certain things she does and says personally). She's not doing these things to irritate me - she just sees the world in different terms than I do.

As for types, I come out somewhere in between INTP and ENTP (leaning more to the introverted side) so I've resigned myself to being strange :p

Posted by: Cass at June 7, 2013 12:29 PM