The Female Brain (2006) is a classic of popular neuroscience which argues that hormone-driven neural development shapes many of women’s drives and behaviors. Just a few hormones chart a course through the cycle of changes that mark life with a female brain.
Introduction: Discover the powerful hormones that shape a female brain throughout life’s journey.
Table of Contents
When author Louann Brizendine studied neuroscience in the 1970s and 80s, she quickly noticed that all the studies focused on men’s brains by default. There was a widespread belief that women’s hormonal cycles made studying women too complicated. To counter what amounted to complete ignorance about female brains and their development, she founded a clinic to study the topic and, after years of clinical practice, published The Female Brain to shine a light on the other half of human neuroscience.
This summary dives into the power of female hormones in shaping brains, development, and perceptions through life’s cycles from infancy through old age. It uncovers the delicate dance between chemistry, biology, and culture that marks each stage of life with a female brain.
Fetus, Baby, and Child
During the first eight weeks in the womb, all brains look female. For about half of those embryos, this changes when an enormous release of testosterone remaps everything from their neurons to reproductive organs at about eight weeks. Others, though, receive a bath of the powerful hormone estrogen at this pivotal moment. That release will continue growing a female body and brain.
A typical female child goes through a remarkable development. From birth until her first birthday, her brain is soaked in estrogen levels that can be as high as an adult woman’s. The communication centers of her brain respond to this hormone by growing extra neurons and priming her to talk.
It also makes her highly sensitive and responsive to facial expressions, particularly her caregivers’. She might spend her early months gazing into faces with pure fascination. When she starts to talk, she’ll expect and even demand her listener’s attention – whether she knows any words or not. She’ll also be much more sensitive to the emotions she hears in the voices around her.
She experiences this first year quite differently from her male-brained counterparts, whose high levels of testosterone during this time have made them less communicative and responsive to faces, and more fixated on motion and exploration. But after this first year of life, the babies’ levels of testosterone and estrogen drop off sharply. For the next ten or so years – until puberty – their bodies will stay remarkably similar. Their brains, though, will stay distinct.
From her toddler days through her early tween years, the brain structures that high estrogen helped grow in a female brain will keep her communicating and observing throughout her play. She’s likely to keep up a constant stream of conversation with everyone and everything around her, from toys to parents to friends, and her emotional memory will store away all the details.
Her time in girlhood might feel endless to her, but this period of low, stable hormones isn’t forever. When her hormones change, her whole world might feel like it’s crashing down around her. It isn’t, of course – it’s just puberty.
The Tumultuous Teens: Puberty
Estrogen doesn’t just shape a female brain through gestation and early infancy – it also begins shaping a female body for sexual maturity and possible reproduction. But it’s not alone. At puberty, a rising tide of both estrogen and the hormone progesterone cycles kick off another phase of transformation, and this one is intense.
In the female puberty brain, these surges of hormones make for profound changes. They stimulate brain areas like her hippocampus, involved in memory and learning. They stimulate her amygdala, too – a neural center of emotions. The ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone can make her even more sensitive to the moods, emotions, and rejection of others.
Her response to stress will change with this cycle, too. While dominated by feel-good estrogen in the early part of the month, she can feel social and confident – even in the face of challenges. In the second half of the month, when progesterone levels soar, stress might instead make her feel irritable and withdrawn. This is the chemical recipe for premenstrual symptoms.
In fact, in response to this new hormonal instability, her moods might be just as unstable. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that plans for the future and weighs consequences, isn’t completely formed yet in teenagers. So the brakes that could be put on bad choices don’t even exist yet. Estrogen can drive her to be social and more talkative, and to crave deep connection. But when the wave of progesterone hits, it triggers the stress hormone cortisol. Her body responds to stress even more intensely while her mood plummets. Riding the wave of hormonal cycles can feel like a roller coaster.
But lucky for her, other hormones are responding. Oxytocin, the hormone that makes intimacy and contact feel good, is also stimulated by her high estrogen levels. So is dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical. So she’ll get even more pleasure from talking and listening. If she melts down when a friend doesn’t call back, it’s because she’s actually going through withdrawals.
These new cycles are transforming her body, too. Her new womanly shape can be a source of fascination and confusion, especially when it starts to attract attention. She might form tight friendship groups to feel safer moving through the world. Even her sleep cycle gets reset with the estrogen surge of puberty, and a once-regular sleeper can become a wide-awake night owl and a daytime zombie. Everything keeps the beat with her cycle.
If all these changes in puberty seem drastic, things only get more intense from here. Her changing body and still-developing brain dial up the heat when sexual maturity hits, and the romantic brain makes her grand entrance.
Hormones and Passion
As the female brain reaches adulthood, the hormonal roller coaster adds even more ups and downs. Throughout puberty, the pleasure centers of her brain have lit up from all that communicating and intense connection with her network. This oxytocin and dopamine-fueled drive for intimacy and sharing secrets might even be part of nature’s preparation for romance and bonding.
But nature has a sense of humor at this point, too, it would seem. While the female brain – influenced by cycles of estrogen and progesterone – now finds immense pleasure in communicating with romantic partners, the male brain at this stage is altogether different. Their soaring testosterone at puberty has dialed up their amygdala, too. But it brought on more aggression, reactivity and competition. The communication centers of their brain have far fewer neurons than female-brained peers, and their sensitivity to emotional cues doesn’t grow at puberty – it gets more repressed.
With such neural differences, male and female couples might sometimes feel like they are from different planets. Female brains longing for deep connection through talking and connecting, along with their male-brained partners preferring action, distraction, and escape, have fueled many an argument. The pair might not be aware that distinct brain formations drive their seemingly opposite desires.
But all brains are influenced by a group of hormones called androgens – in fact, testosterone is an androgen, and it cycles at a low level each month in young women. A rise in androgens during puberty and beyond brings on changes in every teen, from acne breakouts to rebellion, but it also sparks lust.
This rise in androgens starts a growing sex drive, and can trigger competition in female brains. While testosterone isn’t solely responsible for a women’s sex drive (estrogen plays a role there, too), it may fuel sexual competition. The close connection between cycling estrogen and progesterone, with oxytocin and dopamine rewards, can have the female brain chasing the high of intimacy even with abusive or neglectful partners.
Feelings of withdrawal for these feel-good chemicals when a romance ends last far longer than during the teen years. Hormonal swings with cycles, and with stress or loss, can have female brains reaching for sugary treats for extra dopamine long into adulthood.
So the high highs, and low lows, of dating and sexual exploration are driven by hormones acting on the brain – and the effects can be as powerful as drugs like cocaine. But when the female brain finds love, things change again.
If we were able to examine the female brain while dating, we’d see that each conversation with a potential romantic partner lit up the pleasure centers of her brain like a Christmas tree. She’d get a powerful “hit” of dopamine with each new text notification – which would pale in comparison to the surge she got from a long conversation or date.
Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, would also be ramping up. The effects of this hormone are incredibly powerful in driving intimacy. A hug that lasts 20 seconds is all it takes to release a bath of oxytocin in the brain. Intimate talking, kissing, touching, and gazing into each others’ eyes all release a font of oxytocin in the female brain. She’d be more or less sensitive to it depending on her menstrual cycle.
Knowing about the oxytocin effect can be liberating. This hormone is released regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea to bond with another person. When a group of investors were given oxytocin, for instance, they offered far more money than investors who didn’t receive the hormone. Oxytocin triggers the trust circuits in the brain. So if you hug someone, for instance, you’ll be far more likely to trust them – even if they aren’t trustworthy. You’ll likely believe what they say, too … even when you shouldn’t.
When romantic relationships get serious and build intimacy, though, the effect is almost the reverse. If the dating brain was a lightning storm of hormonal releases, the mated female brain is calm. When she becomes bonded, those extreme highs and lows end, and her pleasure centers emit more of a warm, steady glow.
Oddly enough, this change might actually feel like a step backward in a relationship, but it isn’t. After the cocaine-like highs of dopamine in dating, settling down to a more sustainable level is actually normal. Romance isn’t over – just the extreme rush.
So if you’ve been in a relationship for more than a couple of years, you might suddenly feel that everything your partner does that used to seem adorable is now just irritating. They probably haven’t changed at all, but your pleasure centers are no longer overriding your critical thinking.
But it isn’t all over for extreme rushes of hormones – or their extreme effects – with possible motherhood and inevitable menopause still on the horizon.
In pregnancy, the female brain must adapt to a whole new set of hormonal surges and neural circuits. Almost immediately, progesterone levels start to rise, and that brings on physical changes like swelling, tender breasts, and growing hunger and thirst. She feels the effects of extra progesterone on her brain, too. She might feel foggy and distracted, and incredibly tired all the time. Her sensitivity to smells soar, too, which can make her feel queasy and nauseous. But it also protects against stress during pregnancy; it has an almost tranquilizing effect.
Oddly enough, while the pregnant body is gaining weight and growing, the pregnant female brain is actually shrinking. This may be an adaptation to all the new neural structures the brain is getting ready to build during childbirth. Her faculties haven’t shrunk – her brain has simply become hyperefficient to compensate.
These changes reach a peak at birth, when the female brain receives a surge in oxytocin and rewires itself totally within a matter of hours. The surge causes the start of lactation, among other physical changes, but it also helps her endure the physical pain of birth. It can leave the female brain absolutely euphoric, shaky, and emotional afterward.
It also sets her up for bonding with her children. She’ll know their smells, their sounds, and their moods intimately. She might feel like she’s going through withdrawals when she’s away from them. Her aggression has also switched on to protective mode. The old mama bear stereotype is a result of the hormonal changes to the brain. These have an evolutionary advantage – they drive the maternal nurturing that can lead to brighter, healthier, less stressed kids.
Menopause and Rites of Passage
At this stage of life, female brains have already gone through several radical transformations – but it doesn’t stop there. With both maturity and motherhood, the aging female brain has become far more accustomed to these rapid-fire changes. Her brain centers for critical thinking and analysis have become incredibly efficient and secure. The female brain grows wiser and more integrated in each new phase.
This results in another stereotype: the perimenopausal woman waking up one day to change her life completely. The high levels of hormones, especially feel-good estrogen and oxytocin, she once experienced are now dropping off precipitously. This lowers the activity of her tending and nurturing brain circuits activated by them. Instead of feeling conflict-averse, she may feel confident enough to express herself strongly – and demand to have her own needs met. Her filters come off, and for many around her it can feel like a drastic change.
At menopause, exactly one year after her last ovulation, she’ll once again experience the low, steady hormone levels of girlhood. As she adjusts, the female brain feels the effects of this new stasis. With a calm after decades of hormonal surges, the postmenopausal female brain can exude a steady, strong new level of focus.
Some menopausal brains also experience a steep drop-off in testosterone levels, however, which can lower libido and sex drive. This doesn’t mean there’s less love or passion for a sexual partner; it’s just a hormone deficiency that can be diagnosed and treated to help reignite the flames.
In the journey from fetus to postmenopause, the female brain has transformed in distinct ways to adapt. From the inside, this might have felt like teen angst, epic dating fails, marriage problems, or even self-sabotage. Instead, it was the powerful dance between hormones and brain development fueling nature’s most instinctual drives. For the female brain, arriving at postmenopause can release those drives, allowing her to emerge free to express who she is – and voice who she is still longing to become.
For society, she can become a treasure. Her internal awareness of the stages of the female brain can give her a perspective and wisdom that benefits her family and her community well into old age.
The main takeaway here is that hormones are responsible for brain and neural development from conception through old age. In the female brain, levels of estrogen and progesterone play a huge role in driving puberty, maturation, sexuality, motherhood, and menopause. For many, these changes come with behavioral changes that might feel drastic and deeply personal. Instead, they are grounded in biology, and an awareness of their impact can help everyone with a female brain take control of their influence.
Sure, here’s a review of the book “The Female Brain: A Comprehensive New Look at What Makes Us Women” by Louann Brizendine:
In “The Female Brain,” Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist and expert in gender and brain development, offers a comprehensive and engaging exploration of the unique characteristics and experiences of the female brain. Drawing on cutting-edge research and real-life examples, Brizendine sheds light on the intricate workings of the female mind and challenges many long-held assumptions about gender and the brain.
The book is divided into ten chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the female brain, such as emotions, memory, sexuality, and communication. Brizendine’s writing is clear and accessible, making the complex scientific concepts easy to understand for readers without a background in neuroscience.
One of the book’s key takeaways is that women’s brains are not simply a smaller version of men’s brains. Instead, they have distinct structural and functional differences that shape their experiences and behaviors. For example, women have a larger corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain and facilitates communication between emotions and logic. This may explain why women tend to be more empathetic and intuitive than men.
Brizendine also delves into the various ways in which hormones and neurotransmitters impact the female brain. She explains how fluctuations in estrogen and oxytocin levels influence mood, cognitive function, and social behavior, and how these changes can be leveraged to improve women’s lives.
The book also explores the critical period of puberty and its profound effects on the developing female brain. During this time, girls experience a surge in dopamine, which can lead to increased risk-taking behavior and emotional sensitivity. Brizendine offers practical advice for parents and caregivers on how to support girls during this challenging period.
Another important topic covered in the book is the female sexual brain. Brizendine debunks common myths about women’s sexuality, such as the idea that women are less sexually driven than men. She argues that women’s brains are wired for pleasure and intimacy, and that their sexual desire is closely linked to emotional connection and feeling safe.
Throughout the book, Brizendine emphasizes the importance of understanding and appreciating the female brain in all its complexity. She challenges readers to recognize and reject gender stereotypes and to embrace the unique strengths and talents of women.
One potential criticism of the book is that it may reinforce some gender stereotypes, despite Brizendine’s efforts to challenge them. For example, the chapter on communication suggests that women are more verbally fluent and empathetic than men, which may perpetuate the idea that women are naturally more talkative and nurturing.
However, overall, “The Female Brain” is a valuable resource for anyone interested in understanding the intricacies of the female mind. Brizendine’s engaging writing style and comprehensive research make the book an enjoyable and enlightening read. It is a must-read for women who want to better understand themselves and their sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.
In conclusion, “The Female Brain” is a groundbreaking and empowering book that offers a fresh perspective on the complex and fascinating world of the female mind. By shedding light on the unique strengths and challenges of the female brain, Brizendine provides a valuable tool for personal growth, understanding, and advocacy.