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Jewish World Review July 29, 2002/ 20 Menachem-Av, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Long memories and short fuses | Let's face it, ladies. We must have been born with some of the DNA of an elephant. Not in trunk or shape, but with the pachyderm's memory.

Science confirms what every husband and wife knows from personal experience. A wife recalls every argument in photographic detail, where they had it and how he started it, details that long ago slipped from his memory bank. She can (and does) play back the name and vital statistics of every girlfriend he ever had, with specifics of hair color (bottle platinum or hussy red), fashion taste (tacky or tight) and body flaws and worse, attributes (of ankles, chest, face, chin).

That's why women win most of the verbal battles and men clam up rather than compete in their own defeat. ("How can I argue with her about the details," asks one exasperated male friend of mine, "when I don't even remember the argument?") Women also do better on scientific verbal measurements than men. This is a carefully cultivated self-defense with a biological edge in the competition where the fittest survive.

The researchers, who calculated that female memories are 10 to 15 percentage points more accurate in recalling emotionally charged events, required magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, to determine exactly how male and female brains are wired differently. Most women understand that their better memories of incidents and experiences are simply powerful arrows to use in the endless war between the sexes. It's what makes women the warrior equivalents of the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, George Washington at Valley Forge, Ulysses S. Grant at Petersburg (and Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville).

Such differences, of course, aren't all female advantages. A little forgetfulness enables men to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with greater cool. In this study, for example, men who looked at a picture of a gun described it in neutral language. Women recalled it as "highly negative," emotionally intense, exasperatingly charged. Men saw it as a metal tool.

"For pictures that were highly emotional, men recalled around 60 percent and women were at about 75 percent," says one of the researchers, whose study was published by the National Academy of Science. The research supports many of the melodramatic clichés of sexual politics: the talkative broad and the silent cowboy, the ditzy dame and the ruthless rogue.

Naturally we can all come up with lots of exceptions, both from literature and real life, where men had the longer memories and women were reticent in their modesty. Think Hamlet and Ophelia. Anthony and Cleopatra, at least as portrayed by Shakespeare, were equal to each other in both departments. So were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the movie "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Maureen Dowd frets in the New York Times that a study drawing attention to the differences of male and female brains provides "just the sort of data that misogynists could use to support the old argument that women are too high strung, thin-skinned and brooding to be trusted as commander in chief." That's a reach. To the contrary, the study underlines the ways men and women could bring different skills to national defense. The military can certainly take advantage of long, probing memories, even when emotionally charged, in designing battle plans and strategies.

Besides, the study merely shows predispositions. Few men and women are at such polarities as to represent in any total way the laconic and the verbose, or the extremes of recollection, whether in tranquility or anxiety. We all - or at least some of us - know men who are as garrulous talking about troublesome sexual experiences as any female characters of the television drama "Sex in the City." A woman's simmering silent anger is hardly unique in domestic relations.

In analyzing the study, Diane Halpern, director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children and a professor of psychology, warns against making too much of it "because our brains are constantly changing."

We have two recent dramatic examples of female brains at work, examples of incredible resourcefulness no matter how the wiring. The little playmate of Samantha Runnion, the adorable little girl who was snatched by a kidnaper in Orange County, California, recalled the abductor's features with such exact fidelity to detail that the police got a sketch out to the public and with the public's help quickly got the man they say did it.

And Erica Pratt, age 7, kidnapped in Philadelphia, remained extraordinarily brave and calm in captivity, chewing through the duct tape binding her hands and feet, and escaped, outwitting the male captors four times her age.

Our brains may be designed in a certain way, but how we activate those cells and make those connections make all the difference. Mercifully, we're not programmed yet.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS