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Brain Power

Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes

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

Brain Power is the ground-breaking new series from the makers of the critically acclaimed Human Potential.  In these science-based documentaries presenter Gus Roxburgh will delve into the mysteries of the most complex organ of the body - the human brain.  The series' aim is to give ordinary kiwis some insight into how their brain functions and how they can improve their 'brain power'.

Male and Female Brains
From the moment we're born out gender is central to our view of ourselves.  The physical differences are clear but what about those within the brain?  Science has proven men's brains are bigger than women's - on average by about 30% - but this difference don't translate into 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 brain function due to the menstrual cycle and at some times the female brain can be virtually indistinguishable to that of the male brain.  "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 distributed, or more general or less focused or more dynamic type of way," he says.

Are men and women different species?
But often the rest of the time the opposite sex can appear to be a different species.  Jodi and Murry [correct spelling] Pretscherer are your average kiwi couple but in the name of science they have volunteered to do under the gender microscope.

Their first 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 - what that means in practical terms is the genders employ different strategies in navigation.  Men 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.

We gave the couple directions for the opposite brain - landmark driven directions for Murry and abstract directions for Jodi.  They found the crossing of the gender barrier made the task really difficult but what the programme really wanted to examine was how the couple negotiated a stressful situation.  New science looking at the female stress response shows women do not follow the fight flight reaction that men do as it has been long supposed.  Women show a 'tend and befriend' response focusing on preserving and building relationships.  As the map reading task became more and more difficult we watched Jodi focus very much on Murry and how he was feeling as Murry focused much more on the task.  The other interesting observation was the amount the couple talked with Jodi talking about 80% of the time compared to Murry who was much less chatty at 20%.

Sexual Thoughts
Our lab rats - five ordinary New Zealanders willing to be experimented on to give us an idea of what's happening in the average kiwi brain - also took 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."

Mike got the highest results and Carly the lowest - but she set herself a very high bar of when she would click which meant we disregarded her results.  But what was really interesting was Stacey and Marilynn who both had similar rates of sexual thoughts - science predicted that Stacey would have got a lot more.

Speed Dating
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."  And he paid off.  Of the eight women he met speed dating 5 said they would see him again.

- On average, the male brain is 30% larger than the female brain
- The human egg is 25% smaller than the diameter of a hair and 30 times larger than a sperm cell. 
- Latest findings have shown coffee can help sperm swim better.
- Recent research has shown heavy mobile phone use might decrease sperm count by 30%.
- 57% of women focus on feelings during their fantasies - only 19% of men do the same. 
- 36% of men report fantasising during their first sexual experience.
- One third of men report having more than 1000 partners in their sexual fantasies.
- Under stress men prepare to fight or flee the threat new science shows women 'tend and befriend'.