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The Essential Difference: The Truth About The Male And Female Brain Hardcover – July 1, 2003

3.7 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Should the title fail to express Baron-Cohen's certainty about gender differences, the Cambridge Univ. professor of psychology and psychiatry lays out his controversial thesis on page one: "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems." Defending this bold view is a tough but engaging battle, one that's alleviated by Baron-Cohen's disclaimer that his conclusions refer to statistical majorities rather than "all men" and "all women," but exacerbated by his habit of simultaneously skirting and employing gender stereotypes. His copious evidence ranges from the anecdotal to the anthropological, and from the neurological to the case study (the author and his research team conducted many of these studies). Not all his support fully convinces: e.g., the music-classifying habits of novelist Nick Hornby's High Fidelity protagonist isn't confirmation of the male brain's predisposition to systems-building. After acknowledging cultural and social influences on gender differences, Baron-Cohen "surfs the brain" (and offers evidence from a number of studies, both human and animal) to establish a biological link. But if male rats navigate their way through mazes more easily than female rats, does that mean men are better at directions than women? His speculations on how binary brain types have evolved over the eons, which have the male brain co-opting traits like power and leadership, leaving the female brain with gossip and motherhood, may ruffle a few feathers. Perhaps the most refreshing section of this cerebral volume is devoted to what he calls "extreme" examples of the male brain-autism and its cousin, Asperger's syndrome. The author of previous autism books, including Mindblindness, Baron-Cohen offers curious lay readers a provocative discussion of male-female differences.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Baron-Cohen offers curious lay readers a provocative discussion of male-female differences." -- - Publishers Weekly --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (July 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738208442
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738208442
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #420,012 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
After a lengthy and unwarranted disclaimer that his work isn't "sexist" [whatever that is], Baron-Cohen surveys the foundations of male and female minds. With a long clinical and teaching career, supported by an immense list of studies, he concludes that, in general, there are indeed "essential differences" in cognitive makeup between human genders. While there is a spectrum of characteristics, certain general frameworks exist attributable to men and women. For ease of analysis, he suggests that women are more empathic ["E" personalities] while men are more systematic ["S" personalities]. Each, he insists, has their role, with most people placed well within a median between extremes. The trends, however, are clear.
In a chatty style he likely uses speaking with patients, Baron-Cohen shows that women's empathic tendencies give them the power to quickly assess others' emotional states. Women more readily identify feelings in others, respond appropriately when sympathy is required and "reach out" in dealing with people. He stresses that this "intuitive sense" among women is almost universal and is rightfully well-regarded by all cultures. Men, on the other hand, operate under the need to understand "systems", organized conditions, mechanics, technology and are thus driven to know "how things work". This urge leads them away from the intimacy women have with others and, in the more extreme cases, are likely to become "loners". The most outstanding examples are those suffering from autism which is overwhelmingly a male condition.
Baron-Cohen has spent years studying autism, offering a range of examples.
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Format: Hardcover
Before you start reading Baron-Cohen's fascinating book, go through the questionaire in the first appendix.
The questionaire, "Reading the Mind in the Eyes," has thirty-six photos cropped to show only the region around the eyes. By looking only at this small portion of the face, you have to figure out the emotion being expressed by the individual in the photo.
Chance would give only one out of four right answers. As Baron-Cohen remarks in the text, most people, when they take the quiz, find it extremely difficult -- one feels like one is guessing.
In fact, nearly everyone does much better than he or she expected. I got nearly two-thirds correct, and most people do even better.
This little quiz demonstrates one of the key points in the book: normal humans have an incredible ability to read the expressions, feelings, etc. of their fellow human beings from very subtle clues.
Baron-Cohen's thesis in his earlier book, "Mindblindness," was that autistic persons are simply people who lack this normal human "mind-reading" ability.
"The Essential Difference" expands this thesis to argue that, in this respect, autistic people are simply at a far end of a spectrum. Females (with numerous individual exceptions) tend towards the opposite end of the spectrum from autistic people: females are usually good empathizers, skilled at "mind-reading." Males tend to be less good at empathizing compared to females and better at "systemizing." Autistic people (who are predominantly male) lie at the extreme male end of the spectrum -- extraordinarily poor empathizers, good systemizers.
The author proves this case beyond reasonable doubt by both covering the scientific evidence and wittily discussing case studies.
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Format: Paperback
As I immerse myself in the field of evolutionary psychology/biology and Baron-Cohen's work on biobehavioral differences in men and women, I wonder when and where a value judgement got placed on his proposal of men "systematizing" being better or worse than a female tendancy to "empathize"? Don't we need both types to complete each other?

There wasn't one claim in this book (that I could find) that the author's conclusions are attached to a value judgement, nor does he claim EVERY woman is an "E" and EVERY men an "S". Other evidence supports him: studies of women with higher testosterone levels show they act in more aggressive and traditionally "masculine" systematizing ways, while Shelley Taylor's pivotal study on oxytocin, a female hormone, proved a connection to nurturing behaviors. But how is that somehow "bad"?

This doesn't mean (nor do I think Baron-Cohen claims) that we need rigid rules prohibiting or allowing certain opportunities and behaviors for men and women. It does help us to understand and learn from each other--and perhaps have better relationships. As I discussed this book the other day with a colleague that "light bulb" moment occurred, and she realized why her significant other was so much more driven to compartmentalize than she was--it's how he's hardwired, for the most part. It's been documented that women tend to pick friends for relationships, not as basketball or golf buddies, as their husbands mind. In retail, women apologize, men replace or resolve. Don't we need both approaches?

Let's not consider this book a canon for behavior, but use it for the valuable and insightful observations that can help us cast aside judgements about superiority of either gender and accept each other for our strengths--and weaknesses.
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