There is a popular perception that women are better listeners than men. A new study from the Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania has found why this belief could well be true. More significantly, the study paves the way to understand why men and women are susceptible to different extents to neurodegenerative and psychological disorders.

Using nearly a thousand brain scans, the scientists found that there are strong differences between the way men's and women's brains are wired. Women's brains were very well-connected across hemispheres in the region of the cerebrum. Given what we know from previous functional studies of this organ, this means women are typically better at using their intuitive right hemisphere and logical faculties in the left at the same time. This is what makes them better listeners.

Male brains, on the other hand, have better connections within hemispheres, between the cerebellum, which involves perception, and the front of the brain, which involves action. Males also, on average, had better connections between the cerebellum and women, between the cerebrum.

“It's striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are,” said Dr. Ruben Gur, who was involved in the study. Past research has addressed sex differences in the brain, but this is the first time its neural wiring has been studied with such a large sample and together with their effects on cognitive skills. Led by Dr. Ragini Verma, the scientists used a technique called diffusion-tensor imaging to map the way neurons in the brains of 521 males and 428 females aged 8 to 22 were connected.

Other conclusions they came to were that men are better at learning and performing a single task, processing spatial information and coordinating between the senses. Women, similarly, take the lead in multitasking with superior social cognition skills, and perform better on attention, word and face memory.

The paper published as part of the study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on December 2, notes that the divergence in connection patterns starts at around 13 years of age and becomes very pronounced in the next four or so years, during adolescence. The future course of action is to identify how the human brain is wired among different populations, what individual deviations from those patterns tell us, and precisely which neural connections are gender-specific.

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the following change: A sentence read "Male brains, on the other hand, have better connections between hemispheres ..." It should have been "within hemispheres".

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