SCI-TECH & AGRI

Why can't a man be more like a woman?

REMEMBER THE famous play / movie of the 1950s called My Fair Lady? In this adaptation of Bernard Shaw's play, The Pygmalion professor Henry Higgins tries to `sophisticate' the rustic girl Eliza Doolittle, and having succeeded in doing so falls in love with her. During the process, he frustratingly remarks "why can't a woman be more like a man"? Well, at home more often we hear the reverse — " why can't a man be more like a woman"? This piteous refrain occurs when the wife finds the husband lazing around the house, channel surfing with the remote while he could be helping with dusting the furniture or otherwise helping with the housework.

It appears that the psychologist- family therapist Michael Durian of Washington State, USA, has looked into this aspect of the man/woman divide. The Telegraph of UK, in its issue of 3.10.03 covered his latest book What Could He be Thinking? How a Man's Mind Really Works, and The Hindu of 4.10.03 carried a summary of it. Gurian claims that this difference in the behaviour of men and women is not just cultural (or male chauvinism or feminist prejudice), but might well have a biological basis. It might have to do with the difference in the levels of hormones and related peptides in the brains of the two sexes, he thinks. In particular, when one does PET scans and MRI magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, one finds differences in the activity in the region called the cingulate gyrus, a centre associated with emotions in the brain.

Surprisingly enough, the claim is that the difference in the levels of the hormones called oxytocin and serotonin is responsible for this. Oxytocin is suggested to be involved in `primary bonding' emotion while serotonin is thought to be responsible for a `calming effect'. Indeed drugs such as LSD and other hallucinogens knock out the effect of serotonin and excite the brain in unusual and unpredictable ways. Gurian suggests that the male brain secretes less of oxytocin and serotonin than the female brain. From here, he takes a leap to say that because of this, a man's brain takes in less sensory details than a woman's. This is why he does not see the dust on the furniture or the orange peel on the floor in the same way as she does. He attaches less personal identity to the inside of a house and more to the workplace or outside home — which is why he does not feel as worked up about housework. To add to this further, Gurian claims the `male' hormone testosterone in the male brain pumps him to seek competitive, hierarchical groups and to `show off' his worth and identity.

Is this all mere male rationalization of his sloth, or is there a biological basis? Are there other animals where such a sexual difference can be seen, and the biochemistry understood? The closest animals to us are the chimpanzees and gorillas. To the best of my knowledge (and Google search), there are no data on MRI scans or hormonal levels in these cousins of ours. But some insight comes from reading the beautiful book In the Shadow of Man, by the great biologist Jane van Lawick-Goodall (Collins, London 1971). The male chimp appears to behave in almost exactly the same way as the male human (or should I say it the other way around, keeping evolution in mind?) It is the female chimp that has to bear much of the family chores. And there is much daily female-female bonding and friendly exchanges among them. Such emotional `conversations' appear to be a good way to relax — be it the female chimpanzee or human.

There is some data in this connection on the mouse-like rodent called the vole. Gunjan Sinha wrote in the magazine Popular Science a few years ago about the research of Drs. Lowell Getz and Sue Carter of the University of Illinois. These two were curious about one rather human-like behaviour of the vole, namely monogamy and life-long pairing up of the same female and male voles. Carter was intrigued about the possible involvement of the hormone oxytocin in mammalian brains. This hormone is implicated to promote, in some species, bonding between males and females, and between mothers and offspring. "Might oxytocin, swirling around in tiny vole brains, be the catalyst for turning them into the lifelong partners that they are"? When Carter injected the female voles with oxytocin, they practically glued themselves to their partners once they had paired. And when she injected females with oxytocin-blocking chemicals, the animals deserted their partners. Following this, Dr. Rebecca Turner of UCSF at San Francisco, began working with humans and showed in 1999 that oxytocin is associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, attachments and bonding. She further found that physical contacts, touching and massage increased the levels of oxytocin in the human body. Evolutionarily, it makes sense that during pregnancy and immediately afterwards, both a mother's body and her mind (be she a mouse, monkey or human) would be stimulated to nurture her baby. It is also known that oxytocin levels increase upon sexual arousal and orgasm, leading perhaps to adult bonding. No wonder oxytocin is called the touch hormone.

But is oxytocin the answer to the plaintive cry of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady? Is Gurian over-reaching with his oxytocin-serotonin theory of the male-female divide? Should a wife then dose her lazy husband's tea with a bit of oxytocin so that he can help her around the kitchen? Do people like me, who are fond of children in general, have higher levels of oxytocin in our brains? Is this why I keep cleaning the dining table every so often? Are effeminate men over-oxytocinised? What about those famous chefs in hotels, who are invariably the male of the species? And do the women wrestlers one see in those fake shows on TV lack enough oxytocin in their brains?

I think the oxytocin theory is a yet bit unripe and needs to be verified in more diverse situations, and with appropriate controls before we accept it. Hormones, by their very nature, trigger not just one response in one part of the body. Many of them turn on or shut off genes in more than one tissue or organ. How important one reaction is compared another needs to be evaluated with care and precision, since otherwise there will be a great deal of their misuse and unwanted reactions. Take oxytocin itself. It has been used unscrupulously in some parts of India by milkmen and dairies, who have been injecting it into cows to increase milk production. Adverse effects have been seen in the poor cows and buffaloes, such as vomiting, palpitations, seizures and even coma. Michael Durian has a tantalising theory, but it is not yet time to base any action based on it — be it your telling your wife `I cannot help the way I am, it's my oxytocin' or for her to dose your tea with it in order to domesticate you.

D. Balasubramanian

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