In a popular vein much has been written regarding the differences between men and women with respect to their wants and needs in intimate relationships. However, little has been noted with respect to the neurological differences that to a significant extent are evident regardless of gender.
In the course of working with over 10,000 patients, I have frequently asked these individuals whether they thought most women or most men were right or left brain dominant insofar as they understood these terms. Although a wide range of opinions were offered, most women thought that men were left brained, and most women were right brained because women were more feeling centered in their relationships. The men thought that most men were right brained because they were more mechanical and that the women were left brained because they were not mechanically gifted. In a very real sense both the men and women in this informal sample were correct.
Neuropsychological research with 5000 of these patients over the past 37 years suggests that, in fact, more than 70% of the human race is right brain dominant regardless of gender. Casting back to my patient survey, both the men and women polled were equally correct in their judgments while at the same time, both groups were equally incorrect.
Careful analysis of an ongoing sampling of my patients using a valid and reliable neuropsychological instrument indicates that the proportion of males and females that are right and left brain dominant is the same within one percentage point. I must hasten to add that right brain dominance manifests itself in different ways in males and females, but the proportions in both genders are nearly exactly the same.
In the attempt to better understand how intimate relationships work we must take into account how the differences in brain dominance interface between partners. It should be noted that the findings which follow have proven to be both experimentally valid and practically useful whether the couple is heterosexual of homosexual in their relationship preferences.
Before proceeding with the findings related to the differences between right and left brain dominant males and females, we must mention the role that the overall proportion of right brained (70%) and left brained (30%) males and females plays in the population with respect to our choices in selecting a mate.
Research with over 200 couples and families indicates that men and women 'find' each other attractive based on slight to significant differences in their brain dominance. That is, individuals with slightly stronger right brains tend to be attracted to those with slightly stronger left brains. It is nevertheless true that there are simply more right brain dominant males and females (70%) than left brain dominant members (30%) of the human race. As a result of mother nature's reluctance to even things out (50-50), it therefore becomes more likely than not that right hemispheric males and females will 'find' one another attractive. However, even when right brain prospective partners are attracted to each other, one inevitably has a 'stronger' right brain dominance than the other so that a neuropsychological differential remains in place for every couple.
As a peripheral note, it is interesting to note that in a study of multiple marriages among the same initial partners over a fifteen year interval, subsequent marital partners for each member of the original couple tended with each successive union to 'find' partners who were, based on neuropsychological measures, increasing more like themselves.Indeed, in some cases where there were four or more marriages, the original couple partners' last choice for a new mate was almost an exact duplicate of their own neuropsychological configuration.
Whether we are considering the intuitive powers of right brain males and females in discerning the emotional states of their fellows, or the conceptual flights and logical rigor of their left brain fellows, nature always decrees some measure of liability to complement these strengths.
The cost-benefit balance that nature builds into each of us is a natural outgrowth of the fact that we are a social species whose strength flows from a division of labor. Each of us is vested with different perspectives and abilities which can, under the best of compassionate 'team effort' circumstances accomplish more than any of us can manage individually.
Individually, each and every one of us is quite fallible when confronted with the multifaceted challenges that the mandates of the universe and our own mistakes serve up. As individuals the problem is the same for us all. Our challenge consists in the simple fact that the universe offers an infinite number of mysteries requiring more than a single perspective to fully comprehend, and more than a momentary life span to encompass. Whether admitted or denied, in reaching for the stars we all stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellows and on a foundation erected upon the blood and sweat of a long line of nameless ancestors whose line fades beyond our myopic vision into the mists of time.
Hemispheric Differences: Right Brain Dominance
Let us begin our discussion of right-left brain differences with the 70% right brained majority of humankind. Whether male or female, right brain dominant individuals tend to emphasize same sex solidarity. This means that women tend to enjoy discussing their concerns with their girlfriends and are more likely to be open about issues of a personal nature with those same sex friends. The same is true of men who are more likely to open up with their buddies than with their spouses. As one woman put it, 'Men ought to go do boy things and give me time with the girls.' In short, right brain men tend to share their concerns with other men and right brain women tend to share their secrets with their girlfriends.
For right brain dominant men and women, competition is an essential feature of their sense of bonding with their peers, or solidarity group. Often this rivalry is 'good natured', but nonetheless present. The solidarity group provides an important, if not the essential tent pole of their self-esteem. In short, my standing in my group - 'crew' defines my value as a person. My group is also integral to defining who I am, and my place in society at large. This is an essential component of the 'tribal' definition of right brain self-worth. In our brief moment of cultural and temporal existence amidst the immensity of the cosmos, this right brain bond is described in a simple, but extremely potent word, 'friend.'
The notion of 'friendship' is crucial to the right brain individual in any superficial, and more importantly, intimate relationship. This emotional inclination and indeed, genetic predisposition among right brain individuals is adequately portrayed in the old aphorism: 'Do not walk before me, as I may not follow, do not walk behind me as I may not lead, just walk beside me and be my friend.'
For right brain males and females, intimate relationships represent the most fulfilling definition of a 'perfect friendship' imaginable. In the eyes of a right brain mate, if a partner is not their 'best friend', the long term prospects for the relationship, no matter how intimate it might otherwise be, are dismal.
The core of all right brain male and female relationships resides in an exchange of feelings which most often occurs with little or no reliance on words, i.e., 'I saw it in her eyes.', 'He gave me that look.', 'Our eyes locked.', or in disagreement, 'We didn't see eye to eye.'
The right side of the brain holds the key to nonverbal understanding of human behavior, its feelings and underlying motivations. The capacities of the right side of the brain include discerning facial expression (the slight differences in the left and right sides of the face - the left side carries 80% of the most basic emotion of which the brain is capable), tone and melody of voice, posture, gesture, and a myriad of signals that we are not yet able to measure).Hence for right brain persons, emotional communication occurs simultaneously (at first sight) and at many entirely convincing levels. As a result, these individuals experience a moment by moment emotional reinforcement, or instantaneous negation of their investment in their partners. Hence, 'a look' may communicate more than 'ten thousand words' among individuals who are possessed of right brain dominance.
In addition, right brain individual tend to experience their 'sense of self' right down to their fingertips. That is, their ego boundaries are the same as those of their skin - they are, in a word, their bodies. To 'impact' this right brain ego boundary in any way, by a glance, a word, a gesture, approaching too closely, or not closely enough, or more significantly, a touch, or failure to do any of these at the moment a partner anticipates is to, at minimum offend, at worst to reject.
For the right brain majority, to violate their personal space (which extends farther beyond their skin than the 'owned' space required by left brain individuals) and thereby their ego, either by acts of omission or commission, is to infringe on their sense of self and perhaps more significantly, their dignity, and often summons retaliation.
Given that 70% of the world's population is right brain dominant, the bloody history of our species no longer qualifies as a mystery. To give offense to another represents the path of least resistance, while to diplomatically thread one's way around and through the prickly barriers that most of us maintain about us requires the compassion of a Ghandi and the sophistication of interpersonal skill that can only be a function of divine guidance.
Just as left brain dominant individuals require constant reinforcement focused on the excellence of their services and products to maintain a sense of self-worth, so right brain males and females require a feeling of being valued for the 'emotional contribution' that they make by simply 'being there.' In relationships then, right brain individuals need to be needed for who they are, not what they do!
The left brain individuals do and therefore have value, right brain persons have value because they are. As one of my right brain patients put it, "You have to accept me and like me, warts and all, and if you don't, you're not my friend.' Another patient added the tribal piece to this right brain puzzle with her statement, 'If I do the wrong thing and my friends don't stop me, its their fault.'
For the right brain individual, timing and spacing of word and action (visual-spatial strength) is crucial in relationships. Hence, the right action is only effective if performed at the right time. The perfect confession of affection is worthless if it is made at the wrong time, 'You should have said that years ago.', is a phrase I have heard in the consulting room all too often.
Right brain individuals are crafted by nature to most quickly and easily grasp what they see and what others do, not what their partners say, even if what is said is consistent with their partner's actions. It is almost as if a left brain partner's words gut their own well intentioned actions in the eyes of their right brain dominant mate simply by the act of verbalizing intent. That is, actions that stand by themselves without the intervention of words have greater value for the right brain dominant partner than any 'superfluous' or 'distracting' verbalization offered by a left brain dominant partner. This phenomenon may, in fact, be the result of weaker auditory-verbal processing capacity in right brain males and females.
When right brain individuals are mated to those with greater left brain strength it is inevitable that the right brain partner will raise the 'psychic' argument and direct their discontent in this form against the left brain dominant partner. The argument goes something like this, 'If you were any kind of man or woman, you would have known what a man or a woman wants and needs and when!'
This right - left brain dominant conflict among partners stems from the superior visual-emotional perceptual ability of the right brain dominant individual who accurately perceives the emotion, motivation and intent written on their left brain partner's face and is dismayed at the lack of their partner's empathy.
However, there is a caveat, in an equal number of instances that same right brain dominant partner may inaccurately 'project' their own feelings onto their partner whether those feelings exist in that left brain partner or not. In short, the right brain partner may be 'seeing' their own unfulfilled needs, which may have arisen in the far distant past and gone unmet, as once again going unsatisfied in their relationship to their current mate. The left brain partner's lack of a timely, soothing and 'hoped for' response is perceive by the right brain dominant individual as an offense, namely, that the right brain dominant he or she's needs are being ignored, at best, or at worst being rejected.
Offsetting the enormous intuitive power of right brain men and women is a profound and unavoidable tendency among these individuals to 'project' (like a film projector displays images on a screen) their own feelings onto others. In short, despite the conviction that often dramatizes these individuals words and actions, they are just as likely (50-50) to be talking about and taking action on their own feelings which they have 'projected' onto others as they are to be responding accurately to the feelings and motivations they 'see' in those around them.
Projection among right brain dominant men and women is of special significance in one other important regard. The feelings, needs and emotionally traumatic memory contents that are 'projected' by right brain individuals inevitably reflect those aspects of their own history and feelings that they find unacceptable in themselves. Over time, the right brain individual must as a result of this tendency inevitably become more cautious, cynical and even suspicious of those around them as they 'see' in others their own worst characteristics and emotional tendencies enacted.
Among left brain men and women the tendency to project needs and feelings onto others is no less prominent, but is of a notably different character. Among these left brain dominant individuals projection takes the form of a tendency to expect the best from others, that is, they project their most positive feelings and needs onto others. The consequence of this projective tendency is that left brain men and women are more likely to be codependent at best, and victimized by individuals less scrupulous than themselves, at worst.
The tendency for right brain individuals to project their own personally unacceptable feelings and needs onto others is particularly evident when both partners in a relationship are predominantly right brain dominant in their perspective.
From the observer's viewpoint, conflicts between right brain partners in the consulting room represents a literal 'hall of fun house mirrors' accentuated in its distortion to a degree proportionate to the level of the conflictual stress existing between them. Each partner is actively, albeit unconsciously, engaged in 'projecting' their own unacceptable feelings onto their partner with little or no appreciation of what the other is feeling.
In such cases there is no recourse save to work with each member of the couple individually in order to discover what experiences and memories inform their own experience of themselves and others. This approach is essential as right brain dominant individuals are genetically vested with an incredible sensory memory ability. Their memories stretch back into the remote past, are compelling, and of a vividly sensory character. These include events of emotional significance in their lives that often predate the era of childhood verbal competence. Only when their own feelings can be 'disentangled' from those which they have projected onto their partner is any resolution of the couple's conflict possible.
Finally, the real time sensory, feeling based memories of right brain dominant individuals are of incredible durability. An example in point is the phenomenon of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which is seen among many individuals subjected to overwhelming stressors of the sort that war veterans in particular experience.
This incredible emotional memory capacity informs the ability of right brain dominant individuals to 're-experience' events that transpired in the far distant past as just as 'real' in the present as those that occurred only moments ago. Perhaps of greater significance is that the emotional 'punch' of those events from the distant past hurt as much as any trauma experienced merely seconds ago.
Of significance to our discussion of loving and attached relationships, these right brain dominant mates' historical- emotional memories can be elicited by 'triggers' which their partners (right or left brain dominant) inadvertently and unintentionally precipitate, by word or deed, in a manner that accentuates the historical trauma. Such 'triggers' can set off conflicts between partners that can never be resolved by even the most studious examination of the contemporary problems that the couple is facing.
From the perspective of the partner of a right brain dominant loved one who is faced with such conflicts, the natural question is, 'Where did that come from?' It is the therapist's job to answer just that question.
In bringing the discussion of the right brain individual to closure, it would not be evenhanded to move on without noting that these men and women represent not only the majority of the human race (70%), but are also eminently suited to flights and wonders of feeling that left brain individuals can only approximate in words, music and art.
Hemispheric Differences: Left Brain Dominance
In attempting to understand this minority in the population (30%), it is important to recognize what sets left brain men and women apart from the right brain mainstream (70%) of humanity.
For the right hemispheric majority, self-esteem (ego) extends from their emotional center to the most extreme boundaries of their body.
For left brain individuals, self-esteem (ego) resides in their head and expresses itself in their ability to solve problems, provide services and produce products. For left brain men and women, their bodies are simply vehicles that serve to nourish the brain and transport its sensory apparatus from one place to another in the service of their endless curiosity.
This is not to suggest that left brain individuals ignore their physical functioning, indeed they are often very much invested in healthy eating habits, and taking vitamins and supplements. At the same moment, they often skimp on sleep, as sleeping is seen as time that might be better used in doing or learning something.
Driven by curiosity, left brain individuals seldom engage in physical activities unless they can thereby learn something new or accomplish a task they have set for themselves. In a word, they seldom engage in physical activities for the sake of the simple 'joy' of experiencing their body in motion. Neither is their interest in physical conditioning customarily driven by a need to 'look good', or even to excel at some sport, but is rather focused on the notion that if physically fit, they are better able to do their job. In order to justify physical activity, something must be produced or learned, lest the effort be expended in vain.
Left brain men and women form non-romantic relationships with individuals who share their overwhelming curiosity. Curiosity among these individuals is universal when they are dealing with others and specific when one hits upon their area of personal interest. The rabid, fast paced, and often humor laden exchanges with other left brain individuals frequently elicit jealousy from their right brain romantic partners who feel slighted by the interest evident in a left to left brain interaction.
Left brain men and women want to be esteemed for what they know, namely, they wish to be seen as 'experts' and as exemplary purveyors of outstanding products and essential services. Generally perceived as radically independent individuals, left brain men and women are, in fact, quite dependent on the praise of others in order to achieve verification of their worth which is founded on the exercise of their knowledge, production of products and provision of services.
Left brain men and women tend to be rather oblivious to the emotional content of verbal, and in particular nonverbal commuications. As noted previously, nonverbal communication carries 80% of the feeling message in interpersonal exchanges. These indigenous left brain deficits come about as a result of a curious bit of functional neuroanatomical transmission circuiting among left brain individuals.
For both right and left brain individuals, the most fundamental source of basic emotion flows from an ancient structure buried deep in the brain called the limbic system. This structure tells us when to run (flight) and when to stand and defend ourselves (fight). It is also the seat of nurturing (parent to child) and bonding feelings as well as rejection, shock, hate, revenge, panic, revulsion, and horror. Refinements of these feelings are supplied by the outer, one cell thick layer shell of the brain called the cortex. In this latest addition to the brain, the raw feelings generated by the limbic system undergo refinement and under the best of circumstances become tolerance, willingness to compromise, love, altruism, compassion, the capacity for objective self-examination and attachment.
Among right brain individuals, the circuits from the limbic system (raw, primitive emotion) travel upon a broad highway through the right side of the brain before arriving in the cortex. Inasmuch as the circuits from the limbic system to the right brain are older and more well worn than those from the limbic structure to the left brain, the right brain experiences a swifter and more intense response to 'raw emotion' than the left brain which receives the signals 'second hand' along circuits from the right brain.
However, the more left brained a particular individual happens to be, the greater the likelihood that there is a significant comparative weakness in the right side of the brain. As a result of this right brain 'weakness' the 'raw feeling' messages from the limbic system experience a difficult time traversing a pothole ridden and meadering dirt road through a comparatively less competent right side of the brain in order to reach the left hemisphere where left brain individuals 'live.' As a result of this anatomical difference, what is a tidal wave of irresistible emotion for right brain persons, becomes a mere trickle of feeling for left brain dominant men and women. In short, it is not that left brain men and women 'don't get it' emotionally, it is rather that they can't get it with anywhere near the speed and intensity that their right brain brethern experience.
This is not to suggest that left brain men and women are incapable of affection. Indeed, their experience of feelings is simply diluted as such emotions are refined by the cerebral cortex emerging into consciousness in a moderated form when compared to those experienced by their right brain partners. In contrast to the 'raw' limbic feelings that their right brain peers experience, left brain individuals are subject to feelings that make them prone to attachment rather than to more primitive forms of affection such as unexamined infatuation and love.
As a side note, it may well be that it is just this right brain 'primitive' and unexamined outpouring of feeling that is the likely 'attractant' force which drives left brain individuals toward their right brain mates. The search for self-verifying emotion which can only be satisfied via a direct line to the limbic system cannot be gratified within the left brain individual, but only through partnership with a right brain man or woman.
Given this brief list of left brain attributes, it becomes immediately apparent why right brain men and women often find their left brain partners, 'boring', 'childlike', 'nerds', 'emotionally bland', 'not team players', and 'out of touch with popular culture.'
In their defense, left brain men and women express loving attachment toward their partners through the provision of products and services which, based on their neurology, they naturally anticipate their right brain partners will 'see' as profound expressions of enduring affection. Having given the best they have to give, the left brain men and women are crestfallen when they discover that they are being rejected because they are not 'fun to be with.'
In truth, forming attachments rather than infatuated or loving relationships is the path of least resistance among left brain men and women. It is perhaps for this reason that they are considered 'sudden' or naive in their relationships with partners that they find attractive. That is, they form attachments easily and so are frequently disappointed when their tribally more 'savvy' right brain prospective partners reject them.
Although nature wants those with greater left than right brain strength to 'get together' for the benefit of their offspring, the partners in this nature directed mating protocol are not always happy with one another. The left brain individuals are emotionally destroyed if their 'love offerings' in products and services go unnoticed or are rejected, while their right brain partners feel unappreciated for their gifts of feeling and fun.
In ages past O'Henry wrote an instructive short story, "The Gift of the Magi", in which both members of a young couple give up what they valued most in order to purchase the gift which their partner most dearly desired. This simple and yet compelling story more than adequately illustrates the most enduring truth about attached relationships. For each of us, the truth of our existence resides in the recognition that what nature has molded us to 'give' may not be what our partner is engineered to gratefully 'receive.'
Nature's mandate is to mate those with greater left to those vested with greater right brain strength for the benefit of succeeding generations. The challenge for any union's partners, drawn often against their conscious will into such partnerships, is to utilize the last one million years of evolution embedded in the constantly evolving cerebral cortex to hazard the frustrations which are necessitated in any interaction with a partner possessed of what we perceive to be an 'alien' neurology.
At one moment, left brain men and women are cognitively complex and emotionally simple individuals. Driven by a need to know and do, they are fun handicapped. Perhaps in a program as yet unknown to this researcher, nature has decreed that intellectual curiosity (left brain) must be paired with the joy of living (right brain) for the offspring of that union to survive and thrive.
Although not a founded fact, this researcher suspects that both insatiable intellectual curiosity and the simple joy of living are equally necessary ingredients in the rearing of the next generation from the vantage of both nature and nurture. More simply stated, as scientists we are all students and whatever mother nature instructs we are ill advised to ignore.