I Wish He Had Come with Instructions: The Woman's Guide to a Man's Brain - Mike Bechtle (2016)
Part II. How He Thinks
The first time my wife and I visited Hawaii, we were caught up in the beauty of the experience. It was one of those weeks where we were in love with life, each other, and our surroundings. The backdrop of the intense island colors captured our emotions like a photograph captures one’s vision.
Returning home felt like the end of Christmas, when you have to take down the decorations and return to normal life. It had been such a great experience that we didn’t want to let it go. So we talked about landscaping our yard with tropical plants to recreate the experience. When things got rough, we could escape to paradise by walking out the back door.
We never really did that, except we brought home a plumeria. It’s the tree that produces the unique, fragrant flowers used in making traditional leis. It looked like a foot-long dead twig, and we were supposed to stick it in the ground and it would grow.
It worked. Sort of.
Over the next few years it grew a bit, formed a couple of branches, and produced six or seven flowers each year. We could smell them if we got really close, but it certainly didn’t fill the yard with fragrance. It never did well in our climate—at least not as well as it did in Hawaii.
We realized later that we were trying to treat it the way we did our other plants and expecting it to flourish. If we had studied its unique characteristics and needs, our expectations would have been different. It could have been a great part of our garden with the proper care and feeding.
Men are like that. They think differently than women. If a woman assumes that her man has the same thought processes she does, she’ll always be disappointed in the results. If she wants him to reach his full potential, she needs to know what goes on inside his head. With that knowledge, she’ll be able to make choices that help him—and their relationship—thrive.
Chapter 3. Gray Matters
In the early days of television westerns, it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats.
Over time, people wanted more mystery in those shows. So the producers would mix it up once in a while. You thought you knew who the good guys and bad guys were because of their hats. But suddenly the guy with the white hat turned out to be the villain. The guy with the black hat was the one who put the villain in jail.
Today, movie and television plots have become much more involved and sophisticated. From the beginning of the show, we watch the characters and make assumptions about them based on how they look or act. One person looks relaxed and sincere, dresses comfortably, and seems like someone you’d like to meet for coffee. Another never smiles, looks sideways out of squinted eyes, and just has an aura of deceit. You wouldn’t want to meet that guy or gal in a dark alley.
But as the plot develops, the friendly character turns out to be a charmer who carries out a treacherous scheme. The suspicious one is revealed to be the hero who is committed to bringing the other to justice.
It’s human nature to profile others based on their appearance. We form opinions from the first few minutes of an encounter then are surprised when that person doesn’t live up to our expectations. If the good guy turns out to be a bad guy, we’re embarrassed because we couldn’t “size them up” accurately.
I once heard a speaker suggest that we form an impression of someone in the first four minutes of a conversation. Once we decide if they’re the good guy or the bad guy, our impression tends to stick. If we feel positively toward someone, they can do something really shady and we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. They’re such a good person, we think. That must be an isolated incident. It will take repeated incidents for us to admit that we were wrong. If we feel negatively toward someone after four minutes, and they do something good, we think, That was a fluke. They’re a bad person, so that was out of character. It takes repeated “good” actions to convince us that we’re not seeing them accurately.
I think the basic concept is accurate. But that speaker went on to teach people how to fake it for four minutes, saying, “If you can fake it for four minutes, you can get anybody on your side.” I wasn’t overly excited about that application, but I got the basic point: right or wrong, we form opinions of others fairly quickly.
Wouldn’t it be great if the high-quality guys always wore white hats and the low-integrity guys wore black hats? But we’re not living in a western movie. It’s more like we’re carrying out the plots of modern-day movies. You try to figure men out, but they often fail to live up to your expectations.
You meet the man of your dreams. He’s sensitive, he wants to spend time with you, he listens, he calls, and he takes the initiative in the relationship. He’s not like the stereotypes you’ve always heard about men. He’s different. He’s probably not perfect, but he seems pretty close.
He’s wearing the white hat.
Sometime later, you’re going through a tough situation with a co-worker. You’re anxious to tell him about it, because he’s always listened to you intently. But this time is a little different. He seems distracted. Before you finish talking, he says, “Well, here’s the problem … and here’s what you should do about it.”
Hmmm. That seemed out of character from what you’ve decided about him, because he’s wearing the white hat. So you give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s just tired, you tell yourself. He’s had a rough couple of days.
But those things happen more and more often. He doesn’t listen as intently as before. His work seems to take more of his focus, and you get less. He’s not as intentional about pursuing you as he did in the past. If he’s watching TV, you can’t get his attention for more than a few seconds. He doesn’t pick up on your moods the way he did before. When you’re upset, he doesn’t even notice, and seems surprised when you tell him.
You’re starting to notice a few smudges and stains on the white hat that you didn’t notice before. You’re also wondering if the stereotypes you’ve heard about men are true. Maybe you were wrong in thinking he was different. Maybe he’s not the man of your dreams, after all.
What’s really happening is that you’ve done what we all do: profile someone based on first impressions. It’s human nature. When it’s a positive profile, we feel safe. When it’s negative, we put up our guard to protect ourselves. It’s natural, and we all do it.
The problem comes when we look at someone through our own “lenses” and assume that they have those same lenses.
Let’s say a woman observes a man watching sports on television (a stereotype, but common). She says something to him, and he grunts, “Uh-huh.” After the game is over, he doesn’t even remember the conversation. She feels that if she was the one watching the game and someone talked to her, she would stop watching, engage in the conversation, and then go back to the game. It just makes sense, and it shows common courtesy. That’s her lens for that particular situation. It’s how she thinks, so it seems like common sense to her.
So when a man doesn’t do the same thing, her view through her lenses tells her that he’s being rude and inconsiderate. Why is that game so important that he ignores me? she thinks. Don’t I matter to him more than sports?
In reality, he probably doesn’t feel like he’s ignoring her at all. She means more to him than sports ever will. But he’s operating from a different mindset. He’s thinking like a man, not a woman. He’s thinking, This is a great game. They’re just about to score, and everything is riding on the next couple of plays. I know she wants something, and I’ll give her my full attention as soon as it’s over. But this is the most exciting part! Male brains function differently than female brains. A woman can focus on multiple things at a time, while a man gives his entire attention to his current task.
That’s the problem with profiling. It makes assumptions based on our own lenses, not the lenses of the other person. To see others accurately, we need to recognize that they might have different lenses. It doesn’t mean those lenses are wrong; they’re just different.
What Happens in a Male Brain
So, what’s really going on inside a man’s head? What does he see through his lenses?
There are biological differences between the brains of men and women that help us understand why we respond and react differently. Without getting into deep scientific or medical explanations, let’s take a little tour inside his head.
You might have heard that men’s brains tend to be larger than women’s brains. If so, you probably heard it from a man. He wanted you to know his brain was bigger, implying that he was smarter as well. You weren’t convinced—and you shouldn’t be.
Most studies show that, as a group, men’s brains are bigger. But as a group, men’s bodies generally tend to be a little bigger than women’s too. So it’s unfair to use that as the basis for assuming he’s smarter.
Here’s what’s interesting: there are certain parts of a man’s brain that do tend to be larger, and that’s true of women’s brains as well. Both men and women tend to operate from those larger parts of their brains, which influence their choices, attitudes, and behaviors.
You’ve probably heard the brain referred to as “gray matter.” That’s because if you look at the human brain, it tends to look fairly gray in color. When someone is thinking clearly, we say, “That’s the way to use your gray matter.”
Men have more gray matter than women. In fact, they have around six times as much gray matter. It’s full of what we call neurons, and it’s the brain’s processing center. Men do most of their thinking with that gray matter. If you want to impress the guy in your life, tell him you discovered that he has six times more gray matter than you do. You can guess what his reaction will be.
But that’s not all you need to tell him.
The brain also has what we call “white matter.” That consists of the connections between the neurons—the links that pull it all together and transmit signals back and forth in the gray matter. Women have about ten times more white matter than men do. That means that women’s brains are much more complicated in how they’re structured, and they use that network to think faster than men. They make connections between different parts of the brain more easily because of that white matter.
What Does It All Mean?
This means that men and women can work on the same problem or complete the same task but use different parts of their brains to get there.
We hear a child’s laughter, see an over-the-top sunset, or smell rain in the desert. Those signals get sent to a part of the brain called the limbic system. That’s where emotions start, and they get handled by a control center called the amygdala. (You don’t have to remember that. If you’re a woman, you probably will. If you’re a man, it’s already gone.)
Those brain differences mean that women and men handle those signals and emotions differently.
In general, emotions tend to be less enjoyable for men, and could be a little confusing. They’re not sure what to do with them. That’s why they choose movies with more action than emotion. It’s easier and more natural for them to use all that gray matter to solve a problem, and action movies allow them to do exactly that.
Women often choose dramas and story line movies that explore relationships. Part of a woman’s brain that’s bigger is called the hippocampus. Its job is to remember details of an event when there’s emotion involved. That’s why a woman might remember specific details of a meaningful event that took place five years ago, including the conversation, the decorations, what people were wearing, and the emotions she felt at the event.
A man is lucky if he remembers the event at all. It doesn’t mean he’s forgetful. It just means his brain works differently.
That’s one of the most significant differences between men and women from a biological perspective. Men tend to think with one part of their brain at a time. It gives them the ability to focus on something, usually at the exclusion of everything else.
When a man stares at a television, his brain is disengaged from everything else happening around him. In fact, one study found that the brain scan of a man watching television was exactly the same as when he stares at a campfire for hours at a time. There’s not much happening.
Women’s brains are characterized by connections. Whatever they’re thinking about is connected to everything else in their brain. They don’t take many mental naps, and their brain activity is still in gear when they’re at rest. That’s why they can hear a baby cry while they’re sleeping and most men can sleep right through it.
When relaxed, a woman’s mental activity swirls around in the part of the brain that deals with feelings and emotions. A man’s restful mind settles less in those emotional sections and more in the “fight or flight” areas. When they sense danger, a man tends to act first, then think, then feel. Women tend to feel first, then think, then decide on what action to take.
As we’ve said before, not everyone fits those exact patterns. Every person is unique and carries his or her own unique characteristics into every relationship. You or your man might be just the opposite. But in general, men tend to lean one direction while women lean another.
Does Upbringing Matter?
Some people feel that these characteristics come from a person’s upbringing and environment. A boy might get more roughhousing from a parent where a girl would receive more tenderness. Boys might be taught that certain emotions are unmanly, so they learn to hide them. They could also be given different opportunities than girls as they grow up.
There’s definite influence from our upbringing. We didn’t get to choose where we were born, who our parents were, what our environment was like, or whether or not we were nurtured and loved. We were given (or not given) the tools we use to handle life and didn’t get to decide which ones we received. So of course, our upbringing influences our behavior as adults.
But we can’t overlook the reality of those biological differences, especially in the way the brain works. It’s futile to fight about how men and women relate, as if the other person is just being stubborn. In most cases the issue is that men are simply operating the way their brain is wired.
Take testosterone, for example. It’s a hormone that men tend to have a lot of, while women have little. In fact, men usually have about six times more testosterone than women. When a male baby is in the womb, he gets a “testosterone bath” at about the eight-week mark. That’s when the male characteristics begin to form, both physically and mentally.
When boys reach about the age of six, that testosterone causes them to sort out a pecking order with friends. Listen to their conversations, and they’re pulling themselves up and putting others down. They typically develop characteristics of aggressiveness and competition. High testosterone serves a person well if they’re doing one-on-one sports and competition, where lower testosterone enables them to participate effectively in team situations.
My daughter, Sara, has always been amazed at how different her five-year-old son, Marco, is than his two older sisters. “He’s all boy,” she says, “and he’s been that way since day one. The girls just played differently. He’s rougher, more physical and competitive, louder, and he wants to win. He’s just simply interested in different things than the girls were.”
That isn’t environmental; he’s been that way since birth. That testosterone seems to be doing its job.
This brain chemistry changes as males get older. Men tend to be more competitive when they’re young and more cooperative as they mature. As men move through life, their priorities often shift toward relationships and community.
I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older, my interests have changed. Years ago, I was trying to prove myself and build a career. I had friends, but they weren’t the highest priorities on my mental list. But now I’m finding that my friends are becoming more important to me than before. I still want to be successful and strive to make a difference. But I don’t need to be rich and famous; I’m more interested in having some real relationships with people who matter to me, especially my wife and kids and grandkids.
I’ve also known men who were tough as nails when they were younger, but have softened with compassion as they matured. They’re still men; they just have different priorities and ways of expressing their maleness.
Capitalizing on the Differences
If a woman tries to change the things in her man that drive her crazy, she’s probably setting herself up for frustration. As Robert Heinlein said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
There are some things about men that come from their maleness, and some things that come from their choices. The key to your sanity is to understand and discern the difference between the two.
It’s a three-step process:
1. Determine what, exactly, he is doing that frustrates you.
2. Ask yourself if it is something that is just part of his being a man (such as the way he processes information). If so, don’t try to change it. Learn to accept the reality of it, and decide how to capitalize on it.
3. If not, is it something that he has simply developed as a pattern, habit, or behavior (such as the way he withdraws from conflict)? Then it’s negotiable. It won’t change by pointing it out as a problem. Change comes through influence and trust. When a man feels that he’s in a safe relationship that has meaning to him, he’ll be more inclined to work on the behaviors that are so challenging to you.
The inner workings of a man’s brain are real. In fact, those realities are the exact things that can create the greatest connections in your relationship. His interest in sports and action films doesn’t mean he’s not interested in you or in romance. In fact, romance is usually a key factor in most action films.
Yesterday was Easter Sunday. The pastor began his sermon by saying, “Today we’re going to talk about love stories. Turn to the person next to you and tell them what your favorite love story movie is.”
I know that, as a guy, I’m supposed to like action films and riveting dramas. I was trying to think of a movie that combined those with a love story, and figured it would have to be something like Braveheart or Casablanca or something with a rugged man becoming the hero to his woman. But I had to be honest, because my wife already knew the answer: I’ve always been a sucker for Sleepless in Seattle. Maybe not the whole movie, but the beginning (where Tom Hanks describes his love for his late wife and relates tenderly to his son) and the end (where he meets Meg Ryan on top of the Empire State Building).
Fortunately, the pastor said, “Men, if you said Titanic, you still get to keep your ‘man card.’”
Yesterday was also my son’s birthday, so we ended the day by seeing Fast and Furious 7. That’s about as manly as they get. And guess what? The focal point of that movie was a man wanting to be the hero for his woman.
It’s interesting that while men are drawn to action and adventure films, they love the ones that have a rough, macho man who becomes tender with the love of his life. It’s a common theme in movies, and it’s a common theme for most men: we want to be your hero.
That’s hardwired. It’s tucked away in a man’s brain.
That’s the place to start in understanding men—knowing what happens in their brain and why it happens.