How Menopause Affects Your Brain

Forget what you’ve heard about senior moments. The chemical shifts of menopause do change how a woman’s brain works — but in a good way.

By Kathryn Olney

A. Exactly. Men tend not to remember those kinds of details, and that’s why women often sit up at night after a fight, while men are snoring away. The psychological conflict of stress registers more deeply in the female brain. Researchers don’t know exactly why, but when we do functional MRI scans, the emotional circuitry of the female brain lights up more during states of emotional conflict. Men may seem as if they don’t care, but that’s not really what’s going on. Their brains are not structurally designed for emotional conflict to be laid down in their long-term memory. The seat of memory formation — the hippocampus — is larger in females, as is the brain circuitry for observing emotions in others. Men, by contrast, have two-and-a-half times the brain space devoted to sexual pursuit, as well as larger brain centers for action and aggression.

Q. So how does knowing about these brain differences help women, day to day?

A. If you are aware that a biological brain state is guiding your impulses, you can choose not to act or to act differently. Biology powerfully affects — but does not lock in — our personalities and our actions. We can use our intelligence and determination to moderate the effects of sex hormones on our behavior, reality, creativity, and destiny. I hope the takeaway from this book is forgiveness — and understanding of ourselves and our partners. Understanding how brain chemistry affects the interactions between men and women can help us have more realistic expectations of each other. My own husband says I should have called the book The Female Brain: A Learner’s Manual for Men. We were walking home from dinner one night with another scientist, who is male, and he said, "Wow, Sam, having Louann teach you all about the female brain, you must have learned a lot about women from her." Sam answered, "Yeah — I’ve learned when to keep my mouth shut."

Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2006 as "This Is Your Brain on Menopause."

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