©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
You will recognize your own path when you come upon it, because you will suddenly have all the energy and imagination you will ever need.
The woman stalked into my office pushing a wall of vibrating emotion in front of her. Without as much as a howdy-do she launched her voice into the stillness.
“My auntie,” she began, “attended one of your presentations and came home telling me that you said empathizing and systemizing brains describes a Bent. And I am here to tell you that I am not Bent. Neither do I have a Bent! Moreover I never intend to be BENT! BENT is NOT a PLUS!”
The woman was obviously bent on a mission.
Quite frankly, besides the words that were virtually cannoned in my direction, the first thing I noticed was her chin—stuck way out in front, if you know what I mean.
Before I could craft an appropriate response, however, the woman continued. “And where does the word Bent come from anyhow, and how could it possibly apply to people? Trees are Bent.”
“Correct,” I responded, pleasantly. “Trees sometimes are bent. In the context of brain function, however, a bent is a plus!” I paused to watch her reaction.
“Regarding the brain, a bent refers to the natural talents your brain possesses based on its innate giftedness.”
She stared at me for a long moment. Pulling in her chin (at least fractionally), she said, “I’m Francie, and I’m rarely wrong.”
“That may be one of your talents, your bent,” I said, smiling. “In some ways it would be marvelous to rarely be wrong—although you might be rather unpopular if you publicized that talent.”
“Well, what about this business with empathizing and systemizing? I suppose you have some highfalutin explanation for them, too.”
“Nothing highfalutin,” I replied, chuckling. “They are foundational words. Empathizing relates to one’s ability to identify and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, to respond to them with appropriate emotions, and strive to be harmonizing in relationships.”
I noticed Francie glance away, a bit self-consciously I thought. Nevertheless, I continued. “Systemizing relates to one’s strength of interest in systems, especially in analyzing or constructing or organizing them. Although humans are a mix of both, in the majority of cultures, if not all, empathizing brains are equated with being female and systemizing brains are aligned with being male.”
“Ah-ah!” Francie nodded, vigorously. “I told you I was rarely wrong. You’re labelling females as harmonizers and defining males as organizers.”
“Feel free to take a seat, Francie,” I said. “Take your pick: stool or chair. I have a chart you might like to see.” I unrolled a piece of paper about 6 inches high and 12 inches wide and smoothed it out on my desk. “Although human brains are more alike than they are different, there are some differences. Males and females have identical hormones, for example, just in different ratios. Males tend to have more testosterone and females tend to have more estrogen. In a similar way, both male and female brains contain empathizing and systemizing functions. However, female brains tend to be more empathizing and male brains tend to be more systemizing. There are also a small percentage of brains that are believed to be 50:50 in terms of empathizing and systemizing. Researcher Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen has estimated that 95% of the world’s population can be portrayed in this pictorial representation.”
Francie studied the simple chart. “Why only 95%?” she asked.
“Good question. Perhaps because there are some humans whose brains don’t match the bodies that carry them around. A female brain may be housed in a male body and vice versa.”
“Well,” Francie said—a bit belligerently I thought, “I am very interested in systems. Are you trying to label me as a male brain in a female body?”
“Hardly,” I responded, chuckling. “In the first place, male-female research tends to be reported in the form of generalizations, conclusions that follow the Bell Curve of Distribution and typically apply to at least two thirds of the population but not necessarily to all.”
“I know,” Francie broke in. “I am not a typical female. So what’s wrong with the research?”
“Individual differences don’t invalidate the research—they just exemplify individual uniqueness. There has never been a brain like yours on this planet, and there will never be again. In part because every thought a brain thinks changes its structure and no one thinks exactly the same thoughts. Osho pointed this out, saying: From the very beginning you are being told to compare yourself with others. This is the greatest disease; it is like a cancer that goes on destroying your very soul because each individual is unique, and comparison is not possible. I am just myself and you are just yourself. There is nobody else in the world you can be compared with.”
I paused. Francie nodded.
“No human being is 100% empathizing or systemizing. Females who are primarily empathizing can still be organized, follow step-by-step instructions, and may be analytical and interested in systems. Males who are primarily systemizing can still learn to be empathetic, to identify and try to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, to respond appropriately to emotions, and strive to be harmonizing in relationships.”
By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before.
“I love studying the science of brain function,” I added, “Can you tell?”
“Oh, I can tell,” said Francie, and what actually might pass for a smile flitted across her face, briefly. “So, who is better at multi-tasking? Let me guess: females!”
“Interestingly, studies have shown that the human brain is not designed to multi-task,” I said. “Attempts at multi-tasking make the brain function less efficiently. Both error rates and fatigue rise with attempts at multitasking. Having said that, systemizing brains are able to ‘simultask,’ meaning that they can do two different tasks at the same time—simultaneously— as long as each task is directed by a different hemisphere.”
“Go on with you!” said Francie.
“A male can be assembling a toy for his grandson using his right hemisphere and doing so without reading the instructions, while at the same time he is holding a conversation with his left hemisphere on a totally different subject. Female brains do not simultask. They can do rapidly-alternating shifts of attention and do that reasonably well, as long as they are only doing two tasks. More than that and error rates rise significantly.”
Francie’s body language was showing signs of relaxing and her hands were no longer tightly clenched. I took a risk. “I grew up in a family system where boys were considered more important than girls. And where what a girl was permitted to do fit into a much narrower band of options as compared to that of a boy.”
I got no further when... “You have NO IDEA!” Francie blurted, heatedly. “I have seven brothers. My mother died when I was nine, and my dad never remarried. From then on I heard over and over that I was only good for the cooking, cleaning, and domestic chores. It made me so mad. I told them once that anything they could do I could do better!”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “Nine years old and you took over cooking, cleaning, and domestic chores? I bet few girls that age could have pulled that off. You must have multiple bents!”
I had to smile, and this time so did she. “So, what about setting and achieving goals?”
“All brains can set and achieve goals, and they do. Generally, however, systemizing brains are more goal oriented while females are more experience oriented. Systemizing male brains have been known to be somewhat oblivious to anything but whatever will help them achieve their goal. This can cost them dearly in terms of relationships.”
You would not exist if you did not have something to bring to the table of life.
“And emotions?” Francie asked.
“Empathizers are more likely to express emotions verbally, some even through tears. Systemizers tend to express their emotions more through actions than words. You know, like kick the cat, get drunk, go out and crash the car.
“Some studies have shown that males tend to exhibit anger even when they are fearful or sad; females tend to exhibit fear or sadness even when they are mad. This may be due to a combination of factors including socialization.”
Francie looked at her watch. “One more question. For now. Tell me about males versus females and competition. My brothers compete for everything and about everything—except about doing anything to help out around the house, that is. I swear, it’s like pulling hen’s teeth to even get them to carry their dirty dishes into the kitchen. Selfish creatures, my brothers.”
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.
“Competition, is it?” I asked. “That is a complicated question because several things play into the level of competition that matches a person’s comfort zone. Compared to empathizers, systemizers tend to be more competitive against others—unless empathizers are competing against others for the attention of a systemizer. By any chance are you comparing yourself to a stereotype?”
Francie actually burst out laughing. It had a delightful, bubbling sound.
“A person’s level of extroversion also impacts competition. The higher one’s extroversion bent, the more likely that individual is to gravitate toward competition.
I went on. “In addition, testosterone levels appear to potentiate both competition and assertiveness. Since males tend to have higher levels of testosterone, they tend to exhibit higher levels of both assertiveness and competitiveness. And if they have just played an exciting game or even watched it on TV, their testosterone can shoot up rather dramatically¾something that appears not to be universally true in empathizing brains.”
“Do I ever know about that!” exclaimed Francie. “More than once my brothers significantly altered the décor in our family room after they disagreed about which team should win. They never seemed to hold any grudges, however. And they DID pick up after themselves. My dad was adamant about my NOT having to clean up after they had a food fight or tried to bash each other’s brains.”
This time is was my turn to laugh out loud. “I only had one brother—although he had plenty of testosterone! In the main, I typically enjoy relating with systemizing brains. I enjoy the differences and their uniqueness. None of these difference or tendencies or bents locks you into functioning in a specific style. That boils down to personal choice”
You are as amazing as you let yourself be. Let me repeat that. You are as amazing as you let yourself be!
“Hmmm-mm,” she mused. “If I am absolutely honest, I think I have allowed expectations to lock me OUT of some behaviors and responses that align better with who I am innately, a woman with more of an empathizing bent. But perhaps somewhat less empathizing if compared with some female brains.”
“Yeah, well, it can happen,” I replied. “The great news is that as you learn more about the brain in general, and yours in particular, you can choose how you want to respond.”
Francie gathered up her things, ready to leave. “Could I come back and talk with you again sometime?” she asked. “I think my brain likes yours.”
Chin in, she left, apparently now on a new kind of mission: a mission to celebrate her own unique bent!