April 07, 2020

Listening with half the brain on hold

Back in the 4th century, when St. Jerome contemplated those whose listening skills needed work, he was moved to write these wise words: “No one cares to speak to an unwilling listener. An arrow never lodges in stone; often it recoils upon the sender of it.”

Now comes research suggesting that the problem is not that the male of the species is an unwilling listener, but that he listens with just half his brain, as women have suspected all along. Self-centered right-wing talk radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh may not be that far off the mark, after all, when he periodically brags that he functions best with half his brain tied behind his back.

A story out of Chicago in the Wednesday morning newspaper reported that in a study of 10 men and 10 women, brain scans showed that men, when listening, mostly used the left sides of their brains, which is the region long associated with understanding language. Women, on the other hand, used both sides.

Other studies have concluded that women “can handle listening to two conversations at once,” possibly because they have more brain devoted to the task, said Dr. Joseph T. Lurito, an assistant radiology professor at Indiana University School of Medicine.

No great surprise there. Just watch your average woman work a room full of nattering nabobs during Happy Hour the next time you cruise the local cocktail circuit and tell me she’s not hard-wired from birth to handle multiple conversations simultaneously with all the finesse of a Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. (Oops. Poor example, considering that the man is presently quite dead. But you get my drift.)

Still, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that women are better listeners than men, Lurito cautioned. He didn’t want to get into a battle of the sexes, he said, but it might just be that listening is more difficult for women, since they apparently need to use more of their brains than men to perform the same task.

Ouch! Good one, Dr. Lurito. And good luck in your new life in the witness protection program.

In the study, participants donned earphones and were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They listened to taped excerpts from John Grisham’s novel “The Partner” while researchers watched blood-flow in the left temporal lobes of the men’s brains. In women, both temporal lobes showed activity, supporting a suspicion that women’s brains are “either more bilaterally dominant” or more right-side dominant in doing certain tasks than men’s, one researcher said.

Really, now. Is it any wonder that only half of the guys’ brains kicked in when confronted with a John Grisham novel? If you’ve read one of those babies, you’ve read ’em all, so listening to someone else read one on tape would probably sooner put a good ol’ boy to sleep than light up both temporal lobes in the interest of science.

And yet the research on the differing way the sexes process language explains a lot of guy things. Al Gore listening with only half his brain, for example, would account for why the man can’t hear the voices from the hinterland telling him that his melodramatic Count-Until-They-Get-It-Right act involving those presidential ballots down in Florida is wearing thin. While the half of the brain that the average goober employs for listening purposes has heard enough to convince him that the electoral ballgame is over, the listening half of the Gore brain is hearing the beat of a different drummer. Ever the alpha male, the vice-president is determined to march to that beat all the way to the end of the line, whether it leads to the White House or the poor house.

If you’re looking for me to balance this deal with a corresponding example of how the female has to shove her brain into overdrive to perform the same task that a man can by using only half a brain, forget it. I agree with the position staked out by humorist Roy Blount Jr. writing on the subject of the male/female brain in his book, “Camels Are Easy, Comedy’s Hard.”

“Men’s and women’s brains are joined together differently,” Blount wrote in one of his essays in the book. “I guess that’s why Barbara Ehrenreich can write, in Mother Jones, a progressive magazine: ‘What husband, even in the well-known two-income marriage, is capable of performing simple acts of daily self-care without the constant assistance of a watchful and fully able-bodied spouse?’ And it’s cool. Whereas if I wrote anything – no matter how tongue-in-cheek – at all comparable about wives in this day and age (not that I would!), I would have to go to jail…”

NEWS columnist Kent Ward lives in Winterport. His e-mail address is olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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