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The Rules

Copyright © 1995 by Patrick W. Crockett

This article appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of Mentor logoMentor Magazine


Most people would say that men tend to be left-brained thinkers and women tend to be right-brained thinkers. This misperception can inhibit men's acceptance of their true nature.

Nearly everyone has by now been introduced to the concept of left-brained and right-brained thinking. Left-brained thinking is characterized by linearity and logic. The left brain is the home of language. Right-brained thinking is characterized by pattern recognition and intuition. The right brain is the source of creativity.

It is logical to associate the thrusting, penetrating left-brained thought mode with the thrusting, action oriented male body, and to associate the apparently passive, creative right-brained mode with the receptive, life-creating female body. To the degree that we are willing to put people into categorical boxes based on gender, then, most of us would put men into the left-brained box. I would have until recently. Until I attended a lecture by Patricia Sun.

In the middle of her lecture, Patricia tossed off a remark about men being right-brained thinkers and women being left-brained. Later the audience questioned her and she offered a number of interesting observations on this point. She said that in her counselling practice, when she remarks that men and women think differently, men generally react, "Of course." Women, however, are inclined to the opinion, "There's no difference in the way they think. Men are just obstinate." This latter is a particularly left-brained reaction, reflecting an inability to conceive of a mode of thought radically different from that used by the left-brained thinker.

Interestingly, I have encountered the same pattern of reactions when mentioning Patricia Sun's remarks to a few friends. The men I spoke to said, "That makes sense," and all but one of the women either rejected the ideas out of hand or launched into a discussion of the invalidity of any such categorization scheme. The one exception among the women allowed that there might be a tendency for women and men to be left- and right-brained, respectively. However, she did not think it would be a very marked tendency when compared to the range of differences within either gender.

Note that I am not saying that all men are completely right-brained thinkers or even that all men are predominantly right-brained thinkers. Clearly there is a range within each gender, and equally clearly there is overlap between the genders. There must be some men who are predominantly left-brained thinkers and some women who are predominantly right-brained thinkers. Still, it is my conviction that men tend to be more right-brained and women more left-brained. Furthermore, I am convinced that one can say this with the same validity as saying that men tend to be taller and women shorter.

Patricia Sun suggested that it is logical that what fits well into a woman's yin body is a left-brained, yang mind; and that what fits into a man's yang body is a right-brained, yin mind. There is an attractive symmetry to this idea. She also suggested that left-brained thinking is critical for women to fulfill their roles as protectors of children and preservers of society.

Another thing she brought up in this context that caught my attention was the issue of controlling other people. She pointed out that, just as men have caused women a great deal of pain by abusive use of their greater strength, so women have caused men a great deal of pain by abusive use of their greater verbal skills.

Asked why most of us are confused about which gender thinks which way, Patricia gave an example dealing with emotions. We generally believe that women are more in touch with their emotions than are men because women talk more about their emotions. Patricia pointed out that this just indicates that women are better able to describe their emotions; that their natural verbal skills make this easier. Of course, being left-brained, women may also be more likely to put their emotions into verbal categories, and so they may actually be less in touch with their emotions than are men. The right-brained men, meanwhile, do not find it as easy to attach words to emotions and so do not talk about what they feel.

Addressing women's oft-voiced complaint that men will not talk about their feelings, Patricia again drew upon her counselling experience. When she would sit with a couple and help the man to draw out and express his feelings, she found that the woman very often did not really want to know what the man felt. The woman just wanted some words about feelings that she could manipulate so as to create a sense of control over the situation.

Listening to Patricia Sun I experienced one of those moments when suddenly all manner of things begin to fall into place. This idea that men tend to be pattern thinkers and women to be verbal thinkers explains many of our cultural stereotypes. Some quick examples: Men are stimulated by erotic pictures and women by romance novels; Men read maps more easily but will not stop for verbal directions; Boys are inclined toward games like basketball and soccer whose mastery requires immediate assessments of spatial relationships, and girls are inclined toward games like "house" which require elaborate verbal setups. Give yourself ten minutes and you will think of a dozen more examples of stereotypes that fit.

While stereotypes do not accurately describe any individual person, they do show patterns that have been noticed by many people. More to the point for me, however, were the insights Patricia Sun's comments gave me into my own life. I've always been a good technical writer, I have a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics, I am attracted to word games and games of logic. So, I've always thought of myself as a predominantly left-brained thinker. Two years ago I quit my statistical consulting to write a play and to paint. I was conscious that I was, in effect, shifting focus to put most of my energy into developing my right brain. At the same time I began to realize that I wanted to develop the masculine side of my persona. I had become aware that I had always let my feminine side dominate and I needed a new balance. For the past two years I've seen this as a curious contradiction, trying to develop my right brain at the same time as trying to discover what it is to be male. Now I see that there was no contradiction, only unity.

For the past two years I've been more and more aware that I've lived my life by what I've come to think of as "women's rules." This is true especially in my relationships with women. I believed that physical desires and physical satisfaction were somehow baser, secondary to ... to what? I never quite knew what. I just denied the validity and need for a physical component to a relationship. I came to feel it was improper for a man to initiate physical intimacy with a woman, or even to ask for intimacy. It seemed to me that friends should only talk. If a man should ask for anything that might lead to sex then that was just cause for a woman to end a friendship, or at least to feel very uncomfortable. Under these rules visual communication, including body language and manner of dress, is not to be trusted. Instead, only explicit verbal cues should be relied upon as indicators of one person's interest in another.

I now see another aspect of women's rules: talking out conflicts. I do not care for physical violence as a method of conflict resolution, but arguing and having heart-to-heart talks do not feel much better to me. I find heart-to-hearts stressful and ultimately unsatisfying. (I'm inclined to favor meditating together or a massage or a walk together. Once you are in tune with one another, conflicts seem to resolve themselves.) Seeing the insistence upon solving conflicts verbally as a part of women's rules has let me release a nagging sense of inferiority, of being wrong. As one friend said when I told him about men being non-verbal thinkers, "Oh. I don't feel bad about that anymore." I don't feel bad about not wanting to talk things out, and I don't feel bad about the feeling that nothing was really resolved when I do agree to talk things out.

Incidentally, brothers, this right-brain-left-brain issue is not one of being unable to speak or write eloquently or logically or convincingly. Many of us can do those things: witness great statesmen, great literature, etc. The issue is being unable to put into words what we know is true, to verbalize the important whole pattern which is our complete thought. It's not that we cannot talk -- it's that we are burdened by the realization that we can never communicate our truth. And what point is there in communicating something else, some untruth?

Suppose that a complete right-brained thought is a spider's web, and that language only has the capacity to describe single strands. Perhaps if we could not see the whole web we would feel freer to speak of a single strand. But, seeing the web, knowing the web, what point is there in describing individual strands?

We live in a world of men and women, and we've created systems of commerce, education, and government that require verbal communication. Thus we all need to master and use verbal communication skills as best we can. However, communication in these various arenas has always included nonverbal components, too. We would do well to not repudiate or belittle these nonverbal modes of communication, as they carry information that language cannot. (This even includes "male bonding" rituals which so many women love to ridicule. Of course these women see no value in male bonding - the value cannot be communicated verbally.)

Furthermore, it is crucially important that discussion should not be the central focus of a men's gathering. Don't let describing a single strand of the web become the point of such a gathering. Instead, let the object be the experiencing, the knowing, of the web. Speak of strands if you like, but know that the whole web cannot be verbalized. Remember that the whole web is the point, and do not expect speaking to contain any significant part of that.

A men's gathering focussed upon speaking (I do not say, "focused exclusively upon speaking," I say only "focused upon speaking," even if other activities are included.) will fail in the attempt to bring men to an understanding of themselves (or anything). The focus must be experiential, whether drumming, dancing, hunting, playing soccer, or fighting in a bar. Speaking may help to define or coordinate activity, but it will not create the circle of wisdom. A men's fire circle can be a wonderful thing, but the wisdom and the wonder are transmitted through the drumming, the singing, the food, and the fire itself. Not through words. What can be said has very little to do with learning to be a whole man.

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