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After a lengthy and unwarranted disclaimer that his work isn't "sexist" [whatever that is], Baron-Cohen surveys the foundations of male and female minds. With a long clinical and teaching career, supported by an immense list of studies, he concludes that, in general, there are indeed "essential differences" in cognitive makeup between human genders. While there is a spectrum of characteristics, certain general frameworks exist attributable to men and women. For ease of analysis, he suggests that women are more empathic ["E" personalities] while men are more systematic ["S" personalities]. Each, he insists, has their role, with most people placed well within a median between extremes. The trends, however, are clear.
In a chatty style he likely uses speaking with patients, Baron-Cohen shows that women's empathic tendencies give them the power to quickly assess others' emotional states. Women more readily identify feelings in others, respond appropriately when sympathy is required and "reach out" in dealing with people. He stresses that this "intuitive sense" among women is almost universal and is rightfully well-regarded by all cultures. Men, on the other hand, operate under the need to understand "systems", organized conditions, mechanics, technology and are thus driven to know "how things work". This urge leads them away from the intimacy women have with others and, in the more extreme cases, are likely to become "loners". The most outstanding examples are those suffering from autism which is overwhelmingly a male condition.
Baron-Cohen has spent years studying autism, offering a range of examples. It may appear amusing that a five-year-old boy may be capable of memorizing dozens of car registrations and explain which car belongs to which house, but there are other factors to consider. Such boys grow into men who cannot readily converse, directly or over the telephone. They become the butt of teasing or hostility at their "withdrawn" state. If lacking compensation in other areas, such as a vocation that allows them to apply a narrow focus to tasks, they risk ostracism from society. Baron-Cohen offers an exceptional case of a mathematician whose genius brought him high awards, but who may fail to keep a lunch date due to some distraction. These are real problems affecting real people. Some of them may be your neighbours. One of them might even, unknowingly, be you.
This book challenges much misled thinking that has permeated gender studies over the past generation. Gender differences in outlook appear within a day of birth. Newborns shown a photograph of a face, or an object composed of facial elements resulted in girls preferring the face while the boys tended to select the object. This early division Baron-Cohen thinks may result from the testosterone surge baby boys undergo in the womb. "Maleness" and brain development are interlocked and continue to manifest with development. Baby girls, on the other hand, follow a different, parallel path. They appear to respond to distress in other people more readily than do boys. They will make eye contact with others more readily. The pattern continues through life, although at differing levels with individuals. Baron-Cohen stresses these differences don't represent "better" or "worse" values. Human males and females are overall equally intelligent. That intelligence is expressed in different ways. More to the point, men and women have both E and S traits, individually manifest over a wide spectrum. Extremes are few, but he notes extreme Es are more socially comfortable and acceptable than the autistic extreme S personalities.
Baron-Cohen doesn't limit himself to the results of clinical studies and calling for more research. He is keen to have readers begin to rethink how society should deal with those suffering from autism [Asperger's Syndrome]. He calls for a greater tolerance for "coldness" or "lack of sympathy". Self assessment is a good place to start building that tolerance. As a help to readers, a series of comprehensive tests is provided as Appendices. Take the tests and judge for yourself. But first, read the book to understand the issues involved. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 29 December 2013
Written by a Cambridge professor of psychiatry and psychology, this book gives a fascinating insight into the difference between the male and female brain. It is essential reading for anyone in contact with children and those of the opposite sex, and will save you endless arguments, divorce, pointless relationships, possible litigation and most important - how to understand the differences between the male/female child and why they behave the way they do.
It includes chapters on the "extreme" male and female brain (Autism and Aspergers syndrome) and includes self - test apendices on your own ability to read another`s facial expressions (a great eye-opener), your degree of empathy towards others, systemising and finally autism.
Also by this author : Zero Degrees of Empathy (Essential reading for every human on earth - especially parents of young children and anyone in an abusive relationship).
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VINE VOICEon 31 December 2006
This is a book that I felt I should read for a long time and had to work myself up into reading. I shouldn't have been worried, it's actually really easy to read.

The Essential Difference, explores the possible differences between the male (systemising) brain and the female (empathising) brain, and also whether autism can be explained by being considered the extreme form of male brain. It is worth noting Baron-Cohen says that women can have male brains and men can have female brains.

The key to my enjoyment of this book was Baron-Cohen's tone and attitude, he is incredibly respectful of any differences and explains how these definitions shouldn't be used to limit people.

There are also four tests in the back of the book, so you can see what type of brain you have! I'm keeping mine a secret!

Highly recommended.
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on 21 February 2014
I was expecting the science underlying the empathy-systematising model of gender differences - the experiments and the data. There was indeed some allusion to this but mostly I found the book to be theorising and surmise. Hence my disappointment. Is it my imagination or was the book really suffused with a fear of upsetting the feminists (by which I mean those people who cling to the view that children enter the world tabula rasa, just awaiting their gender to be imprinted upon them by their upbringing)? The author did seem to find it impossible to refer to any of his female researchers without stating how wonderful and brilliant they were. Such personal comments are just not done in scientific literature, and they came over as crawling. I find it curious that systematising has a neutral flavour whereas empathy is presented as entirely positive. I wonder if this is quite right. However, I have no doubt that the basic empathy-systematising model is a sound guide, if not the whole truth, it's just that I had hoped for more solid empirical evidence. (I know, how very systematising of me). At the trivial level it did annoy me that he persisted in using "disinterested" when he meant "uninterested" (sorry, my pernickety male brain again). The final paragraph is bang on right though. Overall, better to have read it than not read it.
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on 8 May 2003
The book's theory states,
"The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."
and this is backed up with evidence from many sources.
The two variable characteristics, systemizing and empathizing, are examined and the case is made that autism represents the extreme male brain.
What impresses me greatly about this book is that Simom Baron-Cohen shows time and again that average statistics cannot be used to pre-categorize individuals. An individual's actual scores on systemizing and empathizing cannot be predicted from their gender. He even provides tests in the Apendices for generating one's own description on these characteristics. They're very interesting.
This is a book about people and about the uniqueness of individuals. There are lots of stories and a strong appreciation of the value of differences. This is an engaging read, easy to understand and useful. The extensive references and bibliography are there to follow up, but they deliberately do not intrude on the text. My only quibble is that there's very little on the extreme female brain. Perhaps it'll get a book to itself!
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on 12 July 2016
As far as this non-expert reader can see, there's no faulting SBC's scientific rigour (although Cordelia Fine knowledgably questions some of the research and conclusions, in her book "Delusions of Gender") but it's hardly an exciting read. In fact, I'd go further and say that I found it quite dull. I studied a bit of physics and chemistry at university so I can appreciate the exactitude of SBC's measured and logical approach, but I can't help thinking that this book's style and structure would be better suited to an academic treatise than a popular science book. It reads like a research paper, and, like a research paper, SBC tells you at the beginning exactly what he's going to prove - within all the countless margins of errors and other entirely valid caveats with which he frames his conclusions - and then proceeds to do exactly that over multiple chapters. As I say, I can't fault the rigour of his method, but I also can't help thinking that non-expert readers might prefer a narrative structure that takes you from A to B. This book is precise, worthy and well-meaning, and is a good example of the scientific method. From this evidence, SBC is a skilled and methodical scientist, but in my humble opinion he lacks the humour and the popular touch to be a great popular science author.
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on 7 June 2014
I'd recommend this book to anyone studying psychology like myself. Having read 'Delusions of Gender' I thought I would read about gender differences from a different perspective; with a focus on nature rather than nurture.
Overall this is not a difficult read and it raises some interesting questions. The portion of the book dedicated to autism is very interesting.
With the risk of being slapped with the term 'politically correct!' I do think Baron-Cohen has downplayed the role of nurture on gender development and not considered it much at all in this book. Although I personally believe nature to be the most dominant, other factors must also be carefully considered. Earlier on in the book the author references sexual assault (overwhelmingly perpetrated by men) as supporting evidence for his argument as it occurs due to the low empathising ability of men. Nevermind the portrayal of women in the media and the rise of 'lad culture' that a seventeen year old girl like me unfortunately knows all about.
There is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence. It may have been written in this way to appeal to the layperson (ah yes! I know someone exactly like X) but it doesn't make for a compelling scientific argument.
Furthermore, although Baron Cohen feebly attempts to suggest that gender differences between men and women need not put either at any disadvantage I would say I am unconvinced. It appears to me that the male model is more advantageous.
Also Baron-Cohen briefly mentioned that just because sex difference exist doesn't mean that we cannot try to teach our sons to be more empathetic and teach our daughters to improve upon their systemising ability but he neglects to describe how.
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on 19 July 2011
I have always been interested in the workings of the brain and now, having had autism diagnosed in the family, I have been reading as many books on autism spectrum disorders as I can get my hands on. This book was recommended to me by a speech therapist friend and, having read it, I can understand why. A first class book that should be read by anyone with an interest in Asperger's syndrome and autism spectrum disorders or indeed anyone who wants to understand why men and women differ. After reading it, I understood - what more can anyone say.
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on 20 July 2003
In this book Simon Baron-Cohen outlines his theory that the differences between how men and women think, can be explained by their differing ability at empathising, and systemising. He gives a detailed description of how boys and girls behave from an early age and discusses possible biological causes. Although his theory is interesting it left me unconvinced. He gives lots of anecdotes and makes statements like, 'boys do better at test X, girls do better at test Y' but gives no statistics (although they are referenced). I suspect some of his ideas are controversial (for instance his suggestion that women are under-represented in the physical sciences as more men have a brain type suited to this work, is not supported by studies done inside the field). He does not offer any real evidence that autism is a case of an 'extreme male brain', and his idea that there may be a 'extreme female brain' comes across as pure speculation. He concludes the book nicely by discussing the limitations of this theory and the need for more research.
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on 21 November 2012
Having already read several books about the "way" our mind works, I was intrigued to know more about any – potential – difference between male and female brain. This book proved very informative and even courageous, as it can be easily misinterpreted by some fanatics of the "politically correct".

Baron-Cohen explains very clearly that male and female brains function differently, both because evolutionary and biological reasons. However, in no way he implies that one is better than the other. He is actually promoting the acceptance of those "cursed" with an extreme mail brain (borderline autistic) who find it difficult and painful to fit in a society made for the extroverted.

The book is quite short, compared to other writings of similar scope (Pinker's books come to mind) and I would have appreciated more details about this important topic. However, if you are not in for long explanations, the simple language will win you over and take you far beyond the Mars-Venus territory.

Most recommended
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