Mysteries of the Brain

Washington Times  8.26.97
Balint Vazsonyi

Apparently, a team of Danish researchers has counted the number of brain cells in humans and found that men, on average, had 4 billion more of them than women - a whopping 16 per cent difference. Leader of the team Dr. Bente Pakkenberg, described in the news item as "a female neurologist," reported that the additional cells were found "in that part of the brain that has to do with abstract thinking, fantasizing, with speech." But Dr. Pakkenberg is baffled by her findings. "...It's a mystery what men do with the surplus," she said.


"Eureka," exclaimed Archimedes as he spilled his bath water and proposed the law of fluid mechanics whereby immersed bodies lose weight by an amount equal to the fluid displaced. "Oops," cried Isaac Newton as an apple almost hit him on the head, conclusively proving the law of universal gravitation, helping him to explain the path and motion of the planets. Albert Einstein, in a fit of exceptionally low self esteem brought on by his inability to find an academic position, published four papers of which just one contained his entire Special Theory of Relativity. Yep. It sure is a mystery what men do with the surplus.

But in 1215, a bunch of them got together and wrote the Magna Carta. Later, between 1776 and 1791, another bunch came up with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Federalist Papers, and the Bill of Rights. In between, David Hume, John Locke, William Blackstone and Adam Smith contributed some rather useful ideas. Still, it's a mystery what men have been doing with the surplus.

Yet, as we move from abstraction to fantasizing, some of them seem to have devised the Pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon in Athens, the Aqueducts of ancient Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, the Taj Mahal in India, the Kremlin in Moscow, the Palace of Westminster in London, the Empire State Building in New York. Nonetheless, it's a mystery what men have done with the surplus.

Still on the subject of fantasizing, one cannot help but remember the sculptures of Praxiteles, the Madonnas of Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, or Vermeer's representations of light. Aside from the best-known greats, there are said to have been no fewer than a thousand significant painters in the Flemish Renaissance alone. And we have not even mentioned Michelangelo, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso. Well, as the woman said, it's a mystery what men have done with the surplus.

On the other hand, when we combine abstract thinking with fantasizing, we find The Art of the Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi. Then there is Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Walt Disney's Fantasia. What on earth have men been doing with that surplus?

Perhaps "speech" will help to solve the mystery - written speech, that is. The ancient Greeks laid some important foundations in philosophy, metaphysics, history, crafting plays and fables. Some believe that Homer actually wrote the great epics. Closer to our time, the plays of Shakespeare, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Tolstoy's War and Peace amount to a darn good try at the very least. And Gutenberg came up with a way to have it all printed!

So much for sarcasm. It so happens that I believe sufficient credit cannot be assigned to women for moving our world forward, for the civilizing influence that differentiates Western culture from others in which women have been denied the freedom to exert that influence. A pity that so many women are unhappy just now. A pity that we are dismantling Western Civilization just now. One cannot help but wish that women were pleased with their accomplishments, and proud of them. One cannot help but wish that more - women and men - would open their eyes to the unique conditions Western Civilization produced, drawing spectacular efforts from both sides of the sexual divide.

Still, Ms. Pakkenberg is asking for it. She is quoted as follows: "If men have to have four billion more brain cells to function as normally as women, it's all right with me." Apparently, she reads the data, but cannot make out the connections staring her in the face. The irresistible temptation is to suggest that Dr. Pakkenberg demonstrates just what happens when a person is minus those 4 billion brain cells.