Neurotheology and gender

A few years ago I attended a talk given by two Zen masters, one male, one female. The man, going first, retold and analyzed some ancient Chinese koan in very Zen master-like fashion. The woman, when her turn to talk came, just sat there silently for a while, then burst into tears. Regaining her composure a bit, she sobbed, “I’m just so happy that I can be here with you all. It brings my practice to life.” She went on to share with us her personal relationship with that zen community, and the frustration she felt at having only blunt, dualistic, verbal tools at her disposal to communicate her insights with us, then cried some more. Finally she flopped over and leaned into the male master sitting at her side, throwing her arms around him.

We all have similar experiences in our own religious traditions of the difference between what men and women take from the religion, what they emphasize.

We know almost as little about the neuroscience of gender as we do about the neuroscience of religion. But perhaps we can overlay our sparse knowledge of the two fields to generate some new insights.

For instance, what are the neurotheological implications of the well-known research concerning the relative size of the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH-3), showing that it’s more than twice as large in men as in women (and homosexual men)? Could this be related to the hypothalamus’ role in the fear response, and thus connected to the informal observation that men’s relation to religion is more often one of “fear and awe” than women’s “love and compassion”?

To build robust neurotheological models, we need every clue we can get. Hopefully our expanding understanding of the neurological differences between the sexes can be one fruitful source of such clues.

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