From John Cloud’s “Why Girls Have BFFs and Boys Hang Out in Packs” (TIME: 17 July 2009):
For the better part of the past half-century, feminists, their opponents and armies of academics have debated the differences between men and women. Only in the past few years have scientists been able to use imaging technology to look inside men’s and women’s heads to investigate whether those stereotypical gender differences have roots in the brain. No concrete results have emerged from these studies yet, but now a new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of children offers at least one explanation for some common tween social behaviors: girls are hardwired to care about one-on-one relationships with their BFFs (best friends forever), while the brains of boys are more attuned to group dynamics and competition with other boys.
The study, conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Georgia State University, begins with a premise that every parent of a tween knows: as kids emerge into puberty, their focus changes dramatically. They care less about their families and more about their peers.
So what’s actually going on inside these young brains?
The results suggest that as girls progress from early puberty to late adolescence, certain regions of their brains become more active when they face a potential social interaction. Specifically, when an older girl anticipates meeting someone new — someone she believes will be interested in her — her nucleus accumbens (which is associated with reward and motivation), hypothalamus (associated with hormone secretion), hippocampus (associated with social learning) and insula (associated with subjective feelings) all become more active. By contrast, boys in the same situation show no such increase in activity in these areas. In fact, the activity in their insula actually declines.
Boys, it seems, aren’t as interested in one-on-one interactions as girls are. Previous research has shown that male adolescents instead become more focused on competition within larger groups (like between sports teams). Perhaps it’s evidence that evolution has programmed boys to compete within large groups, so they can learn to eliminate rivals for women — and that girls have been programmed to judge, one-on-one, who would be the most protective father for offspring.