Gender and memory

Do men and women have different brains? Statistically, this is probably true. How does that affect memory? What is the best way to average our diversity? Multiple cool articles for further reading appear within the text.

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

I quote: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) is a book written by American author and relationship counselor John Gray. The book states that most common relationship problems between men and women are a result of fundamental psychological differences between the sexes. One example is men’s complaint that if they offer solutions to problems that women bring up in conversation, the women are not necessarily interested in solving those problems, but mainly want to talk about them. 

I read the book in my 20s, and I am trying to assess its statements since. If something is statistically significant, it does not have to apply to any particular case. We are diverse. Today, I would say that more than two genders could be addressed. And there are statistical differences, yet they are smaller than variations between individuals and definitely smaller than similarities.

Physiological differences

Other than obvious differences, women are physically somewhat smaller and have two X chromosomes. The smaller size means smaller brains, more suitable to processing verbal than visual information. Two X chromosomes provide more resilience to genetic variations. For example, tetrachromatic women utilize deficiencies in the color vision of each parent for extremely accurate color separation.

How does that affect IQ? Women have fewer mental diseases, and rarely get very low IQ scores, but also are less likely to get extremely high IQ scores. I have some friends in a group selected for their very high IQ, and only 10% of the members in that group are women. Only about 6.7 percent of Nobel prize winners are women, with Marie Curie being the only woman to receive two Nobel prizes.

The nature vs nurture argument is still open. Arguably many women who could get the highest recognition for their contributions never got it due to society bias. Still more capable women did not even try choosing an ambitious career path.

Memory differences

Memory sports focus on visual memory and thus are biased toward young males.  There are several female memory masters, like the 2020 world champion Emma Alam from Pakistan or an English programmer Katie Kermode who set the record for names and faces in 2018. Yet the vast majority of memory masters are young males.

This difference is almost reversed when we consider long-term memorization and dual coding. Arguably women have better memory for words and audio, making them better in long-term memorization. For reasons I do not understand, this potential advantage was not realized in ways I could find. As an example, the person who remembers a large number of digits of Pi is a male, a retired engineer from Japan named Akira Haraguchi.

Do women have a better memory?

When we consider extreme memory performance results, women are rare.

When we address statistically average people, women are more prominent. I quote: In a study published in the journal Menopause, women aged 45-55 years performed better in all memory measures including episodic memory (a form of long-term memory involving recollection of specific events), executive function, semantic processing (recall of words, concepts, numbers), and associative memory (the ability to make connections between unrelated items, like remembering the name of person we just met).

However… Women are also more at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions over time. By age 65, a woman has a 1 in 5 risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Diving into the statistics

As we dive in into various kinds of memory tests for various tasks, statistics become more nuanced.

Females tend to perform better than males in verbal-based episodic memory tasks, as opposed to spatial-based memory tasks. In general, females outperform males on autobiographical memory (particularly with high retrieval support via verbal probing), random word recall, story recall, auditory episodic memory, semantic memory (driven by superiority in fluency), and face recognition tasks. 

To this end, it appears that males and females may integrate information from different neural networks, to arrive at similar behavioral targets, relative to overt learning and memory function.

In other words, males are superior almost only in things addressed by memory championships. There is no championship for recalling words, except the spelling bee. Since 1925, the score was: 59 wins for girls, 55 for boys.

The situation partially reverses only around the age of 60…

How can we leverage the statistics?

Ideally, the statistics mean that women could and should use their superior fluency to remember factoids and learn languages. This is a physiological statistical preference, but then we see the nature vs nurture effect. Apparently, there are not many female polyglots.  The majority of well-known polyglots are men, including the celebrated philologists – Jean-François Champollion, Noah Webster, and Sir William Jones – and a dedicated traveler, Cardinal Mezzofant

Anecdotally my grandmother knew 12 languages. When we came to Israel she took a week to recall the language and then she started to speak fluently with the locals, shocking the rest of us. This is not your average grandmother.

Yet there was a large historical group of educated women polyglots. For example… In the 17th century there existed a small pan-European community of learned women in France, England, Germany, Denmark, and Netherlands, all of whom had mastery of numerous languages, and corresponded in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and French. At the heart of this women’s Republic of Letters was an extraordinary woman all of the others looked up to – the illustrious femme savante of Utrecht, Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678)

Historically there were many other female polyglots. Cleopatra VII was the only member of her dynasty who spoke the ancient Egyptian language and read hieroglyphs. Apart from this, she knew ancient Greek, the languages of the Parthians, Jews, Medes, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Arabs. It is known that Cleopatra VII spent a lot of time in some kind of ancient laboratory.

Memory techniques created by males for males

One may say that the way we learn is gender-biased. Historically, there were significantly fewer female scientists. This implicitly means that over centuries, males created ways to learn things that leverage gender differences and are biased. Women are better at verbal reasoning and autobiographical memory. So what do men invent? Mental palaces and PAOs – methods for VISUAL representation of information. While dual coding and cultural immersion should balance the odds, these methods are slower, more effort-intensive, less male-friendly, and hence less popular.

This idea becomes more prominent when we analyze the most prolific authors of books presenting mnemonic techniques. The vast majority of these books were written by men. In this blog when I address prominent memory masters, I do not mention women: Simonides of Ceos, Giordano Bruno, Peter of Ravenna, Dominic O’Brien – all of them males. This is ridiculous. I coauthor my books with Anna, but the techniques in these books are typically selected by me.  Yet more effective memory techniques created by males for males…

Call to action?

Ladies, please, do your part and write books on memory techniques that are female-friendly. Focus on colors, long-term memory, languages, and autobiographical memory. Create something that women can use effectively in their 60 and onward. Defeat the bias! This is doable!

And please add music memory to the memory championship. In college-level exams, females outperform males in music memorization 2.2:1. This is not a negligible statistical advantage, but total domination. Celebrate it!

If you’re keen on tapping into your memory landscapes through exclusive and contemporary methods inspired by indigenous memory techniques, consider enrolling in my Memory Masterclass. You do not have to pay the full price. Contact [email protected] and ask for a deep discount. Please be aware that as this is an advanced approach, it’s essential to have a foundational understanding of memory training beforehand.



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