The Women’s Brain Book: The Neuroscience of Health, Hormones and Happiness by Dr Sarah McKay

womens brain book9780733638527

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

This book is written by the founder of the Neuroscience Academy: the respected, Oxford-educated neuroscientist Dr Sarah McKay. She is a specialist who works on presenting scientific research about the brain to mainly professional audiences, translating this information into straightforward, actionable strategies for obtaining peak performance, creativity, health and wellbeing. In this book she does not attempt to delineate the differences between male and female brains or focus on gender-specific behaviours, instead she charts the developmental phases of life unique to females and what is happening in their brains during their life-cycle.

The language and vocabulary of the book is primarily scientific in nature and information is gathered from a variety of sources including research outcomes, interviews and case histories alongside research findings from other disciplines such as neuroendocrinology, ageing, brain development and health. We are informed that “there is no such thing as a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’. In fact, male and female brains are much more similar than they are different. Instead, each of our brains are unique mosaics of different features, some male-like, some female-like with plenty of features best described as androgynous”.

The introduction of the book outlines the author’s goal “to take you on a chronological tour across the lifespan to explore how our minds and brains are shaped and sculpted by our genes and hormones, our life experiences, society and culture, and our thoughts, feelings and beliefs”. Surprisingly, it appears that there is gender inequality in scientific research evidence and there are fewer results for women. This is a result of legitimate reasons including safety (women may fall pregnant during drug trials) and complicated data gathering.

The chapters of the book include ‘In Utero’, ‘Childhood’, ‘Puberty’, ‘The Menstrual Cycle’, ‘The Teenage Brain’, ‘Depression and Anxiety’, ‘Pregnancy and Motherhood’, ‘Menopause’ and ‘The Ageing Brain’. Each section is predictably presented in technical and scientific language and an informed knowledge of biology would be useful in interpreting the evidence presented to us.

We are introduced to the fascinating ‘ Bottom-Up Outside-In Top-Down model’, developed by the author, for teaching her students how to consider the biological, psychological and social factors that impact on the brain over the lifespan. It incorporates a consideration all the elements that may “regulate the development, performance and health of the brain, each element influencing others in dynamic ways”. Using this model, we can build up a better picture of the complexity of how we think, feel and behave.

Reassuringly, for those advancing in years themselves, in the final chapter ‘The Ageing Brain’ we are told it is never too late to hope for change. This refers to ‘brain plasticity’ mentioned previously in the book and the case of Jeanne Calment who lived to the ripe old age of 118! She was subjected to a battery of neuropsychological tests at 118 when she had been isolated from the outside world, apart from contact with medical staff and an annual visit from a journalist, for three years. Over the course of a six-month period during testing, when she had increased social interaction with several people and improved environmental enrichment, Jean’s cognitive performance improved. So, there is hope for all!

This book provides an academic, comprehensive overview of the brain and its development with an emphasis on the stages in the female life-cycle. It is packed with interesting detail, gathered from relevant and reliable research in the field of neuroscience and other germane disciplines. It is a very interesting collection of current and pertinent findings which serve to advance our own personal knowledge of this complex but fascinating area of science.


The Women’s Brain Book: The Neuroscience of Health, Hormones and Happiness by Dr Sarah McKay


Imprint: Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733638527

AUD$32.99; 308pp

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