Male and female brains, in general, are wired in a kind of complementary way.
Male brains have more back-of-brain to front-of-brain connections, which as far as I understand it, means that men think in terms of perception (back) and action (front) more often than women. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the left (logical thinking) and right (intuitive thinking) hemispheres of their brains. David Kahn wrote a book, entitled Thinking, Fast and Slow that discusses the merits of intuition and logic, and outlines general guidelines for when to use either method of thinking. Think fast (intuition) when you’re trying to decide where you’d find a strange item in a grocery store, think slow (logic) when you’re trying to decide whether or not to quit your job.
A professor once told me that men have the uncanny ability to just turn off the part of their brains that does voluntary thinking. Whether it’s true or not I’ve yet to see definitively proven, but since a negative can’t be proven, I’ll go with it for now. While male brains certainly don’t have fewer connections than women, they do have fewer trans-hemisphere connections, which may factor in here. If men think in terms of perception and action, if there’s nothing stimulating to perceive, it would make sense that they could just turn off their brains. If you’re staring at a wall for hours, waiting in line at the DMV or some other tedious chore, time would certainly move by faster if you stop perceiving the world around you. They can just shut out all the hustle and bustle that may be around them. My theory is this: women, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of turning off their brains, because their brains are hard wired to be introspective, to constantly exchange information to better understand it. Female brains are always playing ping-pong with stimulus, trying to get at every angle of it, from both logical and intuitive perspectives.
It makes sense to me, then, that women often have creative outlets. Men retreat inward, when the world is too busy. Women retreat outward, escaping the constant, never ending analysis going on inside their own heads. Men will sit in a chair staring at a campfire for hours; and women will paint, craft, do something, anything with their hands to distract their brains for a little while. Neither method is inherently better than the other, until you factor in what the individual needs. And needs will always out, a person will always find the thing they need to do in order to drown out the noise of a busy life, or brain, whatever it may be.
Like most teenagers, I was eager to get my license at 16. America has had a love affair with automobiles since the Model T, and I was no exception. I saw a car as freedom, as the first luxury of adulthood I would experience. I imagined all the far-off places I would drive to, the sights to be seen and experiences to be had. I never thought of driving itself as one of those experiences, the happiness to be had was in the places I could get to only by driving. So you can imagine my surprise when it turned out that being behind the wheel was one of the only places I could, in effect, shut off my brain. Sure, it took practice, and time (more than you’re given in a standard driver’s ed class), but eventually, the car I was driving became an extension of myself, no different than my arms and legs.
I became transfixed with winding backroads. Driving a car, naturally, demands constant focus on the outside world, which was nothing short of addicting. There was silence in my head, the games of ping pong were halted. I would get lost, on purpose, especially at night, just to see if I could find my way back by myself. I would get out of school or work and just start driving. Sometimes I would take the interstate to a town I’d never been to, and then take any random road. Sometimes I would drive north, to see those gorgeous Canadian lakes across the border. Sometimes south, to get out of the mountains, sometimes west to see different mountains, sometimes east to see the ocean. I would spend maybe twenty minutes once I got where I was going, to appreciate where I was, but then I would jump right back in my car and keep driving. I would drive until I found a road I knew would eventually get me home. I could never, will never have enough.
The drive to Montana was approximately 45 hours. I would wake up at 6am, be on the road by 7, and stop to sleep around 7 or 8pm. for four days, I got almost twelve straight hours each day just to drive. It was, at the time, a gift like no other. Looking back, however, there’s not much I remember about it. I remember stopping in South Dakota to ogle a canyon, and I remember seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time, but other that than – really nothing. Four whole days of my life, and nothing much to remember about them. It was like going on a driving bender. I’d gladly do it again, gladly have four whole days of a completely stress-free drive across 3/4 of the I-90 West, not a care in the world. If gas was free, I might just keep driving until I’ve driven down every interstate, highway and road, paved or dirt, in this country.
When I got to Missoula, I did my best to use Google Maps only once per destination. I was entirely unsuccessful, but I wouldn’t pull out my phone until I knew for sure I was hopelessly lost. And as a result, only about two weeks later, I can navigate through the city with at least a little ease. I at least have most of my bearings – I’m able to tell when I’m headed north or south, east or west, and if that’s the right way to be going or not. I’ve gotten some semblance of a handle on the haphazard grid orientations in Missoula. I know which roads will take me home. Whenever being so far from home feels like too much, like I can’t possibly really be here, all I have to do is jump in my car, and the panic dissipates. All I have to do is get lost, like I have a million times before, and like magic, my brain lets go of all that worry and doubt. I focus on finding my way back home, and am reminded that Missoula has given me something wonderful: a whole new set of roads to get lost in.