So men listen with only half their brains. Yeah, well … um, what was the question again? explores the issue.


I was rummaging around the refrigerator for a beer when I heard a report on the radio saying that men use only half their brains.

I was troubled by the finding because I thought I remembered that human beings as a whole, and I'm assuming this includes men, use only some tiny fraction of their brains, like 10 percent or, in the case of magazine columnists, 3 percent. I also seemed to recall that each human had something like 40 billion trillion gazillion brain cells, so many, according to a university study, that if just one person's cells were laid end to end and lit with a match, the fuse would be so long that you could blow up Venus.

The point is, years ago I had calculated the vast number of brain cells, divided it by the small percentage of them used, and figured there were more than enough left over to be killed off by beer. So when I heard that men used half their brains, I wasn't thrilled.This would mean I had fewer brain cells that could be killed, which, in turn, meant I could consume less beer.

At dinner, I told my wife what I had heard.

"Men use half their brains," I said. "I don't know what women use.They didn't say. It was on the news."

"To listen," she said.

"What?"

"Men use only half their brain to listen," she said.

"Oh."

I didn't hear that part.

Turns out the study found that women listen with their entire brains. The question, then, is this: If men listen with only half their brains, what are they doing with the other halves?

If you are a woman, you know one thing men are doing is talking, usually about themselves. You also know that another thing is interrupting, typically to talk about themselves. You know, finally, that what they are doing the most is not listening.

They are wondering who won the basketball game, when their next opportunity for sex will be, whether they would choose steak or cheeseburgers if they had only one thing they could eat the rest of their lives, when their next opportunity for sex will be, if they should get a new sound system installed in the car or buy better golf clubs instead, when their next opportunity for sex will be, if, hmmmmm, spaghetti might be the one thing to eat the rest of their lives, and when their next opportunity for sex will be.

This helps explain why men seem so forgetful. "It's your mother's birthday this Friday," a wife will say. The husband, hearing only half her words, hears, "Your birthday Friday" and thinks, "Gee, that came around quickly. Great. Maybe that will be my next opportunity for sex."

Myself, I think that science has certain ethical obligations, and I believe that science was unethical in reporting that men listen with only half their brains. It only gives them a built-in excuse for not listening. "I can't help it, honey; I'm just built that way."

Worse, it gives them leeway to listen even less than they already do. "Did you say something? I'm sorry, I was only half-listening. "If a man, by definition, is already half-listening, then his being aware of only half-listening means he is only quarter-listening. Which means he may as well be patio furniture.

Miscommunication between couples, they say, is the root cause of most problems. Well, miscommunication seems hotwired into our biology if men are always half-listening. "Honey," says a wife, "I'm going to run to the grocery store." The husband hears, "Come to the bedroom. Let's have sex." You see the problem.

This may not only help explain marital difficulties, but the strife and turmoil in the world at large. A diplomat from one country meeting with a diplomat from another might say, "I want to ay on behalf of my government that we admire the scenic beauty of your great nation and the industriousness of its people." But the other diplomat, because he is only half-listening, thinks he heard, "We are going to war against you next Tuesday." Next thing you know, we've got yet another international crisis.

Still, in the end, things generally seem to work out reasonably well. So my question is: Just how much of the brain do you really need?

Let me demonstrate with a scene from a marriage.

She's talking. I'm listening.

She's saying something about some upcoming event. Uh-huh, I say. She's saying we need a new something or other. I say, hmmm-mmm. She's saying are you listening to me? I say yes, yes, of course I am.

She throws me a glare. You haven't heard a word I've said, she says accusingly.

What? I say, offended. Of course I have.

What's Thursday? she asks.

Her question is the sound of a marital trap being set.

Thursday? I answer, carefully.

Our son's ballgame, she replies impatiently, as if to say, had I been listening I'd know that.

Right, I say, relieved to be finished with the inquisition. The ballgame. Exactly.

Something in her expression, at once indignant and triumphant, tells me the trap has just been sprung.

No, she says. Thursday is YOUR SISTER'S BIRTHDAY.

Like the desperate animal that I am, I try pitifully to maneuver out of the trap's clench. You mean, I say, my sister's birthday and the ballgame are the same day?

She rolls her eyes and exhales a low howl, like the dark wind before a hurricane. I didn't say word one about a ballgame, she says.

You just said it was Thursday, I respond.
     
I said that to see if you were listening.

Well, I say, I was listening. Really. I just had something on my mind. The other half of my mind. The half that is biologically incapable of listening.

I think, in the end, a person needs as much of his brain as he can get.