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Terence Blacker

Terence Blacker: Sex and the absurdity of male optimism


In these prim and disapproving times, the breaking news that men become stupider in the presence of women is unlikely to win much sympathy. There will be knowing, irritating female chuckles over breakfast tables across the country at the revelation that male cognitive resources are "depleted" by the exhausting business of trying to impress a woman. The fact that the depleted male is in a relationship makes not the slightest difference.

On the face of it, the conclusions of researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands do not reflect well on men. A 2009 study had already shown that male mental functioning declines sharply after five to seven minutes in the presence of an attractive stranger, but the new survey goes further.

A group of 71 men and women were asked to complete cognition tests, guided by an unseen monitor sending text messages. When the monitor's name was female, the performance of males' brains sagged significantly, while those of the women remained consistent.

The Dutch scientists have been studiously polite about their findings. That 2009 experiment had shown that males are "prone to engage in effortful and cognitively demanding attempts to impress an opposite-sex partner". The new study shows that, unlike women, men "perceive relatively neutral situations in sexualised terms".

You may have to be male to appreciate the accuracy of this conclusion. Cognitively speaking, we are pretty much always on the look-out. The mere mention of a woman's name, as the Dutch have confirmed, is enough for male brain cells to go into lockdown. The idea that somewhere a woman is watching us as we work will, in some dark part of the cranium, be suggesting romantic possibility and opportunity. However distantly, a sexual "Action Stations!" alert will be sounding.

It is regrettable, even slightly embarrassing, that men think this way, that their brains, depleted by hope, are unable to recognise the absurdity of their own optimism. But now this secret (if it ever was one) is out, how much more clearly we can see the way the world works.

Until recently, it was believed that, compared to single-sex schools, co-education disadvantaged girls because they were distracted by boys. Now it is clear that the theory was upside-down nonsense, and was probably dreamt up by a man while under the brain-addling influence of a woman.

Gove's ideas not so daft

One of the more intriguing aspects of Britain's public life is the slow transformation of Michael Gove into the Minister for Right-Thinking Conscience.

Some of his plans are not as daft as they may first appear. If the country has to have a royal family, it is not such a terrible idea to give it a new boat, provided the money can come from private sponsors.

And the plan to send a King James Bible to every school is also perfectly sensible, so long as it too is privately funded. More a celebration of language than any kind of religious statement, the King James Bible would express government's commitment to the importance of books – and, of course, to the schools and public libraries which house them.