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By Sherry Baker published January 1, - last reviewed on June 9, Playing in front of a wildly cheering hometown crowd, the Canadian ice hockey team whizzed around the ice with more speed and sizzle than usual, scoring goal after goal and winning the game. And it wasn't just that night, either. The high-energy performance of the all-star team, hailing from northern Ontario, always peaked during home games, suggesting a home-field advantage. Hoping to learn their secret, psychologists Cameron Muir and Justin Carre of Brock University in Ontario studied the team over a season, measuring testosterone levels in saliva before and after each game.

As they expected, the increase in status following a win always resulted in a rise. But the surprise came in measurements prior to the games: Whenever the competition was on home turf, testosterone increased ahead of time, suggesting the hormone provided impetus for defending one's territory. The Brock scientists found that testosterone ebb and flow tracked emotional states: Self-confidence increased for home games, and, according to player reports, slid back down when players were away. The bottom line: Testosterone changes are directly related to personality , mood, and aggression —and not just in sports.

For men and women alike, sex hormones including testosterone, produced by the testes, and estrogen, from the ovaries are power players in myriad human abilities and behaviors. Language, cognition , libido, and health all fluctuate as hormone levels change. Yet the impact is nuanced and often counterintuitive. Testosterone revs aggression in status-hungry men, but has little effect in more laid-back souls.

Estrogen has long been thought to keep memory sharp before menopause—but for women who start taking estrogen supplements years after going through menopause, the result may be memory problems instead. Finally, just as sex hormones influence behavior, changing situations often modulate the hormones. The subject is complex and often confusing.

But given the common manipulation of sex hormones through prescription drugs and supplements, unraveling their hidden forces has never been more critical. A humble priest renowned for his wisdom , Peter Morrone wanted nothing more than to live out his days in the hermetic monastery near his home in Italy. But his dream came crashing down when he was tapped to succeed Pope Nicholas IV in Unsuited for the job, he abdicated the papacy after four short months.

But the next pope, Boniface VIII, so feared Celestine's popularity that he hunted him down and threw him in jail where, 10 months later, he died. According to Robert Josephs, a social endocrinologist at the University of Texas, Celestine's reaction to the lofty status of pope can be seen through the lens of testosterone: Naturally low levels of testosterone could explain his shrinking-violet personality and his failure to rise to the challenge when his status demanded it most.

High levels of testosterone, meanwhile, might explain why Boniface went to such extremes to put Celestine in his place. When Josephs arrived on the endocrine scene in the late s, the research connecting sex hormones and human behavior was contradictory. A strong connection had been shown in many animal species. But human experiments found no consistent connection and experts theorized that our developed prefrontal cortex simply overrode messages the sex hormones sent to the midbrain.

Josephs soon demonstrated that humans are hardly exempt from the passions of other animals—those passions are just more complex. As with Celestine and Boniface, testosterone plays out differently depending upon whether an individual is driven by status or prefers a more modest leadership role. Men motivated by the quest for power have higher baseline levels of testosterone—and the more they feel threatened, the higher their testosterone and their aggression.

One study, for instance, tracks testosterone after loss of a game. Baseline testosterone drops, it turns out, only in those who don't much care about dominance or whether they win or lose. These less-competitive players start out with modest testosterone levels and after a loss, their levels fall. But in those with high-baseline testosterone—typically of competitive mindset—the levels soar.

He found the rule applied not just to competition in sports or games, but also to competition for mates. In one study, Josephs paired male college students and sent them into a room with an attractive female confederate. Each was to try to woo her, doing whatever it took. Students with high testosterone routinely slammed the other man, making fun, putting him down, refusing to laugh at his jokes.

Josephs also found that high-testosterone men communicate stress to their dogs. In a study of pet owners who had entered their dogs in a contest of agility, high-T men experienced surging testosterone after a loss. They yelled at or shoved their dogs. Josephs compares the phenomenon to injecting steroids.

All pet owners, men and women alike, responded with no change in testosterone when their dogs won—and usually treated the victorious dogs in the same, positive way. But no matter how much testosterone a woman had at baseline or how badly her dog lost, all females reacted like low-T men, soothing the losing pets. Baseline testosterone even impacts cognition, Josephs found.

In experiments, when status-striving, high-testosterone men are stripped of their status, they become angry, excited, and cognitively impaired. But more surprising, men with low resting-testosterone, without much impetus for status, become angry and impaired when placed in high-status positions they simply do not want. The studies point to innate human hierarchies every bit as immutable as those seen in primates or dogs. At first blush, says Joseph, "striving for status seems sensible because with it come resources and goodies that ensure survival.

If everyone were an alpha we'd have fights all the time. The group is more stable and life is more harmonious when hormone level and social niche correspond. The ability to read a map or engineer a bridge isn't due to gender per se , but rather to the way sex hormones influence the structure and function of the brain. Before we're even born, testosterone in the womb influences development of brain regions handling spatial tasks.

And as adults, optimum levels of testosterone and estrogen hone these skills yet again. In animals, there is a direct relationship between testosterone and spatial ability—for humans, that's not the case. In fact, it was hard for scientists to study testosterone's impact in humans at all until researchers discovered that a high "2D4D" digit ratio—a ring finger longer than the index finger—is linked to high exposure to prenatal testosterone. In women, who as a rule don't receive as much exposure, ring and index fingers are often equal in length, while in males the ring finger tends to be longer.

Scientists at the University of Giessen in Germany used the association to correlate mathematical and spatial skill with pre-birth testosterone levels. It was already known that men outscore women on spatial and numerical tests overall. But last year in the journal Intelligence , the German scientists reported that women with a "male-like" finger ratio and therefore higher levels of prenatal testosterone scored better than those whose wedding finger was shorter—and they also outperformed the men on the numerical tests. While prenatal testosterone enhances performance of spatial tasks, the relationship is complex and varies from skill to skill.

Using finger ratios to estimate, University of Cambridge psychologists graphed prenatal testosterone against three spatial tasks: mental rotation recognizing two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional shapes , targeting literally hitting a target on a computer screen , and figure-disembedding finding a smaller simple form that is part of a larger, complex picture. Their findings, published last year in the Journal of Biological Psychology , show that the exclusive predictor for mental rotation ability is gender, with men beating women. Because testosterone level played no role whatsoever, the researchers theorize that the advantage comes from more exposure to the task, and thus, more practice.

Finger ratio alone, on the other ahem hand, predicted targeting and figure-disembedding performance. For figure disembedding, the more prenatal testosterone, the better the performance. But for targeting, the level of prenatal testosterone helped only to a degree. In fact, the relationship was what researchers called "curvilinear"—the best performance required a highly favorable level of prenatal testosterone.

Too much or too little, and the skill fell off. This could explain why men excel overall in targeting but also why some women may make better sharp-shooters or pilots than many men. The picture is also complex for free-flowing testosterone in adulthood. Instead of equating high-T with spatial skills, the relationship is reversed. It turns out that lower testosterone als greater skill, University of Cincinnati psychologist Julie Yonker reported in the journal Cortex in The show just how complex the interactions are.

In both men and women, excess testosterone is converted to estradiol, a form of estrogen. Studies of women in their childbearing years have found that visual-spatial performance declines during ovulation, when estrogen levels are highest, and is enhanced during menstruation, when estrogen is low. Bottom line: We've got to get away from the idea of "female" brains and "male" brains and start thinking in terms of high- and low-testosterone and estrogen brains to understand how spatial skills develop.

For years the debate over estrogen loss and hormone replacement therapy has raged: As women enter and then pass through menopause, does the loss of estrogen cause not only hot flashes and mood swings but also memory impairment? And can hormone replacement therapy HRT protect cognitive sharpness that might otherwise be lost? Many experts have long insisted that memory problems emerge at midlife not because estrogen tanks but because of psychological factors— stressed-out and sleep-deprived women are naturally going to feel less mentally sharp. Therefore, when it comes to protecting memory, HRT would do little good and might even hurt.

Yet the naysayers based their conclusions on studies of older women—in one pivotal study, the average age was Should we really extend the reaction of elderly women to younger women, whose hormones were just starting to decline? To find out, McGill sex-hormone researcher Barbara Sherwin studied working memory in a group of young women whose menopause had been temporarily induced during treatment for tumors.

Sherwin's research, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in , showed that memory scores in the young women given the estrogen-lowering drug Lupron plummeted but, when estrogen was added back, working memory deficits were restored. The clear conclusion was that estrogen supplements, timed correctly, kept working memory sharp. Sherwin cautions that more research is needed because not all estrogen is identical and different forms of the hormone might affect cognition in different ways.

She also notes that the route of administration, via patch instead of a pill, might affect what estrogen does to memory, the brain, and the rest of the body.

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No, not everything about men’s sexual behaviour can be explained by testosterone