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The Mind of a Man: Compartmentalization

Posted in - Family & Knowledge & Relationship on October 30th 2014 10

plutarch “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch, Greek historian, 45 AD-120 AD

While there are exceptions, it is pretty well-known that the male brain processes and prioritizes information differently than the female. Men typically have stronger spacial recognition and motor function capabilities than women whereas the ladies are more adept in intuition and rational thought. Pairing these two together, and each person recognizing the strengths in the other, makes for a strong family unit. One of the ways we describe the thought process of men, and its difference from that of women, is in terms of “compartmentalization”.

Just like when exercising, too much focus on strengthening one area results in weakness in other areas. The reason we see so many guys in the gym with skinny legs is that upper body exercises are typically easier and we gravitate towards the easier path. Our brains work the same way. Because the man-brain is pre-wired a certain way, we will continue strengthening those pathways unless we take the harder, more uncomfortable road. Thoreau says it well:

3264616-henry-david-thoreau “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Henry David Thoreau, American author, poet, and philosopher, 1817-1862

How Mental Compartmentalization Works

There is a book, which I haven’t read, titled: Men are like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti. Well, if you have learned anything from Buddy the Elf those two things go together pretty well! (Sorry, the temperature drop makes me think of Christmas) It’s also a nice way of thinking about how the mind of a man works. We tend to organize and put things in their place. We fill our waffle divots with certain related things. We like tools fitted just for a specific job and enjoy concrete delineations between activities: exercise happens at the gym, lounging happens at home, worship happens at church, work happens at the office, etc. Women on the other hand tend to mix information together: relationships, emotions, knowledge, past experiences, all come together to render a conclusion.

The reason we are outfitted this way is based on how our brain comes pre-wired. Men typically have greater concentrations of neural pathways between the front and rear areas of the brain. The back of the brain is dominant in perception while the front is dominant in action. So, we perceive an event and then more easily move to take action rather than consider the logical and social or emotional impacts. The cliché example is a wife wanting to talk to her husband about some issue and he keeps coming up with ways to fix it rather than just listen and be empathetic. The next time this happens, explain to her that your neural pathways are wired for action! If she wants empathy, get a fish. But seriously, it can be tough to switch neural routes in the moment, though with practice we can form new pathways that make it easier and help us to be more well-rounded men.

How Compartmentalization Helps Men

Our ability to compartmentalize life is one of our greatest strengths. Here are a few areas in which this is advantageous.

Patience in Hunting, Fishing, Stalking, Planning, and Working

When a man thinks something is worth doing we often find we have more patience than our female counter parts for the same tasks. The patience increases when the correlation between action and reward is very clear. For example, working extra hours will bring home more pay, or being still in a tree stand or blind for hours will bring home meat. It’s easier for us to focus on the moment and not think about the things we are missing out on. We don’t typically think about the family who is just waking up to breakfast while we are in the woods, or the time we miss with our kids while grinding away at our job.


Thomas Edison “When I have fully decided that a result is worth getting I go ahead of it and make trial after trial until it comes.” – Thomas Edison, American Inventor, 1847-1931

Our compartments can be more like ditches or wells which we’ll continue digging as long as we are finding bits of shiny little objects: new ideas, confirmed hypotheses, success, accolades, money, etc. In other words, when we set an idea or goal we will stick to it until we are either burnt out or it is realized. This can be a negative as well (see below) but in many cases this results in success.

Rational Under Pressure

We, men, have a God-given ability to take advantage of our neural highway and quickly look at matters objectively: This is the situation & decisive action is needed. When in a fight, under attack, or in a survival situation, we have the ability to keep our cool and think clearly about what needs to be done. By compartmentalizing emotions, outside stimulus, relationships, and more, we can pull in just the facts that matter to the issue at hand. Of course, men have this in varying degrees based on genes and environmental upbringing, but the framework is there to be built upon.

How Compartmentalization Hurts or Hinders Men

The ability to divvy up aspects of our life is not always the right thing for every situation. Being too strong in the area of compartmentalization and too weak with intuition and big-picture logic can lead to failure in a lot of areas of life that require a well-rounded and mature approach. Here are some things to watch out for.

Poor Multitasking

I don’t know how many times a week I have to remind my wife about this weakness of mine. She’ll start talking to me about one thing, but then somehow pull a few other items into the discussion. For example, “Can you pick up the boys at 4:30 from [someplace] so that [insert lady friend whom I probably don’t know here] doesn’t have to get them because her aunt just had surgery and she has to ride up to wherever with her parents, who have to leave at 4:15, so they can get to the airport to meet her sister before flying to [someplace I don’t care about because I am totally lost by this point]?” Kudos to my wife for being able to keep all of this stuff together and actually caring about people. That is a definite strength on her side and I need that in my life. But, most men will agree we could have stopped after “Can you pick up the boys at 4:30 from [someplace]?”

This also means we are more likely to forget things that don’t belong to the situation we are currently involved in. If I’m working in the garage or cleaning up the yard, it’s pretty likely I’ll forget to pick the boys up at 4:30. It’s not that we are incapable of multi-tasking, it’s just harder for us to do.

Sunday Morning Syndrome

I don’t know if this is a “thing” or not, but I am calling it Sunday Morning Syndrome because it illustrates so much of where we are failing right now. There is a reason it’s easy to be a Christian in church, to think about God and Christ and be open to changes of heart. It’s because we associate church with the supernatural or the religious. The problem comes when we leave church and go into other areas of life. It’s harder for men to bring their religious views into other aspects of their life than it is for women. This is such a great illustration because we know it can be overcome. It is a sign of maturity when Christ comes into all areas of our life, not just Sunday mornings. This doesn’t happen by accident or age, it happens through intention.

Something similar happens with politics. We get all fired up when listening to a radio host or commenting on Facebook, but we forget that there is a real world that needs action if we want to see change. It sometimes seems that politics is something that other people manage and we lightly engage with it during the voting season and just bitch about it the rest of the year.

Jumping Compartments – For Example, Coming Home from Work

I think this is an area that both men and women have trouble with but for different reasons. Let me see if I can clarify. Both men and women have a hard time detaching from work when coming home. Men, however, tend to be stuck in a work “mode” or mindset and it’s takes a bit of effort to mentally refocus ourselves. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to carry their work home with them. They will think about it and continue processing it while they do family stuff, whereas a man is more likely to “check-out”; he’ll be there but only in body, not in spirit.

Tendency Towards ADHD, Autism, and Asperger’s

I’m not a fan of labels and it may be that we will one day find that a lot of boys and girls on the spectrums of these disorders were just absolutely starved for the natural world which we have all but eliminated for them. Without getting into all of that, there is certainly a much higher percentage of males with these disorders than females and the reason seems to lie with our natural tendencies towards hyper-focused compartmentalization, something the Autism related issues all share.


When I was in the Navy I knew several guys that had their wives back on shore, and their girlfriends when out at sea. One guy would literally put the picture of his wife in his desk drawer and take out the picture of his girlfriend when we were underway! A lot of guys can trick themselves into thinking they can have the affair and be happy because they compartmentalize the relationship. What happens at work or in another city is one compartment; what happens at home is another. Eventually, when the truth comes out or the relationship starts to spill over into the left and right parts of the brain (feelings, intuition, logic) they either leave their wife, have a breakdown, or both.

Learning to DeCompartmentalize

beecher “The head learns new things, but the heart forever practices old experiences.” – Henry Ward Beecher, American Preacher and Social Reformer, 1813-1887

Learning to decompartmentalize our life and become a more well-rounded man can be exhausting and frustrating while in the moment. Suppose my example above where my wife is asking me to pick up the boys. I am interested in the specifics, when and where. She, however, is trying to convey her heart to me. She wants me to know that someone she knows is going through something and that the “why” we do something is greater than just doing it. In the moment, to work through this decompartmentalizing along the way, is tough. For me, it feels like we are going about 5mph when we could put the pedal down and do 60mph! Let’s just get there, already! Or, when a friend is telling you about his most recent adventures with yet another woman. Part of you wants to congratulate him, but, there is another part of you, maybe in the church compartment or the compartment that remembers that girl is someone’s daughter or that your friend is basically living like a douche, and you have to fight to get those compartments to connect with the present situation. The challenge here is very real.

They key here is a willingness to go slow and be uncomfortable with an understanding that you are building a new strength. We have a tendency to dismiss emotions (especially from our wives or girlfriends) rather than recognizing them as a strength they have that is in many cases overpowering to us. The goal here isn’t to dismiss or tear down our existing neural pathways so that we become a wimpy emo-man. It is to become strong in all of the areas of our humanity, including the emotional side.

Final Thoughts

This article discusses what is typical in the differences in men and women across the spectrum, not individually. As we grow, the environment we grow up in, the skills we learn to fit it, have a lot to do with how we process things as an adult. In some cases you will find the qualities described here, which are attributed to men, taking place in a woman. It is interesting to see how people still tend to get paired up with complementary strengths as weaknesses, regardless of whether the woman has more “male” leanings or vice versa. I guess this is what they mean by “opposites attract”.

Have any thoughts on this article? Share in the comments below!

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  • NTWest

    Compartmentalization also allows us to hold different, often contradictory beliefs in our heads, because we make decisions emotionally. Even when we think we are being rational, we usually are just rationalizing.

    Witness the political divide at the moment – people that are “pro” life but also “pro” death penalty, people that believe government should stay out of your “personal” relationships, but deeply involved with your relationship with your boss or customers, and folks that think that without the USDA we’d all be eating dirt while at the same time buying non-approved raw milk.

    I would make the case that men are just as emotional, we just hide it better and we believe we’re making rational decisions, when really we are doing what we like and pretending otherwise.

    • Good points. I think the pro-life and pro-death penalty argument goes against the point your trying to make, though. A purely emotional response would say we shouldn’t kill people because it makes us sad. But an intellectual response takes into account the different aspects of each scenario (abortion vs. punishment) and determines an appropriate response for each even if they both include death.

      Also, the government should just stay out of everything!

      I do think that men have the potential to be just as emotional, but our emotions are more compartmentalized and we do use them to justify certain things and not others, which is a credit to your point. I want to feel loved and attractive so I flirt with other women rather than using it as motivation to build a relationship with my wife. I want to feel successful so I buy a nice car rather than pursing a new career or saving more money. (FYI, these are examples)

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  • Tosin Otitoju

    I love this article. I’m very guy-like, an engineering-math-head, possibly autistic too. Yes, I compartmentalize
    Fortunately I got a fab therapist for a while in grad school and have “feelings” as a strength, so much that I now dig literature.

    I like “men are like waffles, women are like spaghetti” , reposting here

  • Manic

    This is an interesting article, though there are a few points I’d like to make:

    One, it seems like everyone compartmentalizes and unitizes different things rather than it being gender-based. People, including women like me, all have things that we would gladly put aside to focus on other things; for instance, forgetting all about work after work and relaxing, or forgetting that there is a world outside of work while we’re there. You say that you reject labels, well, same here! I don’t label compartmentalization as strictly male, but something we all do to various extents.

    Also, keep in mind that because of the conception that females are less likely to have Autism spectrum disorders, they are often misdiagnosed when they actually do have it. Something to think about!

    • Thanks for the thoughts. I agree, this isn’t strictly a “male” thing, but I have also noticed that women who compartmentalize are often more aware that they do it, whereas guys may be totally oblivious. I’m definitely speaking in generalities here and not specifics. Good point on the Autism as well.

  • Tval

    I was aware of this facet of the male psyche before but was glad to find an article that explains and fleshes out the strengths and weaknesses of this way of thinking. On the one hand (from what I understand), compartmentalization is what allows a soldier to keep fighting when his buddy next to him has just had his head blown off; or a hunter to push his fear to the back of his mind when wrestling bears and mountain lions. On the other hand, it’s what enables a man to assert that “It’s not personal – it’s just BUSINESS” when discussing activities that are illegal and/or destroy people’s lives. I’ve also noticed that guys who state that they’re “nice guys” usually aren’t really; they’ve just convinced themselves that they are because they’re focused only on particular facets of their lives (as you mention) while disregarding others. Nice guys don’t have to point out that they’re nice guys. I married one.

    It is also interesting that you attribute greater strength in logical reasoning to women, as this has of course historically been awarded to men due to perceptions of female emotionalism. My husband has told me (more than once) that I’m smarter than he is; but I also puzzle him in that unlike other women who have a logical core at the center of their emotions (as opposed to men who have an emotional core surrounded by logic), my logic and emotions are all jumbled together. Maybe the “spaghetti” analogy is more apt here. At any rate, some good thoughts and information. Thanks!

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