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Psychobiology of Women in the News!

Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies Dept. Home Page

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Psychobiology of Women

Psychology and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies 357

Overview of GWSS/ Psychology 357

The medical and biological sciences have made phenomenal progress in their understanding of the human body. Scientists now know more about how our bodies function than at any time in history. This knowledge has increased the ability to cure and to avoid disease. It has also created many ethical questions about the right to life, the economics of curing the sick versus maintaining the healthy, and the relationship between quality and length of life.

Some of the greatest advances of medical science have had a direct impact on the lives of women. Options for contraception have increased in number and accessibility, allowing more women the opportunity to plan their childbearing. Our understanding of genetically-transmitted diseases and our ability to diagnose such conditions prenatally have given women opportunity to determine which problems they can best cope with in their children. Modern reproductive technology has made it possible for women to have healthier babies later in life and for some infertile women to bear children. Numerous other examples could be described.

While medical options and biological understanding of women's bodies have increased dramatically, for the general population, knowledge about women’s bodies and of the options made available by medicine and science has lagged far behind. Traditionally, women have not been expected to understand the biological underpinnings of the major life events they commonly experience. Women today experience the monthly menstrual cycle, practice contraception, get pregnant or undergo infertility treatment, have children, experience menopause, and/or counsel their children in these events having little more information than did women one, two and even three generations ago.

Psychobiology of women is the study of the way in which physiology and behavior interact in women's lives. This course concentrates on those aspects of physiology which delineate female from male (mostly reproductive endocrinology) and which play a major role in women's lives. It deals not only with the ways in which physiology affects behavior but also with the often less thought about ways in which behavior affects physiology.

The first section of this course is designed to establish a basic foundation of understanding of female anatomy and physiology. Heavy emphasis is placed on the role of hormones in women’s lives. The course assumes that the students have limited or no background in biology at the outset but progresses in its discussion to include complex interactions between various hormonal systems important to female functioning.

The second section of this course is an exploration of the physiological and behavioral changes associated with major events or experiences in women's lives. Some of these events are ones which most women experience like puberty (Why does it happen? When does it happen? How do girls react to the changes in their bodies?), the monthly cycle and its relationship to behavior (We live it, we have a love-hate relationship with it, it's blamed for all women's problems, why?), and menopause (which has an even worse image than the monthly cycle because it combines being a woman with getting older - two strikes). Other events discussed are optional, i. e., they may or may not be experienced by a given woman. These include pregnancy (a major secretive cult of womanhood), contraceptive use (How do those things work? What's available? What do they do to a woman's body and behavior?), abortion (what are the physical and psychological aftereffects?). Additional issues are ones experienced by some individuals but should be understood by all people. These include intersexuality (a topic totally overlooked in most courses on reproductive biology), infertility (a growing problem), and PMS (lots of press but what is it really and do most women really have it).

In each of these cases, the course concentrates on the physiological causes or effects of the event and examines, as much as possible, the behavioral implications of the event. Interestingly, in some cases, the biology will be well understood but the behavioral effects not well understood. In other cases, the behavior will be better understood than the physiology and in some really amazing cases, neither the behavior nor the physiology will be well understood.

My goals in teaching this course are threefold: 1. To provide a strong understanding of the wondrous workings of the female body. 2. To provide a foundation from which students can evaluate future findings in biology, psychobiology and medicine. and 3. To convince students who might be leery of the study of science that science is great fun and readily understandable.

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Contact the instructor at: nkenney@u.washington.edu