Question about the brain gender

(35 Posts)
honeyandmarmitesandwiches Thu 26-May-16 16:30:42

Hi all,

I've been reading some of the feminism threads and trying to educate myself a bit more. I would describe myself as a feminist but until recently hadn't done much deep thinking about it. Anyway, I have a question...

I understand the difference between 'sex' and 'gender', sex being whether you're born physically male or female, gender being to do with the social construct of girl stuff and boy stuff, pink and blue, supposed male and female strengths and weaknesses and how we're all 'supposed' to behave. So (most) feminists really reject any suggestion of a 'ladybrain' and all the crap that usually goes with that. I'm with you so far... HOWEVER

Is it at all true that male and female brains ARE, on average, different? Not that this should ever be used as an excuse for putting women in a box and telling them they're no good at maths or rational thinking etc etc, but...
What about the influence of hormones, for example? Men have more testosterone, could this make them more aggressive, less empathetic etc on average? Is there something to this or has it also been debunked?

I know there is a book called Delusions of Gender, I have just ordered It for a read.
I noticed on amazon at the same time though that there were books in genre like 'The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain' by Simon Baron-Cohen and 'The Female Brain' by Louann Brizendine.

I haven't actually read any of them yet but would like to ask if anybody else has, and whether there is any real scientific consensus or is the debate still ongoing? In other words do we know if our brains truly are gender neutral or not?

Hope this doesn't come across as goady, it's not meant like that at all btw!

almondpudding Thu 26-May-16 16:34:30

I keep linking to this video...

VashtaNerada Thu 26-May-16 16:37:14

Delusions of Gender is brilliant, definitely worth the read. I think there may be a few innate differences but much, much more overlap than we're generally led to believe. Plus, our brains are being moulded from birth. So, a girl who has everything in pink will soon say pink is her favourite colour because that's what she's learnt not because there's a 'pink gene' IYSWIM.

PalmerViolet Thu 26-May-16 16:41:52

Iirc, Baron-cohen has an idea that autism is some kind of extreme male brain.

Also, testosterone isn't the only hormone linked to aggression.

Shannaratiger Thu 26-May-16 16:44:12

Sorry almond can't do the link at the moment.
Male and female brains are definetely different. Biologically this was essential when we were hunter gatherers with different roles.
What these differences mean is that there are certain things that males find easier and certain things that females find easier and there are differences between the requirements of boys and girls that need to be considered.
This doesn't mean that men and women/ boys and girls can't do the same things but will find them more difficult on average e.g.boys find sitting still harder than girls, girls find verbal communication easier than boys.

almondpudding Thu 26-May-16 16:50:48

'Male and female brains are definetely different. Biologically this was essential when we were hunter gatherers with different roles.
What these differences mean is that there are certain things that males find easier and certain things that females find easier and there are differences between the requirements of boys and girls that need to be considered.'

This is a. bollocks and b. not what the OP asked. The OP asked about the scientific consensus.

Also, I put the link up for the OP, so there's no need to apologise.

OP, you might find this interesting. It is about how scientific reports on the topic are misinterpreted by the media and the public:

howtorebuild Thu 26-May-16 16:56:56

So, a girl who has everything in pink will soon say pink is her favourite colour because that's what she's learnt not because there's a 'pink gene' IYSWIM.

That's interesting.

My daughter's had a nursery and babygrows in white and Winnie the pooh or a mix of colours. They were speaking by the time they had their own bedroom. One wanted a pink bedroom, the other a yellow bedroom, when asked what they wanted. Later the one who liked pink decided she wanted blue and the next time white. The one that liked yellow to begin with had purple and then white as bedroom colours.

I noticed on the high street marketing trends did change from neutral coloured prams, car seats and so forth and there was a push in younger children to have a pink pram, bottle, breaker, bib and so forth for a girl and so forth.

Back to the brains, what does it matter?

I want to feel safe in spaces where I am vulnerable and I want others to feel the same.

almondpudding Thu 26-May-16 17:21:27

This is the review of the book 'The Female Brain' as it appeared in Nature (a scientific journal).

Yet, despite the author’s extensive academic credentials, The Female Brain disappointingly
fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance. The book is
riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the
neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general. At the ‘big picture’ level,
three errors stand out. First, human sex differences are elevated almost to the point of creating
different species, yet virtually all differences in brain structure, and most differences in behaviour,
are characterized by small average differences and a great deal of male– female overlap at the
individual level. Second, data on structural and functional differences in the brain are routinely
framed as if they must precede all sex differences in behaviour. Finally, the focus on hormone
levels to the virtual exclusion of the systems that interpret them (and the mutual regulatory
interactions between receptor and secretion systems) is especially lamentable, given the book’s
clinical emphasis on hormone therapies.

Misrepresentations of scientific details are legion. Readers who studied biology in high school
may puzzle over the invocations of the male brain with its single “dose of X chromosome (there are
two Xs in a girl)”: is the author suggesting that Xchromosome dosage compensation is absent from
female brains? Is it an improvement to dispel the myth that testosterone is a “male hormone” only
to call it the “sex and aggression hormone”? (If each hormone needs a sound bite, “confidence
and sense of well-being hormone” might better fit the data.) Ironically, at the intracellular level,
much of the differentiation of the “testosterone formed male brain” is accomplished by oestrogens. Fostering such misleading metaphors may prevent broader understanding.

The text is rife with ‘facts’ that do not exist in the supporting references. A typical example
is the claim that young boys “physically cannot hear” the cues in the intonation of adult human
female voices that girls can, “just as bats can hear sounds that even cats and dogs cannot”.
The references provided (including a paper on songbird brains) require major misunderstanding
or misrepresentation to be twisted into such a statement, a state of affairs that is repeated
throughout the book.

Like other popular books on the biology of human nature, The Female Brain has a rigid plot
line: the foil of ‘political correctness’ against which the author wages a struggle for truth.
We are told that the media, feminists, pointyheaded intellectuals and a vaguely specified
‘culture’ dogmatically insist that gender or racial differences in personality and behaviour are
entirely cultural, an observation that is hard to reconcile with the volume and tone of media
attention to the biology of gender and sexuality.

Such assertions require empirical support. This genre loves to dwell on childhood toy
preferences: little girls cradle inanimate, ‘boycoded’ objects as if they were baby dolls (here,
as is often the case, it’s a fire engine); and little boys turn harmless objects into weapons (our
favourite is the boy who bites his toast into a gun in Deborah Blum’s Sex on the Brain (Allen Lane,
1997)). The emphasis on myth-busting turns into a vehicle for dressing the myth up in new
clothes—such as Simon Baron-Cohen’s recent hypothesis that the ‘male brain’ is hard-wired for
‘systematizing’, and the ‘female brain’ is hardwired for ‘empathizing’—there is no shortage of
pseudo-scientific ways of saying ‘thinkers’ and‘feelers’. The problem with such explanations
of sex differences is not that they are overly biological, but that they are fundamentally
non-biological and explain nothing.

Ultimately, this book, like others in its genre, is a melodrama. Common beliefs are recast as
imperilled and then saved. Stark, predictable protagonists (an initial “cast of neuro-hormone
characters” that reads like a guide to astrological signs) interact linearly with foreseeable results.
The melodrama obscures how biology matters; neither hormones nor brains are pink or blue.
Our attempts to understand the biology of human behaviour cannot move forward until we
try to explain things as they are, not as we would like them to be.

GreenTomatoJam Thu 26-May-16 17:27:12

This study was widely reported - it found that there were differences, but that from a given brain, you couldn't reliably tell if that person was a male or female, because the majority had features of both (or rather, had features that correlated with the datasets they'd declared male or female - so not quite the same thing).

They didn't check how the owners of the brains felt they conformed themselves though, and of course, these were adult brains which will have had a lifetime of conditioning.

I can't see it now, but I'm pretty sure the most reliable, externally measurable indicator of the sex of a brain is its weight - and even then, it's just a good guess rather than a clear cut thing (rather like guessing sex from a person't height)

LurcioAgain Thu 26-May-16 20:02:39

I love that Nature review almond! Wonder what the author of the female brain would have made of my son's habit of placing all his cars in the dolls house so they could have tea parties, then (on realising the lorries would not fit) making the cars have a conversation, the upshot of which was that they should have a barbecue instead of a tea party so the lorries could join in too.

Delusions of Gender is good, as is "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" by Lise Elliott (a neuroscientist whose specialism is neuroplasticity in infant brain development). On the social science side, but great for debunking all those myths about "men and women talk differently, use language differently, mean different things..." is Deborah Cameron's "The Myth of Mars and Venus."

Yy to Deborah Cameron, her blog is also excellent.

I recall an anthropologist friend telling me that there is an emerging consensus now that prehistoric humans relied much less on hunting and much more on gathering, an activity that was carried out by men and women. I can look for some references, and if I can't find them (not an expert in prehistoric humans) I'll ask him to point me to them.

PalmerViolet Thu 26-May-16 20:43:04

That would fit with the HG society I spent time in. That the hinting part was less important/regular than the gathering and that everyone gathered.

Evopsych is at best contentious and at worst supportive of the kind of misogynist twaddle that underpins some of the more ridiculous "gender" based discrimination and narrows opportunity for both sexes.

almondpudding Thu 26-May-16 20:45:56

Yes, Lurcio.

Or my son's habit of pretending toy guns were hair dryers.

GirlSailor Thu 26-May-16 20:58:58

I'm no expert in prehistoric humans but as with all research, we don't look at the past from a neutral starting point. For example, now we have dna analysis available we have realised that women were often warriors, but having been buried with a sword and shield they were assumed to be male, as men are warriors.

My understanding of the meta data is that the studies that have found differences haven't been able to be replicated so don't hold much water.

We're so far away from even finding any real structural differences, let alone discover if the differences we haven't found are innate. London cabbies develop certain areas of their brains through learning the knowledge, rather than have an innate brain advantage in this area.

Funny how people don't argue in any serious way that men born in London innately have a better sense of direction though, isn't it.

shinynewusername Thu 26-May-16 21:14:45

Simon Baron-Cohen is a delightful man (I worked with him briefly) but an absolute loon. Read Cordelia Fine.

EmpressTomatoKetchup Thu 26-May-16 21:24:24

I've read Delusions. It helped me make sense of a lot of I've experienced, heard, seen, like what PP says about boys being unable to sit still someone please tell my DD a lot this male brain female brain crap is parroted like its scientifically proven fact, it is mostly lots of sexist assumptions based on flawed research, carried out largely by men, ahem

shinynewusername Thu 26-May-16 21:45:51

Each decade brings its own version of this biological determinist crap. We've had zoology, evolutionologists smile and now neurologists/endocrinologists "proving' that male superiority is the natural order of things based on their highly selective interpretations of the data.

Clearly there are anatomical & physiological differences between men and women. But, if you look back in history at all the things men have said women cannot/should not do, 90% of them have been proven wrong and those that haven't are nothing to do with the brain but with muscle strength. ( It is amazing how many men think that being stronger/taller than women makes them better yet they do not draw the same conclusion about men who are stronger/taller than they are wink) Victorian doctors genuinely believed that too much study would shrink women's wombs - this was a mainstream idea, not just a few loons.

GirlSailor Thu 26-May-16 22:38:59

Indeed, Buffy. I always get a bit confused as to why people think much is innate in the brain, considering how long it takes to do anything well.

AHellOfABird Thu 26-May-16 22:41:10

"Biologically this was essential when we were hunter gatherers with different roles."

Echoing what others have said - the majority of nutrients came from gathering and was done by all, AFAIK. I'm also not sure what evidence there is that women didn't take part in the hunt, given the data we have is largely stick figure drawings.

And what would the evolutionary advantage of brain difference? Those best at getting food would have an advantage, but why would evolution care if men or women were better spear carvers - a good spear carver gets to survive longer than a bad spear carver, whatever the sex.

AHellOfABird Thu 26-May-16 22:43:23

Baron Cohen has said that there are male brains and female brains, but that some women have male brains (he isn't referring to trans with this)

Well, thanks, Simon.

singingsixpence82 Thu 26-May-16 22:58:56

I've heard a few people (men strangely!) claim that while on average, women and men are as intelligent as each other but that the distribution is different. Most of the women are in the centre of the distribution while most geniuses are men (as are most dunces). I have the Cordelia Fine book but am only part of the way through and couldn't see anything about this in the contents or index. I was just wondering if anyone knew if this was based on a lot of evidence?

AHellOfABird Thu 26-May-16 23:30:47

I think it might be based on the distribution. Of firsts, 2:1s etc at certain universities.

But again, what is intelligence testing? Spatial reasoning? Verbal reasining? There is no test if innate intelligence that can be divorced from our social settings.

EBearhug Fri 27-May-16 00:00:29

Daphna Joel published a report on this last year. Gina Rippon is also very good - and if you get the chance to hear her speak, do go; she's great! She's also on radio once in a while. She's worked a lot with Cordelia Fine. She (Rippon) has opinions about Baron-Cohen and Brizendine's work which are not supportive of them.

Gina Rippon says that there are differences between male and female brains, but there are far, far more similarities - if you plot abilities of brains on a graph, you get a bell curve for male brains and for female brains, and they nearly overlap, but not quite. I can't quote you sources at this time of night, but if you google for Daphna Joel, Cordelia Fine and Gina Rippon, you'll probably get links for the relevant papers.

One of the issues with studying brain differences is that brains are so plastic (as in they can change, rather than literally being plastic, obviously.) Linguistic studies on which bits of the brain light up when performing certain language tasks - if that bit of the brain is damaged though a stroke or accident, then with practice, the brain will forge new links and use other parts of the brain. It's not totally simple like that - some brain damage will cause permanent damage, depending on the area of the brain and severity.

But the point is that use changes the brain - like the example above with the London taxi drivers who do the Knowledge. It's why when you learn new things, they get easier with practice - there's that thing about the 4 stages of competence - unconscious incompetence, where you don't know just how rubbish you are; concious incompetence, where you have learnt enough to know just how much more you need to learn; concious competence, where you recognise you are good at the subject; and finally unconscious competence, where you do things almost automatically. If you drive, do you always have to think about changing gear, or do you do it because you are receiving signals from the sound of the engine, how smoothly the car is running and so on, which you're not fully aware of? Or touch typing, not having to look for the letters on the keyboard. That sort of thing is unconscious competence, and you get there by hours and hours of practice of whatever the skill is. The exact number of hours will depend on the person, how well they're taught, how much time they dedicate to it, and how often, but over time, your brain learns new path ways, and repetitive use makes those pathways stronger.

So, if your bedroom is painted pink, and all your family tells you girls like pink, and you're dressed in pink skirts, and you see a pink aisle at the toy shop, and the girls' things at nursery are pink - no one has consciously taught you that pink is for girls, but everywhere you go, the message is being constantly reinforced, in pretty much the same way that we learn the sounds of the language around us and so on.

It's also something which is quite difficult to research. It's not ethical to take a baby at birth and try to fix the input into their brain until adulthood, to see how they turn out, to work out how much is nature and how much is nurture - plus, unless you got twins and separated them you don't have a control, either (and not even then), because people do have their own personalities, and siblings who grow up in the same household with a lot of the same influences still end up different.

Dervel Fri 27-May-16 02:06:36

Socrates had the right of it thousands of years ago. Whatever differences there may be are not massive, and certainly not enough to bar women from engaging in any area of life men do.

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