On International Woman’s Day let’s talk about gendered brains. Women are good at multitasking and empathy, while men are good at map reading and fixing engines. These are things we’ve all grown up with, hearing from friends, family and the media. Could new neuroscience research prove all these stereotypes to be just “neurononsense”?
In the 18th Century (before they were even analysing brains), many assumptions were made about the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. As a result, the education of boys and girls was different and separate for a very long time. Neuroscientists are investigating these claims in an attempt to decide once and for all if brains are in fact different between the sexes. Gina Rippon, a neuroscience researcher, focuses on detecting differences in male and female brains. The average size of an adult male brain is ~100g more than that of the average female brain. However, each area of the brain has many roles, and as a result it is not possible (currently) to tell whether having a bigger amygdala for example, predicts how you will behave and thus show stereotypical traits. Other than an overall physical size difference, Rippon’s research found that there were no significant differences when only comparing if the brain was male or female; in other words, gender alone could not cause one brain to be different from another. Rippon suggests we should scrap the use of ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains as more than just our gender defines our personality traits. So what makes us who we are, and are there reasons for the stereotypes?
Many people believed that the brain we were born with was a blueprint of how our brain will function forever, moulding based on our biology alone over time. In the last 30 years a more accepted theory called Brain (Neural) Plasticity has developed. Plasticity explains that our brains are in fact an accumulation of our experiences and things we have learnt. In other words, our brains are always changing and learning, and will continue to do so throughout our lives. For example Lego, and other toys which promote spatial training, will teach your brain this skill. Children not given such toys wouldn’t have had these experiences to learn from; the children who had Lego would solve such spatial problems faster than those who had not. This is not to say they can’t learn a skill. If we perform a task enough times, the neural paths of our brains actually change, creating automatic pathways, so the task becomes easier as we have learnt from it.
Nature and/or nurture? This is still debated. Simon Baron-Cohen (a Cambridge University clinical psychologist) conducts research into autism and male/female brain differences. He talks about the ‘hard-wiring’ of female brains for empathy (i.e. the ability to judge and act according to someone else’s thoughts/emotions) and male brains for understanding and building systems. Cohen explains that there are three brain types: E type who empathise more, S type which are better at systemising, and B type (i.e. balanced brain) which are strong in both areas. E type is termed a ‘female’ brain as more women show this trait, whilst S type is deemed a ‘male’ brain as more men show these traits.
He analysed studies which looked at differences between reactions taken by boys and girls in certain situations. He states that “culture and socialisation play a role in determining [which brain type you will have]” and adds, “studies of infancy strongly suggest that biology also partly determines this“. Hormones are thought to play a part in any differences caused by biology. For example, studies have shown that children with lower levels of testosterone perform worse in spatial tests which are associated with an S type brain, but have more eye contact, which is linked to the E type. Many women show E types traits, whilst the vast majority of men will present S type traits, this is not to say there aren’t plenty of people with B type or that don’t fit ‘male’/’female’ brain labelling.
So yes, there are differences between my brain and my brothers’ brains, but it is probably due more to our experiences than our gender. I am a scientist, one of my brothers is training to be a primary school teacher, and the other an actor. We’re not very ‘gender typical’. Yes, biology plays a part, we can’t change our DNA (well, not without CRISPR). Our experiences however, shape our brains, creating new pathways as we learn. The gendered brain debate is still ongoing, but maybe we should just let kids choose what they want to learn, avoiding pushing them toward ‘gender norms’. Our experiences shape us. I had lego. I’m a women in STEM.
Here is a a video of Rippon speaking at the Royal Institute about the gendered brain. It’s an hour but an interesting insight.