“Gendered” differences in the brain aren’t so clear-cut

by Brenda Jin

Have you ever heard the theory that men and women behave differently, because they simply think differently? Their biology is different, their brains are different, and their neurological hard-wiring can explain gendered behavioral differences.

However, in a recent article in Scientific American, Lise Eliot explores the surprising recent findings on social cognition and interpersonal judgment by a team of researchers at the University of Iowa. Interestingly, this group of researches has added two crucial elements to their study which throw into question the idea that our brains have been “biologically” set up to make females more sympathetic or understanding—age and a “psychological” gender test (in addition to the conventional standard of biological sex). They discovered that not only does the area of the brain responsible for social cognition and interpersonal judgment—known as the “SG” for “straight gyrus”—change during puberty; the section is larger in prepubescent boys than in prepubescent girls! Furthermore, the “SG” is correspondingly larger in individuals determined to be more “psychologically” female.

Therefore, although a common assumption associated as well with the so-called “evolutionary” reason that women have developed an ability to empathize and understand others better (because they have historically been care-givers of children), research reveals that it is actually unclear whether certain behavioral differences are hard-wired, given the extreme malleability of the brain, which also begs the question: are we asking the questions backwards? Does society simply associate “social cognition” with gender so strongly that those who are supposedly more socially aware are also determined to be more “psychologically feminine”?

One thing is for sure: experience changes the brain, and this research reveals that there is a huge grey area in determining which behaviors are socially learned and assigned by society versus those that have been with us from birth. A new understanding of nature vs. nurture as seen by how the brain changes before and after puberty and the relationship of brain function to social function might show us that nurture plays a larger role than previously though in defining so-called “gendered” behavior.

12 comments for ““Gendered” differences in the brain aren’t so clear-cut

  1. shah8
    September 21, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    It’s also really important to realize that:

    Brains change the experience just as much as the experience changes brains.

    Brains also sets up multiple filtering agents, from the neural nets that detect motion, to knowing the art of rhetoric and the scientific method, to utilizing Google.

    The borders between the mind and the world can be faint. Having a slightly different set of gonads matters MUCH less than the chance of pregnancy impacting your world.

  2. September 21, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    i recommend “gender: psychological perspectives” by linda brannon for anyone interested in delving into this area. the thing that stuck with me after reading this is that “all observations of gender-difference are necessarily ex-post facto.” that means that you can observe gender difference, but can only speculate, and cannot prove, that the differences are biologically rather than socially constructed. the only way you could “prove” that gender difference was not the result of socialization (and that includes all physical differences too, except for menstration, gestation, lactation, and ejaculation) would be to take babies at bith and leave them alone in a room and watch them grow.

    studies like that are unethical, which is why we dont do them. but we have yet to admit that the results we do have from the studies we *have* done lack the “control” aspect of a truly scientific study.

  3. bethrjacobs
    September 21, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    I’m resubmitting this as I can’t tell if it’s going through.
    Both seahorses and penguin “daddies” care for the young or eggs…

  4. Marlene
    September 21, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    The only thing surprising about these findings is who found them, being that mainstream science is still in the 1960s as far as gender is concerned.

  5. amy
    September 22, 2009 at 9:06 am


    “STROKE the belly of a newborn female rat for a few hours a day and chemical “caps” will appear on its DNA that make its brain look more like that of a male.

    This extraordinary finding suggests that some biological differences between male and female brains may not be decided during fetal development, but instead appear after they are born. “

  6. September 22, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Wonder if this will make Simon Baron-Cohen rethink that whole extreme male-brain concept of Asperger’s he fleshed out. Somehow I doubt it. Wouldn’t want science to get in the way of a pretty system of thought.

  7. Sophia
    September 22, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Actually, there might be other approaches to exploring cognitive differences between genders than using strictly experimentalist protocols.
    For example, one might take as a subject someone trained in cognitive theory and with substantial experience of exploring altered consciousness states, ensuring that they were relatively ‘gender lite’ but without the potential confusion of active gender issues, perhaps by altering prenatal hormonal factors. Then add a condition that changes hormone production to one that mirrors the opposite gender quite closely. Make sure that you’re producing the necessary conditions by checking that they start transition in ,say, the first 6 months.
    I’d speculate that you might end up with someone who’d try and communicate a great deal about figure and ground as part of a phenomenological analysis of consciousness and possibly post on sites like this with a new name like

  8. Alara Rogers
    September 22, 2009 at 11:12 am

    There is actually a way to get at the “innateness” of *some* gender differences, and it vastly pisses me off that no one seems to be doing it, because when I studied the discipline that was called “biological basis of behavior” and then “psychobiology” and now tends to be called “evolutionary psychology”, *I* was taught to do this.


    Any difference that has not existed in all human cultures throughout history is not encoded by evolution. Simple. The most obvious fail here is things like “girls are hardwired to like pink” when our *own culture* thought pink was a boy’s color a mere hundred years ago, but there’s other ways in which this kind of thing fails hard; for instance, if you find a human culture where women are generally promiscuous and it is not held against them, then it cannot be true that human women are hardwired to be monogamous or that human men are hardwired to despise promiscuity in women. If you find a human culture where rape is unheard of (some did exist at one point, though who knows what’s happened to them now), rape cannot be a hardwired behavior. And so on.

    In the cross-cultural studies I’ve seen, there is only one difference that seems pretty universal. Men always think that whatever men do is better than what women do. In some cultures, the women think their ways are best, and in some the women think what men do is best, but in pretty much all of them, men think that whatever their culture has decided men do is best. But, many cultures offer individual men a standardized way out of being male by allowing men to adopt female identity, and the percentages of men who choose this are much higher than the percentages of transwomen and gay men in our society, indicating that perhaps some of the “men are best! yay men!” thing that male culture tends to put on is a facade and individual men may actually wish to opt out. (Or that there’s a lot more transwomen and gay men out there and society suppresses them from ever expressing their true identities, which is also quite plausible.)

    Also, one difference that is not universal among humans, but the circumstances in which it does not occur are extremely bizarre, and *is* universal among primates is that males are more aggressive. There have been human cultures which assigned the role of “soldier” to women precisely because the society was patriarchal and only men could rule; by denying men the right to be soldiers, the leadership prevented a coup. (Women soldiers were also usually denied the right to sexual relationships with men, again to prevent coups on behalf of a lover.) But that’s the only circumstance among humans I can think of where women are placed in an aggressive role and men are not. Among primates and the majority of human cultures, males are more violent and aggressive than females — which is not to say that females are *not* violent and aggressive, simply that males are more so.

    I think there’s a good chance that the violence/aggression thing is biological, that it’s the *only* biological difference and that it explains patriarchy. Men end up in charge of everything because might makes right and they’re much more willing to be aggressive in pursuit of power and control. They’re not smarter, they’re not healthier, they *are* stronger but that doesn’t even matter to the extent we think it does, because two women could beat any one man if all were equally experienced with and willing to commit violence. Women are tied down to childbearing, but don’t need *men* to assist with that, and our post-menopausal women are capable of surviving a full generation or two past menopause, unlike other primates who die of old age while still fertile, so even childbearing does not explain why men are in charge of stuff. All the other bullshit, math and social behavior and do we like pink and frilly princess dresses and what not, that’s all culturally constructed, because you can pretty much always find a culture where it’s not true. (And as soon as people do studies that indicate that male monkey babies like cars better than female monkey babies, and that female monkey babies like pots better than male monkey babies, you *know* you’ve entered the realm of bullshit science, because seriously, how would that even work, given when cars were invented and given that monkeys don’t cook?)

  9. matlun
    September 22, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Is this news (that brain development is very plastic depending on environment)?

    Surely there are very few (if any) psychological differences between gender groups that are explained fully by biology or fully by culture? We are all shaped through a very complex process involving both our biological predispositions and our experiences.

    And has been mentioned above, trying to analyze which differences are innate and which are learned is very difficult. Even if we you try to look at cross cultural studies, it becomes problematic since the vast majority of today’s cultures have their roots in old patriarchal structures. Probably (IMHO) because the classical patriarchal model was something that worked efficiently in primitive warrior cultures.

  10. Happy Feet
    September 22, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    There is an article on this question in Newsweek’s Sept. 14th issue, as well, by Sharon Begley. I was just reading it on the plane, and basically, it’s a review of the book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps- And What We Can Do About It” by Lise Eliot. Eliot’s thesis is that there may be very small differences in the initial wiring of boy and girl brains, but we create larger differences in adult male and female brains through culture.

    The example in the article was based on a study of people’s response to fussing infants. Male infants tend to fuss more than female (doesn’t talk about why) so people are found to be less sociable with male infants, which may lead to male children becoming less sociable and emotionally expressive than girls. In experiments where they told people the genders of the female babies was male, and vice versa, people reported that the “boy” babies fussed more, and the “girls” less, when in fact the opposite was true. People also underestimated the physical ability of their girl babies, while accurately assessing that of boys, even where they had equal ability. Difference in male and female ability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy right from the get-go.

    On the other hand, I think another way we can look at the hard-wiring vs. culture issue is through transgender. If girls and boys develop different brains based on how people program them according to genitalia, then girls born with boy parts ought to behave more like boys, and vice versa. Is this true? Or does it only matter if the child identifies with the gender people are culturing them as? (“Boys behave this way!” “I don’t care, I’m not a boy!”).

    I questioned a lot of the sexist stuff thrown at me as a child by observing things like a) I was good at math and b) I was a girl (I’m cisgendered, everyone agreed that I was a girl), therefore, they were wrong, girls could do math. Why didn’t I think a) I’m good at math b) people told me girls can’t do math, therefore, I must not be a girl? If the argument is that there is no difference on the inside, it’s just gonads, then how come it IS different on the inside for some people?

  11. September 23, 2009 at 4:41 am

    Biology is messy.

    All we can say is that women tend to be X, men tend to be Y. And that this corresponds with their neurology, in some cases.

    In other cases of behaviour, the only reason they tend to be this way is because of convention and fashion.

    Basically, if a tendency is found in Patagonia and Pittsburgh, in Indiana and India, in 3rd century Cairo and 21st century Chicago, then it has some basis in biology.

    To treat women as being “no good at maths” is as irrational as rejecting a 6ft tall Japanese from a basketball team, and accepting a 5ft Swede, because “Swedes are taller than Japanese”. Contrarily, to say that there’s no correlation at all between average height and whether someone is Swedish or Japanese also flies in the face of the facts.

  12. Mo87
    September 25, 2009 at 5:19 am

    Well all I know is that males are represented at the extremes. They are the smartest of the population but also the dumbest. Males are natures crap chute. Males are the variable from which females choose and as such measured differences between males can be vast.

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