National Geographic

Sex on the Brain

In this month’s issue of Popular Science, I wrote a (very) short column about “hardwired” sex differences in the human brain. My premise: There aren’t any meaningful differences, and the studies that go after them are usually riddled with faulty assumptions and methodological flaws.

The idea of innate differences is cemented in our culture, as I discovered from the large number of hateful emails I received regarding the piece (far more than any other story I’ve written). Today on Twitter, neuroscientist Kevin Mitchell launched a conversation about my column, which he found to be riddled with assumptions and flaws of its own. I don’t agree, but I have a great deal of respect for Kevin and found the discussion to be interesting enough to re-publish here. I’ll continue to update it if/when more Tweets come in, and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

For anyone who is interested in learning more about the incredibly strong affects of culture on the brain, I would highly recommend Cordelia Fine’s book, Delusions of Gender. It’s a fast, fascinating read, and definitely influenced my thinking on the subject.

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. JoAnna
    March 27, 2014

    Interesting discussion. Kevin Mitchell asks who is interpreting some “brain difference” studies as “females = inferior.” Isn’t a prime example the classic “boys are better at math” myth? Wasn’t there once an understanding that men are better at spatial tasks and women’s brains are better for “emotional” stuff, which then led to the belief that men are better at math, engineering, STEM, etc? That is the danger of such studies that try to distinguish between the male and female brain.

  2. cbranch
    March 27, 2014

    Wow; as a side note, this shows that Twitter is an amazingly irritating way to conduct or follow a discussion! Is there still any hope at all that it’s just a fad?

  3. Anne Fausto-STerling
    March 27, 2014

    What gripes me is that this discussion treats sex differences as a fixed thing rather than a developmental outcome. Suppose you did find FMRI diffs in 25 year olds. That tells you nothing about how they got there and whether they are “fundamental” whatever that means. Even identical twins have different brains. Without a dynamic developmental account these discussions get you no where.

  4. peter land
    March 27, 2014

    males and females are different and nature has spent 1,000’s of years to get us this way lets accept it and move on. what else needs to be said!

  5. GCIcenogle
    March 27, 2014

    Part of what makes this debate so slippery and fraught is an irresolvable tension between the dynamism of the individual and the strong (necessary?) pressure in scientific research to speak to the general, also to categorize along lines that may or may not prove material, salient, or useful. Science may never achieve as fine-grained or dynamic a description of an individual brain/mind as Shakespeare or Woolf has, but let’s hope that the ham-fisted male/female split will give way before long to a more subtle and varied appreciation of difference.

  6. linda
    March 27, 2014

    disclaimer: not a scientist. i do however read lots of science-y stuff….

    it doesn’t bug me that the structure of men’s and women’s brains might be exactly the same.

    i thought our differences were hormonal… and these differences are what allow us to grow different reproductive organs?

    am i off base? or out to lunch?

    otherwise are you saying men and women are exactly the same? just different parts?

    • Virginia Hughes
      March 28, 2014

      Hi Linda,

      Men and women are not exactly the same — as you mention, at very least we have very different parts. :) My basic point is two-fold: 1) Bona fide behavioral differences between men and women are few and far between, and often wildly exaggerated in the media and by scientists; and 2) to the extent that such differences exist, it’s impossible to say that they are “hardwired” (as too many scientists, such as the group I mention at the beginning of my Popular Science column, claim).

  7. Katherine Krein
    March 28, 2014

    Thanks for the article, I find the subject fascinating. I agree with Anne Fausto-Sterling’s comments. It is my understanding that the brain changes from birth as it is affected by its environment, nurturing, and the experiences to which it is exposed. How can they determine whether differences they might see in the male vs. female brain are”fundamental” or a result of a dynamic list of factors it has been exposed to?

  8. Bridget Cameron
    March 28, 2014

    I have brought up my son and daughter the same, not feeding into traditional gender role stereotypes, as to me it makes no difference whether my son or daughter does the dishes, sweeps up the leaves, empties the bins or changes a light bulb. I have let them choose the paths that they want to take in life and to follow their passion. My son is empathic, not into sport, yet he loves reading, computer games and information technology and is studying these at university. He loves to write and design his games too, and loves fantasy, and is a fan of my little pony, fantasy games and singing. My daughter is empathic, not into sport, and loves information technology, and writes, designs and creates fiction and videos. She is still in high school, yet she is studying 3D animation and publishes fan fiction in which more than 200 000 people read. She loves horror and fantasy, and has a natural gift for learning Asian languages. They are similar in interests, the way they converse and do things, that it is easy to see that they are brother and sister. And, that is the point, we are all brothers and sisters! And, another important point, there has never been sibling rivalry or fights between them!

  9. Tom Petres
    March 28, 2014

    I believe its the gender-feminists, who always interpret the differences as the “patriarchy” finding that there are structural differences and going around saying women are inferior, because men are the eternal oppressors right? Countless studies have PROVEN that there are differences ON AVERAGE. Some men can have a more typical “feminine” brain structure and some women can have a more typical “masculine” brain structure. Examples include the unfortunate gentleman who’s penis was burned off during a botched circumcision, so they said “Hey what a great chance to do a real life experiment on development and behavior!” so they turned him into a girl. This is when the blank slate was the expected model, but did he like dolls and nurturing play? No. He enjoyed rough and tumble play, and enjoyed mechanical things. Culture hardly influenced this young girl who was a actually a boy, with a boy’ s brain. The books which Ms.Hughes sites are quick reads because I highly doubt there is any real science behind them. I would suggest The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, phenomenal book backed by hard science. And no, I’m not a misogynist, as this neutral post will have me being accused of being I’m sure. I am simply so sick of only hearing the gender-feminist’s twist on things, and all dissent from their ideas censored and labeled has hate speech.

    • Virginia Hughes
      March 28, 2014

      Thanks for your comment, Tom. In my experience, it’s best to read a book before making judgments about its content. Fine’s happens to be packed with scientific studies. It’s a fast read because she’s an elegant writer.

  10. Hassan JP Specialiste Sadek
    March 29, 2014

    Sex on Brain!certes,la difference concerne les deux hemispheres: Gauche = homme(langage),Droit=femme(sentiments)!le systeme limbique/emotionnel va orienter nos comportements(aussi influence milieu, experiences…).En general,difference poids,volume,certaines fonctions par leur structure de base! Enfin,savoir informer,stimuler,donner les opportunites egales au cerveau(homme ou femme). Dr./H.S.

  11. Roberto Yammine
    March 30, 2014

    Lack of intelligence only means lack of stimulus/challanges. It has nothing to do with gender.

  12. Ron Fields
    March 31, 2014

    I understand that during sexual arousal the male amygdala is activated, while the female amygdala is not. This implies something about male sexual aggression. Also, women are reputed to have a larger corpus callosum, allowing greater left and right hemispheric communicaction. This looks like gender brain difference to me… with females having the more evolved brain.

    • Virginia Hughes
      March 31, 2014

      Hi Ron,

      Do you have citations for this work? Also even if it’s true, how does it show that the female brain is more “evolved” ? Seems like a lot of assumptions packed in that comment.

  13. Ron Fields
    March 31, 2014

    languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/ldc/llog/Brizendine/Hamann2005.pdf
    http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/how-male-female-brains-differ

  14. Tom
    March 31, 2014

    Firstly, I’d make it clear that my position is completely objective, and I am arguing solely on the basis of general scientific freedoms; furthermore, I make no claims on the validity of the findings presented.

    Let’s make it clear that no one in this forum myself and author included is qualified to make judgments on scientific findings on the basis of reading through a study… that includes you too Ron– I’m invoking knowledge base deficiency and plain old bias on the part of both sexes.

    My issue with this discussion is this: plain and simple, science is an evolving process and it is only through our mistakes that we stumble upon a possible answer. To completely discredit a study because the findings sway a bit differently than our own views is not only unfounded, but detrimental to the scientific process. This research is paramount to understanding the complexity the human brain; it would be perverted to take the assumptions that everyone’s brains worked the same…

    To wrap this up I’ll make this final argument. What is so wrong with diversity and difference, does diversity, not provided us with fascinatingly complex viewpoints which would not exist otherwise? Or as more pointedly stated: “The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project” – Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex

  15. Deborah Rudacille
    April 1, 2014

    My own thinking on this fraught issue has been heavily influenced by conversations with trans* people and related sex/gender research. Certainly the sense of being either male or female seems “hardwired” in most (though not all) people, even when the sex of the brain is at odds with the sex of the genital anatomy. And researchers going all the way back to Steinach have shown that the behavior of experimental animals can be altered by hormonal manipulation, with females exhibiting male-like behaviors and vice-versa. Not to mention the various psych disorders whose rates differ greatly b/t males & females. It seems unlikely that reproductive biology stops at the neck in humans. But it would be foolish to deny that culture plays a huge role in shaping (and policing) sex-linked behavior and thus in ‘wiring’ the brain from the moment a child is born, throughout childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. Early in the 20th century, Hirschfeld conceptualized sex/gender as a continuum, rather than a polarity–largely constitutive but with some learned behavior. Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl” provides a great contemporary critique of both sex/gender essentialism and what she calls “artifactualism” (discounting the possibility that biology plays a role in shaping gender and sex-linked behaviors). The book is well worth reading, not least for its passionate defense of femininity; Serano points out that one of the unintended effects of feminism has been to further privilege masculinity and traits coded as masculine while either denying the existence of any such phenomenon as “femininity” or encouraging women to jettison those traits and behaviors coded feminine as hindrances to empowerment. I think she is correct that it’s not only scientists (historical and contemporary) who privilege masculinity. Would the study of possible sex differences in the brain be so threatening if traits coded masculine and feminine were equally valued?

  16. PNG
    April 2, 2014

    Viva la difference. Well, somebody had to say it.

  17. PNG
    April 2, 2014

    O.k., I don’t really know French – I misspelled “vive.”

  18. Patrick O’Connor
    April 14, 2014

    This is a very complex non-issue! Any discernable differences between m/fs
    would have (will be) influenced by environment and therefore biological necessity, producing the optimum team, or partnership to ensure human survival. This influence recedes when a long-term “secure” state is achieved. Cultural and therefore political influences are then likely to take the upper hand in forming “expected” differences within the majority of a population. Take away these influences, or at least subvert them, and it may be seen that there are no differences in brain wiring. I write this while thinking about the different expectations of various cultures, an exteme example of which is that of a certain Amazonian tribe!

  19. Patrick O’Connor
    April 14, 2014

    PS. Do not mistake brain wiring for behavioural differences, the latter is cultural/political.

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