The Debate That’s Tearing Neuroscience In Two

Is Your Brain Gendered? The BIG Debate Exposed

The male and female brain may have more similarities than differences. However, structurally and chemically, a woman and a man’s brain can differ due to hormones, life events and nature…

… Or can they? 

For years scientists have battled it out as to whether a human’s brain has a gender. Is the brain female or male? Are all brains wired and structured the same? And they continue to tussle to this day. 

On one side of the net, scientists believe that identifying key differences in the brain can only help propel neuroscience forwards and help to connect their findings with things like sex-specific cures and medicines for diseases. On the opposing side of the court, neuroscientists like Lise Eliot believe that it’s dangerous and that “the history of sex-difference research is rife with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias, weak statistical power, inadequate controls and worse.” 

So, which side is right? 

After reading through a tonne of scientific research and their findings, we’ve collated the pros and cons in order to help you come to your own conclusions.

Ready to let the neuro-battle commence?

Male And Female Brains Aren’t Different 

Leading Neuroscientist Joel Daphna accepts that differences are found between women and men in “specific cognitive tasks, personality characteristics, interests and attitudes.” What Daphna wants to make clear is that these differences are often “very small” and some of the reasons for the differences are often overlooked.

For example, Daphna explains, in some countries girls perform better at mathematics whilst in other countries, boys do. It’s these differences in different societies which can be overlooked and skew findings.

She describes how “there are no ‘true’ ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains out there to discover.” In fact, the true nature of someone’s brain is that it can vary greatly from the next human’s brain

How can brains be so variable? 

She explains how the variations are due to “the interaction of genes (on sex chromosomes and on autosomal chromosomes), hormones (gonadal and others) and environment, in utero and throughout life.” She argues that “human brains are composed of an ever-changing heterogeneous mosaic of ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain characteristics.”

Male And Female Brains Are Different 

Neuroscientist Marek Glezerman believes that there is a female and male brain.  

His study named, Yes, There Is A Female And A Male Brain: Morphology Versus Functionality, was released in 2016 and it opposes a paper released by Neuroscientist Joel Daphna et al. 

Daphna’s paper examined large sets of MRI images and human brain surveys, which allowed them to conclude that brains of men and women “are not dimorphic and not categorically different, as are the genital systems of the two genders, but resemble more an overlapping mosaic of specific functional regions and therefore cannot be distinguished as male and female brains.” This conclusion, however, did not sit well with Glezerman. 

Glezerman argues that a conclusion like this can’t be made because of the “methodology used” describing the process as similar to looking at a “road map and drawing conclusions about traffic patterns. Other imaging methods might have yielded different results.”

Glezerman describes how there are functional differences in “various activity centers in the brain while performing physical or cognitive tasks or undergoing emotional experiences, but there are no morphological distinctions between brains that experience pain, happiness or sorrow, love or hate, empathy or compassion.

There was in fact no need for such an elaborate study that eventually corroborates a rather obvious fact: that one cannot morphologically distinguish between a male and a female brain like one can concerning male and female genitalia. Whenever the terms ‘female brain’ and ‘male brain’ are used, the intention should be functional and not morphological, qualitative and not quantitative.”

He passionately argues that functionally the brains of men and women are different, “not better, not worse, neither more nor less sophisticated, just different.” He highlights that the brain’s cells “differ chromosomally.” He describes how the most functional differences of our bodily systems are controlled by our functionally different brains” such as:  

  • A different hormonal environment for men and women. 
  • Testosterone has a crucial effect on the developing male brain. 
  • Aspirin can help women prevent strokes and yet may help men to prevent heart attacks. 

His point is that their brains may be wired differently.

Male And Female Brains Aren’t Different 

In a documented feud, neuroscientist Daphna Joel et al., responds to Glezerman in a research paper of her own called Reply To Glezerman: Why Differences Between Brains Of Females And Brains Of Males Do Not “Add Up” To Create Two Types Of Brains. 

In her paper she states how Glezererman is right about male and female brains being different when it comes to behaviour but “Glezerman overlooks the fact that such differences may be different and even opposite under different environmental conditions.” She points out the following: 

  • Sex affects the structure and function of brain cells, “however, the fact that sex can affect brain cells does not necessarily entail that the form and function of brain cells are either ‘male’ or ‘female’ nor that the brains comprised of these cells can be divided into two distinct categories.”
  • Future studies should look at the connection between sex and other systems “in which sex differences have been documented” such as the immune system and the cardiovascular system.

Male And Female Brains Are Different 

The study, Sex differences in brain responses to food stimuli: a meta‐analysis on neuroimaging studies by A. W. K. Yeung released in 2018, used a total of 8 studies with 231 participants, who had undergone functional magnetic resonance imaging and revealed that “men had larger neural responses to food stimuli than women in the anterior and middle cingulate, which are related to emotion regulation. 

Meanwhile, women had larger neural responses to food stimuli than men in the parahippocampus, the thalamus and the precuneus, which are collectively relevant in the context of promotion of eating.”

The fact that their brains responded in a variety of ways could mean that eating behaviours between the sexes appear to be different due to neurobiology. A man’s eating patterns may be influenced by a range of areas in the brain and in different ways to a woman’s. 

Male And Female Brains Aren’t Different 

Irit Weissman‐Fogel’s 2010 study, took on a different angle with their research; instead of giving participants tasks to do and monitoring their brains, they monitored the differences in their brains when doing “nothing” in a task-free state. 

Weissman‐Fogel’s aim was to “determine whether sex differences exist during a task‐free resting state. They had 49 healthy participants (26 females, 23 males), who were asked to rest for 5 minutes and underwent an fMRI scan. They found that “there were no significant differences between sexes in the functional connectivity of the brain areas.”

Weissman‐Fogel explains how “these important findings highlight the robustness of intrinsic connectivity of these resting state networks and their similarity between sexes.” Concluding that their findings “suggest that resting state fMRI studies do not need to be controlled for sex.” This may be the case for other sex-controlled studies which are possibly not needed.  

Final Thoughts

You’ve read a tiny proportion of the scientific findings, both for and against there being differences between a man and a woman’s brain. More and more studies will come in thick and fast, so if you haven’t yet made your mind up as to whether you’re for or against differentiating between the two, then keep exploring the research and let the findings sway you either way. 

Or perhaps you’re just happy sitting on the fence, soaking up the science. 

Sources Cited:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00677-x

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2011.00057/full

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/hbm.20968

https://www.pnas.org/content/100/13/7959.short

https://www.pnas.org/content/113/14/E1971.full

https://www.pnas.org/content/113/14/E1972.full

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/obr.12697

Maisie Bygraves

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