THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES – BRAIN POWER
The good old days of a misogyny-based society holding views suggesting women have an inferior brain seem to still be prevalent with some small-minded people. As gender fluidity and trans people become more widely understood and accepted, it draws the conversation to whether there is an actual difference between a cis male/cis female brain. With as many myths to fill the Loch Ness, it’s time to debunk and settle this debate once and for all.
OUR PAST PERCEPTIONS OF MALE VS FEMALE BRAINS
To really understand the most recent findings regarding this subject, we need to understand our past perceptions. We’ve all heard the saying ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’, implying that whilst we may be the same species, our cognitive function is far from similar. There are many myths regarding each gender’s brain function relating to its size, growth and function, with people once believing that the way our brain is ‘wired’ dispositions us into our stereotyped gender qualities, functions and skills. Across centuries, men have used this argument to justify their status within society, believing they are inherently ‘better’ beings.
Another long-accepted argument building upon men’s ego was that male brains were supposedly larger, meaning that they were ‘smarter’ individuals. If we strip this argument to its basics, it implies that the bigger the brain on the being, the smarter the being. However, if we project this claim onto other species such as an elephant or blue whale (who are known to be intelligent animals), proportionally, their brains are miniscule in comparison to their size, suggesting they should not be intelligent.
The list of misperceptions continues with past ‘findings’ reaching the conclusion that men have a more functional brain as they supposedly use the left side of their brain for most activities, with connections moving from front to back on either side. This compares to the cognitive brain function of women, who have connections moving left to right across both sides of the brain, possibly explaining why we are more in touch with our emotions, and even ‘prone’ to erratic behaviour because our minds are like a pin ball machine.
One of the arguments that us females can hold against the male species is the fact that we cognitively mature earlier (apparently). This statement may shed light onto the behaviours of adolescents within modern society as you see a comparison within the way the genders carry themselves in the same environment such as school. This argument has some leverage which we’ll dive into later.
ARE GENDERED BRAINS A THING?
As science and research becomes more comprehensive, findings have led us to question whether there is such a thing as a male and female brain and whether a gendered brain actually exists. Many have concluded that’s its actually all a myth, suggesting that there’s weak evidence in favour of gendered brains and differences within them. You can’t distinguish the gender of the brain by looking at it and it’s very unlikely that a fully male/female brain exists. Instead, scientists are describing our brains as a mosaic of male/female stereotyped traits, qualities, behaviours etc. This suggests that our minds are naturally gender fluid.
The whole gender brain debate can also relate to the nature/nurture debate. The idea of a gendered brain has been imprinted on us from a young age. Societal views and norms of what a male/female should be, like and do make us interpret who we are in terms of male/female identities and accept the idea of a gendered brain. Instead of innately having cognitive differences, external factors such as gender stereotypes mixed with our life experiences are what is most likely to influence any detectable differences.
THE NEW SCIENCE OF THE MALE BRAIN VS FEMALE BRAIN
So, what are our scientifically proved differences, and do they have any knock-on effects to explain why male and females behave, interpret, understand etc differently?
The latest research I will be mentioning was conducted by professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University, Dr.Lise Eliot. Her latest study, published in the June edition of Neuroscience & Behavioural Reviews, analysed 30 years’ worth of brain research made up of fMRIs, i.e. functional magnetic resonance imaging and post-mortem studies.
Debunking many of the old views held regarding differences between male and female brain, the study concluded that there were no ‘meaningful cognitive differences between men and women.’ Dr. Eliot states “The truth is that there are no universal, species-wide brain features that differ between the sexes. Rather, the brain is like other organs, such as the heart and kidneys, which are similar enough to be transplanted between women and men quite successfully.”
Putting to rest those age-old beliefs, the study did uncover small variations between the brains, updating seemingly exaggerated past findings. The first regards brain size – the study discovered that distinctions between male and female brains can be a result of brain size rather than sex or gender. In fact, when taking an individual’s head size into account, the sex difference is almost irrelevant.
One variation discovered was regarding the Amygdala, an area of your brain related to social-emotional behaviors. Believing it was significantly larger in men, the study showed that it was a mere 1% larger. Many stated this was the reason for why some males responded to emotional stress physically.
Another past finding regarding the activity of each side of the brain within the genders has been discovered to have less of an impact than imagined. As a refresh, men use each hemisphere independently whilst women use both together. These differences are said to make men more vulnerable to disability regarding head injuries whilst women are said to be better connected and work in sync with each other. But the study found that the difference is underwhelmingly minute at less than 1%.
Other studies relating to cognitive function have potentially revealed why females tend to mature earlier than their male counterparts. A study from Newcastle University discovered that girls tend to experience earlier brain-connection compared to males. The overall effect being that more cells are connected (talking) to each other earlier in a female’s life.
Probably the most significant (in size) difference between the male/female brain was discovered in a study by the Washington University School of Medicine. The findings showed that, metabolically speaking, male brains were 2.4 years older than their true ages, compared to females which were about three years younger than a man of the same age. This means that the male brain shrinks a lot faster as you grow older and could be the result to why women stay sharper for longer.
Psychologist Gina Rippon also supports the idea that a solely male and female brain does not exist. Rippon draws on external factors being the dominating influence on any detectable differences in mental processing and opposes views that our personality, skills, behaviours etc are naturally ‘hardwired’. Even stating that the term ‘hardwired’ relating to our brains is a red flag. Believing that our brains are malleable, she says “It is actually very flexible and plastic throughout our lives, not just in young children while they’re growing. So, our brains do change according to the experiences we have, or even the attitudes we encounter.”
Whilst placing a focus on the nurture aspect, Rippon addresses the biological differences between males and females through hormones. “We now know that hormones are as flexible and responsive to social situations as the brain. We know that testosterone levels reflect the kind of social situation a man finds himself in. So, testosterone levels of new fathers are much lower than testosterone levels of fathers who are not primary carers of new children.” Further research regarding female hormones has discovered positive effects on women’s perceptual skills and behaviors whilst they’re ovulating.
DEATH TO THE GENDERED BRAIN
Now that we’ve all been enlightened and hopefully all our brains have grown slightly bigger from reading this, I think it’s safe to say that this battle of the sexes has come to a white flag waving end from both sides. Neither brain is inherently superior, and we can finally turn the lights off for those outdated scientific findings which have now been put to rest. It’s up to the person with the brain to put it to good use. Like any muscle, you’ve got to train it. We don’t want any Megamind looking people walking around as a sign of ‘brain dominance’. Just use your brain wisely. I think now that our minds have been scientifically released from these two dominating categories of male and female brains, the last step to the full fluidity of being a human is by tackling the external factors pushed upon us before we are even born.
This article was written by contributing writer Malin Jones.
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