So where do these distinct categories and differences come from? Turns out, it’s not our brains.
A new research study took on the ancient question of how different men and women really are in a unique way – by isolating the brain and seeing if gender could be determined based on image analysis alone.
The verdict? Not really.
Led by behavioral neuroscientist Daphna Joel, researchers identified a number of structural differences between the more than 1,400 individual brains studied. They did find some patterns. Some forms were more common in men, others more common in women, and others common to both. For instance, men often had a larger hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with memory, than women.
However, in all cases the overlap was as significant as the divergence. Some women had a larger, or more “male-typical” left hippocampus, while some men had a smaller hippocampus even than the average female.
In the end, fewer than 8 percent of the brains studied were exclusively one gender or the other. The rest were an amalgamation of traits loosely categorized as more masculine or more feminine.
Scientists thus concluded that it is impossible to tell the sex of an individual based on MRI imaging of the brain. At best, they can be placed along a continuum of “maleness” and “femaleness.”
The results of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December, fly in the face of much of what we’ve been taught about gender and the brain.
In the mid-19th century, scientists officially declared that men and women had distinctly different brains. The very fact that such an assumption stood unchallenged for over a century says a great deal about how we tend to think about gender—that is, we’re generally more comfortable talking about it in terms of difference, rather than sameness.
Yet as this study suggests, the differences may not be as inherent as we once thought. Instead, gendered thought patterns that have been identified by teachers, psychiatrists, and laymen through the ages must be at least partially, if not largely, socially rather than biologically derived.
For instance, how often have you heard that men are better at compartmentalizing their thoughts than women, “shutting off” certain areas of their brains in order to focus on others? Or how about that women are better able to multitask, maneuvering deftly through a labyrinth of activities?
If we accept that these differences do not come from the uniquely gendered makeup of our minds, we can begin to consider how we’re socialized to operate the way we do. We might think less in terms of catering to one gender’s strengths or weaknesses, and more in terms of finding the best common methods and techniques.
Our tendencies might shift from excusing certain behaviors in men that would be unacceptable in women, and vice versa.
And rather than looking for more ways to differentiate between what’s typically male and what’s typically female, perhaps our time will be better spent looking for what’s common to both.