image from undark.org

I came across an article this morning by Grace Huckins in the ‘Neuroscience’ section of Wired magazine. She was elaborating on the research done by the chief of developmental genomics at the National Institute of Health, Dr. Armin Raznahan. The research he and his team had recently published was in the arena of sex differences in the brain. The article went on to loosely explain his findings and make the case for Dr. Raznahan’s desire to research sex differences. He primarily sought to understand how revealing the chromosomal differences in the brains of those with neurodevelopmental disorders could help us unlock the mystery of neuropsychiatric illness; perhaps anatomical differences between the brains of men and women can better prepare us for eradicating the risk factors for said illness. 

The article goes on to express the opinion of Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University. Dr. Eliot believes that many of the sex differences within disorders that we are seeing could potentially be due to bias among the diagnosers. For example, there is a statistic within the literature that boys are diagnosed with autism four times as often as girls. Such a statistic, wired into the belief system of a physician, could unconsciously affect the way one diagnoses. Dr. Eliot goes on to explain how studies such as those being done by Dr. Raznahan could fuel the general belief that men and women are fundamentally different. She even takes it a step further suggesting that studies such as these could justify misogyny. A prosecutor of equality between sexes could use this as ammo to win the gunfight with the statement, “We’re hardwired differently, you see. Men are clearly superior”. One can’t be sure that this bias to publish positive sex differences in the brain isn’t present; one also can’t prove it is. 

Dr. Raznahan and his team ended up publishing their general findings. They showed:

  • Men had a size advantage in the occipital lobe (associated with vision), amygdala (associated with threat processing), and the hippocampus (associated with emotion and memory)
  • Women had a size advantage in gray matter parts of the prefrontal cortex (associated with goal-oriented behavior, decision making, and self-control) and the insula (associated with proprioception (ability to sense one’s body in space) and interoception (ability to feel into the internal experience and connect with internal sensations)

Now to extrapolate these structural findings and make sweeping behavioral claims, such as the superiority of female decision making or of male vision would be premature. We aren’t even sure yet if having thicker gray matter (containing neuronal cell bodies) means superiority in the associated function of that area. Nor are we certain that any one area can be claimed to have a singular, explicit function— The dense forest of neurons in the brain are tantalizingly overlapping. But these findings are also not to be dismissed as biased attempts to prove the hardwired, unequal differences between men and women and perpetuate misogyny. Clearly, there are differences between the sexes that have been found… but are these differences genetic life sentences placed from birth or socially conditioned findings? We yet again reach the classic conundrum of teasing apart nature vs nurture. To say it’s a little of both could be a fallacious black and white argument… so let’s take a look at all some different perspectives.

Let’s dive first into the potential reality that anatomical sex differences are in our genetic code and are expressed accoridng to male/female biological gender. If gray matter thickness is different between males and females, if said thickness implies superiority in function, and if the differences between male and female brains are real and crucial… what would that mean for equality between the sexes? For the structure of society? For the work done by feminist crusaders such as Susan B. Anthony or Florence Nightingale? Some say these findings would further the divide between the equality fought for by progressives. It could also enlighten the truth underlying this entire misogynistic debate: that equality is not based on a matter of abilities, but rather on the inherent value and worth of the human. 

Society has too often placed the value of a human on the work they produce. Furthermore, if the work a human produces is output by the MIND, rather than mere physical labor, the human is regarded to be even more valuable. Unless of course, that “physical labor” is of the professional athletic kind: then we praise said individual for their self-discipline and shower them with millions of dollars. If we dissociate value and worth from abilities, capabilities, from physical power, and from mental prowess, then we are left with the bare truth that a human is worthy of respect, dignity, and as being seen as an equal to all other humans merely based on the fact that they are a human; not because their hippocampus is thicker, their quadriceps are quicker, or their interoception abilities are superior.  Basing human value on the ends produced by the means subjects humans to being a means. Shouldn’t the human be the end in and of itself?

If there are real sex differences in the anatomical composition of male and female, this means that we were designed (by God or evolution, depending on your worldview), for specific functions. To use said brains for their given functions would optimize the functioning of the individual and likely the quality of their life experience, or at least the economic success and efficiency of the society. Now before you get your panties in a twist, don’t take the industrial revolution’s prescription of the “correct function of woman as household placemats” and go furiously share this article with your feminist friends. Really think about this with me: If women were superior at goal setting, making decisions to get to those goals, or checking in with their internal emotional states en route to said goals, what kinds of places in society would women best be fit for? What kind of educational structures would best suit women? We could really use women’s inherent potential in the proper domains, as leaders and decision-makers in society. If men were superior at vision, threat processing, or memory, what kind of places in society would best suit them

Let’s take the contrary argument now. Who’s to say that if you were designed to function most optimally one specific way, that is what you ought to do? After all, one of the most marvelous design features in the brain is neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to rewire itself depending on the internal or external demands placed on it by the agent or environment. We have seen how pianists, people with anxiety, violinists, or London taxi drivers have changed their neural pathways in response to practice and training. Where then is there room for neuroplasticity in the argument of hereditary design? What does this mean for sex differences, for jobs, for gender, for sexuality? Is the way we were congenitally designed the way we were intended to live? Who or what determines this?

Let’s take a third perspective…what if there are no original differences in the male and female brain, and only as a child, the brain is conditioned to wire into certain configurations? What if the external world, more so than the genetic code, is responsible for the differences seen in the brains of adult males and females? This is exactly what psychologist Gina Rippon believes. Read what she says below:

“It’s what I call the “hunt the differences” agenda, which started about 200 years ago when scientists were starting to understand the importance of the brain in explaining human behavior and human ability.

And they looked at society and they saw that women were … inferior to men in their place in society, access to education achievements. And they took that status quo and then said, “Well, we’re researchers entering an amazing new world of understanding the brain, so we’ll show that these differences between men and women come from differences in their brains.”

And that’s really very overtly informed their research agenda from the beginning — they were trying to explain the status quo and not just trying to see what brains were like.”

What then does this mean for sex differences, the structure of society, and the abilities of males vs females? If the brain’s anatomical differences are byproducts of neuroplasticity combined with swallowed beliefs, expectations, and external pressures, what does this mean for the likely squandered potential of women throughout the ages, being told what it is and isn’t they were “made for”? This is a similar situation with racial narratives.

We don’t quite have an answer… yet. More studies will have to be done on the brain’s blank canvas (if babies allow), and on a wider variety of female and male subjects throughout the lifespan. The reality of neuroplasticity could lead us forward in this confusion. If we know our brains are formed by the stimulus we ingest and even thoughts we formulate internally, perhaps the brain can be molded into whatever chiseled pottery we so choose, devoid of genetic guideposts. Perhaps it just happens to be that men spend more time around stimulus that improve their visual and spatial abilities, and women spend more time (whether because socially taught to or not) processing/feeling emotions. Then, along come the brain scanners and they publish sweeping conclusions about the genetic differences between the sexes during adulthood. Of course, we then buy into these stereotypes and perpetuate the narrative. Thanks to neuroplasticity, these differences then become real. But was it the chicken or the egg who wired in those neural pathways? Does it matter? Would we rather it be one way or another? I’d love to know what you think…

I’d love to know what you think…