Can We Finally Stop Talking About ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ Brains?

From The New York Times:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/opinion/male-female-brains-mosaic.html

Recent research is making it clearer than ever that the notion that sex determines the fundamentals of brain structure and behavior is a misconception.

By Daphna Joel and Cordelia Fine
Dec. 3, 2018

In 17th and 18th century Europe, the rise of egalitarian ideals created the need for a scientific account of women’s inferior status. Thus was born gender biological complementaritythe notion that, as historian of science Londa Schiebinger explains in The Mind Has No Sex, “Women were not to be viewed merely as inferior to men but as fundamentally different from, and thus incomparable to, men.” It has been with us in one way or another, roping in science to explain the gender status quo, ever since.

At its core is the persistent belief that men’s and women’s natures can be usefully and meaningfully carved into two categories or “natural kinds,” that are distinct, timeless, and deeply biologically grounded. Today’s version of this idea continues a centuries long quest to find the source of this hypothesized divergence in abilities, preferences, and behavior in the brain: You can find this notion at work, for instance, in popular books like John Gray’s “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” in the 1990s, Louann Brizendine’s “The Female Brain” and “The Male Brain” the following decade, and last year’s “Results at the Top: Using Gender Intelligence to Create Breakthrough Growth” by Barbara Annis and Richard Nesbitt.

But a version of the same assumption is also sometimes subtly present in scientific research. Consider, for example, Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s influential Empathizing-Systemizing theory of brains and the accompanying “extreme male brain” theory of autism. This presupposes there is a particular “systemizing” brain type that we could meaningfully describe as “the male brain,” that drives ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that distinguish the typical boy and man from the typical “empathizing” girl and woman.

Or consider studies that report sex differences in brain structure in terms of two different classes of brains. Thus, a globally publicized study by Madhura Ingalhalikar and colleagues on the human connectome — that is, the enormous set of connections between the different regions of the brain — which concluded that “male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”

The problem with these approaches is the implicit assumption that sex differences, whether in brain structure, function, or behavior, ‘add up’ consistently in individuals to create “male brains” and “female brains,” and “male natures” and “female natures.”

In 2015, one of us, Daphna Joel, led an analysis of four large data sets of brain scans, and found that the sex differences you see overall between men’s and women’s brains aren’t neatly and consistently seen in individual brains. In other words, humans generally don’t have brains with mostly or exclusively “female-typical” features or “male-typical” features. Instead, what’s most common in both females and males are brains with “mosaics” of features, some of them more common in males and some more common in females.

Continue reading at:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/03/opinion/male-female-brains-mosaic.html

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