We are all the same inside, the real inside, the brain
May 2, 2021 4:36 AM   Subscribe

Except for the simple difference in size, there are no meaningful differences between men’s and women’s brain structure or activity that hold up across diverse populations.

... as a neuroscientist long experienced in the field, I recently completed a painstaking analysis of 30 years of research on human brain sex differences. And what I found, with the help of excellent collaborators, is that virtually none of these claims has proven reliable.
posted by sammyo (39 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite


 
Men Are From Earth, Women Are From Earth, Deal With It.
posted by acb at 5:53 AM on May 2 [60 favorites]


I can hear it now...millions of men crying out: "....but...but...men's brains are BIGGER!"
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:58 AM on May 2 [11 favorites]


Raise boys and girls the same way
posted by FirstMateKate at 6:59 AM on May 2 [40 favorites]


Awesome! Maybe now people can try to begin to stop having presumptions and notions about others based on gender presentation. Also reminds me of Boy Meets Girl, a pivotal song of my youth. Thanks for sharing this!
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 7:17 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


This is a surprise?
posted by cccorlew at 8:22 AM on May 2 [7 favorites]


What does this mean to the trans community, where the science has been supporting the notion that a trans persons brain more closely matches the brain of the gender they desire to be?

Transgender brains are more like their desired gender from an early age

So, if there's no differences doesn't this sort of upend a lot of the science that supports being trans and transitioning?

I'm only skeptical because it seems like it could be quickly used by right-wing asshats to declare that trans people aren't real or something.

It seems to me like (personal opnion) if there's few differences, it's more support for the idea that gender is a construct, but I can't put it past asshats to read it differently.
posted by deadaluspark at 8:40 AM on May 2 [12 favorites]


So, if there's no differences doesn't this sort of upend a lot of the science that supports being trans and transitioning?

No. Trans people empirically exist because we are here and always have been and there is a wealth of evidence that transitioning improves our lives. Searching for an explanation for our existence is largely a cis concern and frequently undertaken with the tacit goal of finding a way to 'cure' us. In general, trans people would prefer that research money goes to towards things that materially improve our lives and medical treatment - better understanding of hormones, better surgical options, etc.
posted by death valley compound at 9:42 AM on May 2 [85 favorites]


Well that settles the Nature part. Phew.
And people not being what they were assigned / raised as handles the Nurture argument.
Is now the moment for people to reexamine the controversial and often ridiculed "be careful, if someone slaps you on the back while you're making a gender, you'll get stuck like that" theory?
Green M&Ms? Ugh no, it's gonna be witches for a while, isn't it? S'always witches as the go-to.
posted by bartleby at 10:04 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]


There's also the very reasonable fear that shoveling money into why trans people are trans will lead to a medically-defined border to either 1) gatekeep certain groups from accessing care, or 2) employing more medical bureaucracy, more hurdles, etc to prevent anyone from accessing care, regardless of if they fit the criteria or not. This is already the chosen tactic of the right-wing and medical field, many require months of therapy, or references letters, etc.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:11 AM on May 2 [22 favorites]


So, if there's no differences doesn't this sort of upend a lot of the science that supports being trans and transitioning?

The research in the OP says that there aren't major physical brain differences between the genders, once size is accounted for. Your link says that trans girls' brains have activation patterns closer to cis girls' brains than to cis boys' brains.

The two findings don't seem to contradict one another. It's possible for brains to start at a more gender-neutral state, and then societal gender roles to shape the brain activation patterns as children develop.
posted by explosion at 10:18 AM on May 2 [9 favorites]


Imagine trying to decide which of two computers was playing a movie that passes the Bechtel test by taking them apart and examining the hardware. "This one has twice as much RAM!"
posted by straight at 12:32 PM on May 2 [17 favorites]


The non-binary brain

Misogynists are fascinated by the idea that human brains are biologically male or female. But they’ve got the science wrong
posted by Gymnopedist at 1:44 PM on May 2 [6 favorites]


Hooray! (Eliot is apparently at the the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science which also made me smile.) Please go after "dopamine is the pleasure chemical" next!

Anyway, if all of the copies of one particular book suddenly now found themselves unwanted and moldering at the bottom of donation and recycling bins I would not be sad.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 1:50 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


2) employing more medical bureaucracy, more hurdles, etc to prevent anyone from accessing care, regardless of if they fit the criteria or not.

I'm not sure if there was a specific group you were referring to in number 1, but I can't really see how number 2 should be expected get worse with more research and precise understandings of the modalities involved? Considering there's like a chunk of the US that literally believes trans people are mentally ill or just prefer being another gender.
posted by floam at 3:09 PM on May 2


Yes, we're all just a blob of tissue driving a bone and muscle exosuit.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:09 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Please go after "dopamine is the pleasure chemical" next!

I once heard that “dope fiends” should actually be called “nerp fiends”, because neuropeptides.
posted by acb at 3:16 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


They don't scan trans people's brains as a criteria of accepting someone being their gender, so boy brain/girl brain is irrelevant to that point.
posted by Phalene at 5:49 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Please do recall that in the 1990s, there were ubiquitous media discussions of the idea that gay men's brains in some ways resembled women's rather than straight men's, and research on that topic, focusing on areas such as the hypothalamus.

As someone who has been involved in LGBTQ+ advocacy since the late 1970s, I can tell you that in the 1990s, when the average American was overtly homophobic, a ton of white gay men I knew were deeply invested in the idea of finding proof of a "gay brain." This would constitute proof, they thought, that they were born that way, and this would finally make straight people treat them well instead of poorly. I was critical of the "gay brain" research, and there were definitely gay men who urgently warned me to hush up. But the facts remained that:

1. The idea that gay men have women's brains is silly, and based on stereotypes of gay men as feminine. But a whole lot of gay men are very masculine, and yet still gay!

2. The differences claimed were beyond miniscule, and found in only 3 structures among hundreds measured. The sample sizes are tiny. Yes, they were supposedly statistically significant, but this is a classic example of p-hacking.

3. The research studies on which the "gay brain" research built were riddled with neurosexist bullcrap.

4. In any case, the premise that if only we could prove people are born with a minority sexual orientation, bias against LGB people would stop is utterly faulty. Black children are born of Black parents, but that hasn't made racism go away. The eugenic idea that one is born Jewish was the basis of the Holocaust. It was not coincidence that the people most into the "gay brain" theory were cis gay white men with Christian families. . . It takes a lot of ignorance about other forms of oppression to think that they cease to exist when understood as biologically-based.

So, fast-forward to the aughties, and the "gay brain" research was fading into the woodwork--to be replaced by "trans brain" research using the same methods toward the same end.

And now here we are in 2021. The popular knowledge of the "gay brain" research trend of 30 years ago is minimal. And that is because it no longer occurs to the majority of Americans to ask an LGB person what "caused" their sexual orientation. Outside of white evangelical Christian circles, it's generally accepted that you can trust a person to figure out what their sexual orientation is, just like they figure out how many hours of sleep they need, or what their favorite ice cream flavor is, or what religion they believe in, if any. The cause of these things is opaque, and can't be proven to others, that's just accepted.

My feeling about the "trans brain" research is the same as on the "gay brain" research. Just substitute "not all trans men are masculine" for "not all gay men are feminine." It is true that some trans people have been deeply invested in this research proving they were "born this way," but I think that's already been fading. We don't know why some people are lesbians and some are pansexual and some are asexual. We don't know why some people are trans women and some are nonbinary and some are agender. We don't really know what makes some people introverts and some extroverts, but those are real lived experiences, too.

What we don't want to do is try to validate trans lives by clinging to fatally flawed neurosexist science. Let that trash go!
posted by DrMew at 7:16 PM on May 2 [49 favorites]


I sure wish research like this would sell books.

Almost 15 years ago now (!) there was a great series of posts on Language Log taking down some of the male brain/female brain popsci. You could start here.
posted by inexorably_forward at 9:05 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


My wife just discovered she was cited in this paper. Much woo-hooing has ensued.
posted by scottcal at 10:00 PM on May 2 [23 favorites]


It is true that some trans people have been deeply invested in this research proving they were "born this way," but I think that's already been fading.

Thankfully. There are absolutely still "true transsexual" communities out there, but they're way fewer and further between them even five or ten years ago. Harry Benjamin Syndrome people, once almost dominant in mainstream online transfeminine spaces, can barely manage to keep a single mailing list going.

The science hasn't been with them for a while now really, and it's always good to see that trend continue.
posted by Dysk at 10:49 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


Oh, cool, my post-doc advisor is referenced frequently throughout the paper. I don't think the author characterizes my advisor's research very well, though.

I'm sure the author left it out because it doesn't back up her thesis, but I did a decent amount of research (in the aforementioned lab and another) of one aspect of the hypothalamus that is unequivocally different between males and females: the neurons that make up the part of the hypothalamus that control the surge of hormones that happen before ovulation. (My research was NOT on sexual differences, but was on female reproduction... relevance for contraceptive agents and so on). Oh well.
posted by gaspode at 6:58 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]


This shit is always so crazy and just ends up getting crazier.
Like the 2D:4D thing as an indicator of androgen exposure in utero, and then they were like - maybe being gay makes you a shitty hunter? And they tested it on runners.
And finally somebody refuted that by traveling to Tanzania and it turns out that, no, in fact, using a weird and arbitrary measure of male gayness to determine someone's fitness as a hunter based on how fast they can run is a poor indicator of anything.

The obsession that cis and hetero folks have with the question, "but y r they gay tho?" is so pervasive and funny and spans political ideologies. And consumes, I presume, a massive amount of research funding that could otherwise be spent on studying literally anything else.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:27 AM on May 3


also see: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
posted by LeviQayin at 12:30 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


As a trans autistic person, I want to be on record as making a rude gesture in Simon Baron-Cohen's direction for the whole "extreme male brain" bullshit.
posted by Lexica at 1:14 PM on May 3 [11 favorites]


You would think being "other" than what those in power want you to be, would lead to a long lineage of adept runners, take for instance, the Navajo, or the hunter gatherers of southern Africa. No one wants to be punched or lunched.
posted by Oyéah at 2:54 PM on May 3


also see: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

This book is so so good. It's got a sense of humor but it also absolutely eviscerates all these "just so stories" about gender differences in the brain. +1 recommended.
posted by jessamyn at 3:02 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


Lazlo Polgar proved the that mental performance seen in prodigies is mostly a product of extremely focused education between the ages of 7-12 and that gender doesn't really play a role. He had three daughters who he raised to become chess prodigies using this technique. One of them (Judit Polgar) beat Bobby Fischer's then record for youngest ever grandmaster and remains the strongest female chess player in history and was in the top ten of all chess players in the world for many years. The other two were not quite as accomplished but still exceptionally strong players.
It feels like we are engaged in a modern form of foot binding that is keeping women from attaining their full potential.
posted by interogative mood at 3:07 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]


I'll cop to thinking (if not asserting) at times in the past that there are differences between "male" and "female" brains, partly along the lines of the "gay brain" research mentioned earlier and some other stuff, the usual. I'm really glad to hear it's all a bunch of nothing that disappears in the noise as soon as you take a step back. Neurological determinism is a scary thing.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:40 PM on May 3


I've seen what is IMO good evidence for similar ASD-like characteristics for three, possibly four generations of boys in a particular family. I think the best explanation for that is something inherited on the Y-chromosome. That is to say, I believe there are things you can say about some male brains which you can't say about female ones, just because people with XY chromosomes lack a particular avenue for genetic diversity.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:21 PM on May 3


It is my understanding that ASD is often under diagnosed in women and that this is a major problem in that women are often not getting the kind of interventions and support provided to ASD males.
posted by interogative mood at 8:34 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately the kids in that family were all boys, so there was no way to test my hypothesis. But the similar ASD-like characteristics probably wouldn't have shown up so consistently unless they were Y-chromosome linked.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:51 PM on May 3


Equating hormones and gender/sex is pretty awful, not least in a thread like this. XY does not always mean male.
posted by Dysk at 11:14 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


Sorry. Substitute Y-chromosome carriers.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:44 AM on May 4


Unfortunately the kids in that family were all boys, so there was no way to test my hypothesis. But the similar ASD-like characteristics probably wouldn't have shown up so consistently unless they were Y-chromosome linked.

Not taking any position on the underlying thing, but if they're all XY, there's no way to tell the difference between an effect of being XY and an effect of anything else they have in common.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 3:40 AM on May 4 [4 favorites]


It's not being generically XY, but inheriting the same Y-chromosome. IMO it seems the most likely explanation for so 9+ people over several generations with the same Y-chromosome sharing similar characteristics.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:35 AM on May 4


wouldn't have shown up so consistently unless they were Y-chromosome linked

I mean it's more likely to be X-linked, like hemophilia, and the result of the lack of a second X to cover it up if it were related to sex but it's probably not.
posted by dame at 6:39 AM on May 4


People with ASD often marry people with ASD. If the genetic basis was an autosomal dominant gene then there is a 75% chance per kid of inheriting the condition. That’s more likely than having 3 male children in a row.
posted by interogative mood at 6:43 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the author left it out because it doesn't back up her thesis

If you read all of the studies linked in this essay, it's hard to come away thinking the author was being entirely intellectually honest. There were a number of discrepancies, exaggerations, fallacious arguments, minimizations and omissions.
posted by floam at 9:32 AM on May 4


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