Male vs Female
Differences between the human male brain vs female brain have historically served to emphasize women’s subservient role in society. However, recent studies have shown that these differences are simply adaptations that serve a gender’s biological purpose, and together, the male vs female brain give our species stronger adaptability to navigate life and the planet. This was true for our prehistoric ancestors, and remains true in modern society.
Historical Analyses: Male vs Female
Let’s take a look at some of those aforementioned historical brain studies. As Olga Khazan writes, “scientists have long known that male and female brains are distinct.” Visually, “men’s brains are slightly bigger than women’s [because men’s bodies also tend to be bigger.]”(In fact, men’s brains are about 10% larger than female brains).
This finding was an easy and immediate “proof” of women’s “deficiencies.” Khazan quotes French 19th-century anthropologist Paul Broca as saying “We are … permitted to suppose that the relatively small size of the female brain depends in part upon her physical inferiority and in part upon her intellectual inferiority.” Khazan also notes that former Harvard president Larry Summers suggested once that “factoids about brain ‘wiring'” could be used to “explain away female under representation in fields like engineering.”
Medical Repercussions of Not Recognizing Male vs Female Brain Differences
The other end of the ignorance spectrum is simply assuming that differences in the male brain vs. female brain neither truly exist or matter. This mistake leads to “countless medical fields … treating women by pretending ‘they are simply men with pesky sex hormones,'” University of California at Irvine neuroscientist Larry Irvine says. Khazan writes that “even pain medications don’t take male and female pain perception differences into account,” when paying attention to these gender differences could not only tell us more about brains work, but also give us clues for how to fix them. She writes: “modern medicine can’t afford to ignore these variations. Just as with any disease, understanding sex differences in brains might help neuroscientists better diagnose and treat disorders.”
One such example is the issue of certain conditions going unrecognized and undiagnosed in females, because the symptoms present differently in girls than boys. For instance, the psychiatric disorder Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) looks quite different in males vs. females. An article published on WebMD says “boys…fall prey to learning disabilities more frequently than girls,” but quotes Kennedy Krieger Institute research scientist Martha Bridge Denckla, PhD, as saying “‘clinics see a preponderance of boys with dyslexia.'”
However, it’s starting to be realized that just because girls with these disorders aren’t found at the clinics does not mean there is an uneven level of sufferers between the genders.
The outdated WebMD article claims that “ADHD…strikes more boys than girls,” and that is because the symptoms present differently – inattention more likely exhibited by girls, impulsivity in boys – that the differences “favor girls,” and that even girls that do have ADHD do not suffer to the same extent.
Rae Jacobson’s article for ChildMind, “How Girls with ADHD Are Different and the Emotional Costs of Being Overlooked” illustrates from her own personal experience the problems with not recognizing male brain vs female brain differences in medical situations. This societal ignorance meant her disorder was “hiding in plain sight.” She writes, “according to the CDC boys are far more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD – not necessarily because girls are less prone to the disorder but because in girls ADHD present differently. The symptoms are often more subtle, and they don’t fit the stereotype.” She quotes Dr. Stephen Hinshaw of UC Berkley’s psychology department as saying, “‘we were initially taught that ADHD is [a] boys’ phenomenon…three decades later we know this is an equal opportunity condition.'”
The disorder may be equal opportunity, but it is not equally recognized and treated. As the WebMD article stated, girls are more likely to have the inattentive type than the hyperactive – and a daydreamer simply is not going to be as noticeable as a little boy who is bouncing off the walls. Jacobson quotes Dr. Patricia Quinn, director of the National Resource Center for Girls and Women with ADHD, as saying “‘people…think: that’s what ADHD looks like and if this girl doesn’t look like than then she doesn’t have ADHD.'”
Without a diagnosis, girls “don’t get the academic services and accommodations that could help them succeed.” (Jacobson) This and the difficulty of navigating complicated female social structure leads to poor self-esteem, and eventually can take a toll on the mental health of female ADHD-ers: “whereas boys with ADHD tend to externalize their frustration… [by] acting out, girls are more likely to blame themselves…girls with ADHD are significantly more likely to experience major depression, anxiety and eating disorders than girls without.” (Jacobson) The ADHD example is simply one of many, showing that understanding differences in the male brain vs female brain is important medically, as well as socially.
Male Brain vs. Female Brain: Gender Adaptations
Here are some facts on how the male brain and female brain actually are different:
-Male and female brains retain unique differences throughout life, but the differences don’t always have the results that would seem to make sense. For example, although the male brain is 10% larger, size does not mean more intelligent. While male brains have 6.5 times more “gray” or “thinking” matter, women have 9.5 times more white matter, which connects areas of the brain.
Language Functioning, Emotion Control, and Multitasking in Females
-Sex hormones actually begin to exert influence on the brain during fetus development. At 26 weeks, Israeli researchers found that the corpus callosum, which is the nerve tissue bridge connecting the left and right sides of the brain, was thicker in human female fetuses than in males. The difference could be visualized with an ultrasound scanner. (WebMD)
-The bridge may remain stronger in adult females – women appear to have language functioning in both sides of the brain, while men appear to use only the left brain hemisphere to process language. These results came by looking at brain imaging technology capturing blood flow to areas of the brain being used when subjects of both genders were being read to. (WebMD)
-Therefore, women typically have better language skills – in fact, girls outperform boys in language use until puberty, maturing these areas of the brain approximately six years earlier than boys. (WebMD)
-Language skills are probably an evolutionary adaptation, developed to help women build relationships with friends and mates that would have been a survival advantage. Better emotion recognition and control in women may have had a similar naturally-selected origin. (WebMD)
-The bridge between the logical and creative sides of the brain in women also seems to birth a stronger connection between logic and intuition than in men. This means men may over-engage one area of their brains to directly solve a problem, due to their perception and action being closely connected, while women may use very different brain areas, combining logic and intuition: “‘gut feelings, trying to join the dots together.'” (Ragini Verma as quoted by Khazan.)
-Women’s brains, when at rest, “are more functionally interconnected when at rest than men’s are,” seeming to mean that women are better multitaskers. This would have been an advantage for mothers since prehistoric times. (Khazan)
Math and Geometry in Boys
-Areas of the brain used for geometry and math mature four years earlier in boys than in girls, and men typically have stronger abilities here. (WebMD)
-Spatial skills, required for navigation purposes, are also stronger in men. (WebMD)
Complementary Differences and Overlap: Conclusion
-Despite all the structural differences, many brain areas are the same in males vs. females, and “member of both sexes excel at skills that are commonly labeled gender specific.” (WebMD)
-In fact, Dr. Denckla believes that by pushing children harder to practice the skills better suited to the opposite gender’s brains, the differences can be leveled out: for example, having more girls engage in sports to build their spatial abilities. (WebMD)
-However, other researchers believe that the differences are complementary and therefore necessary: they increase the chances of males joining with females to continue the existence of our species. (WebMD)
-Similarly, Khazan quotes Anke Ehrhardt of Columbia University Medical Center saying, “‘Acknowledging brain effect by gender does not mean these are immutable, permanent determinants of behavior, but rather they may play a part within a multitude of factors and certainly can be shaped by social and environmental influences.”‘