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Science Says Everybody’s Brain Is Different; “Male” & “Female” Brains a False Dichotomy

Brain

Dividing brains into “male” and “female” categories could be meaningless, because researchers haven’t found any consistent pattern that would allow that dichotomy to be valuable, according to a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Our study demonstrates that although there are sex/gender differences in brain structure, brains do not fall into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, nor are they aligned along a ‘male brain–female brain’ continuum. Rather, even when considering only the small group of brain features that show the largest sex/gender differences, each brain is a unique mosaic of features, some of which may be more common in females compared with males, others may be more common in males compared with females, and still others may be common in both females and males.

According to LiveScience, this new research is “the first to examine sex differences in the brain as a whole,” but other researchers have been making similar assertions for a while now. Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor at Barnard College in New York and author of Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, pointed out that many neuroscientists have already determined that brains have more variation within sexes than between them.

What about other elements that might account for differences in the brain, such as hormones? According to this new research, the early assumption that testosterone would “masculinize” the brain whereas estrogen would “feminize” it does not account for the resultant complexity of the brain. In other words, it’s just not useful to think about brains as a dichotomy, just as it wouldn’t be useful to think of a heart as being “male” or “female.”

Many other external elements can influence the human brain and human behavior, such as early-life stress, which can affect the way a brain develops—or gendered socialization, which is a whole other can of worms. This research should encourage us all to continue to question our ingrained assumptions about our capabilities and thought processes. Everybody is delightfully different!

(via LiveScience, image via UCSF)

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).