Neurosexism: Fact or Fiction?

05/01/2017 04:19 pm ET

By: Luci Lampe

Tired of the rampant sexist speculation in regards to how men and women are "wired?" For example: men are great with a single focus but horrible at doing multiple things at once, and women are more intuitive but bad with directions. While we may see the proof of these beliefs all around us, it’s completely unfair to chalk it up to differences between male and female anatomy, particularly the brain.

Researchers at ​Tel-Aviv University analyzed 1400 brains, and the results were eye-opening. They found that it’s extremely rare to find a brain with primarily masculine or feminine features. Nearly all the brains they looked at contain a mix of both, and just .1% of the brains showed only stereotypically male or female behavior, like scrapbooking or video-gaming.

Yet, we often see the sports-obsessed husband tunnel-visioned on the game, and the multi-tasking soccer mom shifting gears while checking for oncoming traffic and wiping her toddler’s boogers in the back seat. What’s that about? In effort to get down to the bottom of this male vs. female brain conundrum (because, hey—maybe some of us secretly want a scientifically proven excuse to think and feel the way we do), finding a concrete answer has proven to be…difficult.

According to professor Indre Viskontas of the University of San Francisco, there are only a few notable differences in male and female brains, after taking into account proportionate sizing.

1. Men's brains are typically larger than female brains... just like their livers or hearts. 

It’s a proportionate variance in size. However, many scientists believe that any notable differences are an artifact of body size; not whether someone is male or female. On average, people who identify as female are smaller than those who identify as male. Smaller brains may process information differently, resulting in different distributions of white and grey matter. In any case, you’ll be happy to know that bigger isn’t necessarily better. In fact, did you know that Einstein’s brain was smaller than average? The neural connections are where it’s at; not brain size. Our brains have the incredible capacity to adapt. The way we create stronger, more resilient neural connections is with repetition. Male or female brains alike, what we practice grows.

2. The amygdala, which plays a key role in emotional modulation of memory, is larger in men than women. 

This part of the brain captures detailed events that were very emotional, and tells the hippocampus (which stores long-term memories) to pay attention and get ready to put this one in the memory bank for the long haul. Interestingly, women seem to have stronger and more detailed memories of emotional events and are able to bring them to mind more quickly. In other words, events that are particularly emotional have more memory strength in women than men.

3. The hippocampus, which lays down new long-term memories and helps us navigate through space, appears to be larger in women than in men. 

In rats, males showed impaired learning while under stress, while females showed enhanced learning. However, after a 24-hour period, the males showed an increase in bushier dendritic trees in the hippocampus, where learning happens; while the females showed a decrease. In other words, the female rats faired better under acute stress in the moment, but the effect of the stress caught up with them later on. On the other hand, stress tests in monkeys show that the females handled chronic stress better than their male counterparts. There’s definitely more to analyze in the area of stress, which surely involves many other factors apart from gender assignment. As for humans, a 2001 study showed that the size of the hippocampus declines in age after the age of 30 in men, but not in women. Then, however, another study showed no difference whatsoever in hippocampal volume between sexes. So we might conclude that this conclusion is, in fact… inconclusive. Or, at the very least, inconsistent.

4. Finally, there are all kinds of shenanigans concerning the corpus collosum, which is a fiber tract that joins the right and left hemispheres of the brain. 

What we do know so far is that, on average, women’s brains have proportionately more grey matter (the meat of the brain), and men’s brains have a larger percentage of white matter (which is what connects neurons). What this actually means has been interpreted different ways by different researchers. Ultimately, variables in age, culture, and other factors muddy the waters of surefire research conclusions.

Ah, about that—age, culture, and other extraneous factors—let’s explore further, because that is precisely what has been found to be reliably indicative of brain structure similarities. In her groundbreaking lecture, Brain Myths Exploded, professor Viskontas points out the incredible similarities between male and female brains of the same age, which makes sense, if you use that big, beautiful brain of yours to think about it. Even the composition of the brain and what it means varies by age. For example, cortical thinning in the brain of a child is associated with healthy, normal pruning during development. In an adult, a thick cortex can be a sign of something pathological, such as in a patient with schizophrenia. In older adults, cortical thinning can be a sign of atrophy and the first signs of dementia.

In addition to age, other important factors include culture, economic status, and social conditioning. Consider how much more competent at hunting a young boy in a jungle must be, in comparison to a surfer boy of the same age who is being raised in Southern California. Or, how about the thirteen-year-old village girl who is starting a family of her own, navigating the dynamics of in-laws and night feedings in an untamed land; and a teenage girl in New York City, navigating the politics of middle school mean girls? The brains of each of these kids would show stronger connections in different areas of the brain, depending on what’s required of them to survive and belong.

Even more complexly, assigned sex cannot be accounted for in a binary way, since not all physiologically male people identify with the male sex, for example. By this point, you get the idea: it’s quite irrelevant to lump all men into a single category, and all women into another. It’s apparent that studying the brains of men and women in the same age group, from the same background, brought up in the same culture is ideal, but perhaps not always feasible.

One thing is for sure: Male or female, what we practice grows. No more excuses. The truth is this. If our environment requires us to become good with directions, our brains will accommodate the connection of those neurons. If our survival suddenly depends on being able to spear-fish on a remote island somewhere (think: Tom Hanks), you better believe you will find a way.

And, hopefully, you’d find your very own Wilson to coach you through the journey.

This article previously appeared on ​LinkedIn.

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Luci Lampe is the Author of ACHIEVING SEXY and the Founder of Sexy Mama Movement, empowering every mom to live a life she loves in a body she loves.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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