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Are our Brains Gendered?

Author: Sandhya Basu





As a psychology student, I have always been intrigued by the differences in people’s behavioral patterns. Differences such as cultural variations, individual differences, geographical changes, etc., give us a good idea regarding how the environment around us determines our behaviors.

One such difference that interests me the most is the gender difference. There is no doubt regarding the generalized differences we see in men's and women’s behavioral patterns. The differences are so popular that we have authors entertaining us with the premise that men and women come from two distinct planets because of their vast psychological dissimilarities! For example, John Grey, in his book called ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus,’ has explicitly explained the popular gender differences that are evident in society. Scientists from all over the world have conducted rigorous research to explore such differences, as well. You may wonder that you have seen, perhaps experienced, these differences in your environment. But after reading this blog, you will realize that these differences extend way beyond what we have seen or experienced.

Given the modern times we live in, some researchers may want to get the Mars/Venus theories back to Earth and suggest alternative explanations to gender differences. Having said that, there is no doubt regarding the existence of wide debates on the notion of gender difference, but we are not going to delve into these debates. Rather, we will discuss the factual findings that show how the brains of men and women are hardwired differently. Understanding these gender differences not only makes us more aware but also helps us better appreciate male-female relationships in our workplace and personal lives.

An adult human brain weighs 1.5 kg, on average. Studies show that men have larger brains (by 10%) than female brains and even weigh 11-12% more than its counterpart. Men’s larger and heavier brains are often attributed to their physical stature. That is, men may require more brain cells to control their larger body mass and size. Does this mean that men are more intelligent than women? Read along to know the answer!

Men’s brains have been found to be larger than women’s, prominently in the frontal (responsible for mental tasks like problem-solving) and occipital lobes (responsible for the vision and related functions). Their brains also have a thicker right hemisphere which could explain why most men tend to be spatial and mathematical driven. On the other hand, we have a thicker left hemisphere in women’s brains that makes them better at communication skills. Women, on average, also have a deeper limbic system (including the hippocampus- seat for memory) that makes them connect their feelings and express them better than men.

Apart from emotional centers in the brain, cognitive regions also show sex differences. Studies using neuroimaging techniques have found that the size of the hippocampus is larger in women than in men. Does that mean women are better at remembering things?!

At a microscopic level, brain regions responsible for visual processing, language, and storing personal memories also show sex differences. Such regions are voluminous and better arranged in women than men. When it comes to languages (speaking or understanding), Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are the essential brain regions. MRI studies found that women have 23% more voluminous Broca’s area and 13% more in Wernicke’s area than men.

With respect to thinking capabilities, men happen to think with their grey matter. Women, in contrast, think with their white matter. Though studies suggest a complicated setup in women’s brains involving thought processes, the cell connections in the white matter enable them to work faster than men. Interestingly, studies also suggest that men and women access different parts of their brains for the same tasks. Are we different from the other gender because we use our brains differently?

Men and women may usually think differently because they use different brain regions to store memories, feel emotion, conduct decision-making, problem-solving, etc. Studies also show that two brain hemispheres function differently in men and women given the same mental task. Such findings explain why most men and women differ in cognitive tasks such as learning, language development, and problem-solving.

According to the ‘empathizing-systematizing theory,’ the male brain is majorly hardwired for understanding and building systems. They are majorly better at tasks involving movements, such as maze performance or mental rotation tasks. They also have a well-built occipital lobe. Whereas the female brain is more decentralized—allowing them to easily multitask because of their active cerebrum. This also enables them to think logically and emotionally at the same time.

Men's and women’s brains not only develop differently but also age differently. Studies show that brain volume decreases with age among men but remains intact in women. But over time, men start outperforming women in mental tasks due to estrogen loss during menopause in women and greater cognitive reserve in men.

If our brains are different, then our behavior will obviously be different, which forms the crux of the neuro-gender differences. But the catch is that there exist individual differences amidst these gender differences. Moreover, hormones, genes, family, hereditary, environment, lifestyle, and diseases affect our brain functions and structures. Even though women have been suggested to be better at some tasks than men and vice-versa, it is always better to not generalize across the population, given the multitude of factors affecting our brain and consequent behavioral patterns. We can successfully accomplish any task with the right environmental exposure and training, irrespective of our gender!



References:

  1. Biskup, E., Quevenco, F. C., Ferretti, M. T., & Santuccione-Chadha, A. (2019). Sex differences in brain metabolic activity: Beyond the concept of brain age. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 116(22), 10630.

  2. Filon, J. R., Intorcia, A. J., Sue, L. I., Vazquez Arreola, E., Wilson, J., Davis, K. J., ... & Serrano, G. E. (2016). Gender differences in Alzheimer disease: brain atrophy, histopathology burden, and cognition. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology, 75(8), 748-754.

  3. Laws, K. R., Irvine, K., & Gale, T. M. (2016). Sex differences in cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease. World journal of psychiatry, 6(1), 54.

  4. Zagni, E., Simoni, L., & Colombo, D. (2016). Sex and gender differences in central nervous system-related disorders. Neuroscience journal, 2016.

  5. Zaidi, Z. F. (2010). Gender differences in human brain: a review. The open anatomy journal, 2(1).

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