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The evolution and economics of human relationships.

The Extreme Female Brain

Where eating disorders really come from

From a biological perspective, it wouldn’t make much sense if the minds of men and women were identical. There are some important genetic, anatomical, and physiological differences between men and women: given the many brain-body connections, it is both realistic and reasonable to expect that male and female brains may work in slightly different ways, giving rise to sex differences in cognitive abilities, personality, emotions, and behavior.

Countless studies in psychology have shown that, on average, men perform better than women on spatial cognitive tasks, while women are better than men at learning and using languages. In addition, we all know that women are generally better than men at guessing what other people may be thinking or feeling, and more importantly, caring about it: men can be pretty insensitive about these things. According to British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, the differences between male and females brains can be summarized as follows: men are better at “systemizing”, which involves carefully analyzing information and categorizing it in relation to some principles, while women are better at “empathizing”, which involves understanding and caring about other people’s feelings. These, of course, are generalizations about the average male and female mind; there is a lot of variation within each sex and substantial overlap between the sexes, so that there are men with relatively feminine minds and women with more masculine minds. Similarly, men and women differ substantially, on average, in how much testosterone they have in their bodies but there is also a great deal of within-sex variation and overlap between the sexes, with some men who have low, female-like testosterone profiles, and some women who have more testosterone than the average man.

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From an evolutionary perspective, the psychological differences between the sexes are probably adaptive; they evolved to solve different problems that men and women were repeatedly confronted with during our evolutionary history. But if mental masculinity and femininity are distributed continuously in our species, what about the individuals who are at the opposite ends of this distribution, those who have an extreme male or an extreme female brain? Is it possible that these individuals are not as well-adapted as the individuals who have more moderate levels of male or female mindedness, or maybe a well-balanced combination of the two?

It turns out that, when it comes to brains, being a super-male may not be such a good deal. According to Baron-Cohen, Autism-Spectrum-Disorders (ASD), which are far more common in males than in females, may reflect the expression of an extreme male brain, one that has extremely high systemizing skills and extremely low empathizing ones. Individuals with ASD often have excellent abilities for analyzing, organizing, and remembering technical information but poor abilities for communication, expressing emotions, and understanding the emotional and communicative expressions of others. Baron-Cohen has suggested that this extreme male brain may be the result of exposure to too much testosterone in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Until recently, it was unclear what an extreme female brain may look like, but a recent study conducted at the State University of New York in Albany and published in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology has offered some hints about it. The authors of this study, Jennifer Bremser and Gordon Gallup Jr., have shown that too much concern about what other people think and feel is associated with fear of negative evaluations, which may be expressed through apprehension and distress over negative evaluations by others, the avoidance of evaluative social situations, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.

Bremser and Gallup also showed that the association between empathizing and anxiety about negative evaluations is higher in female than in male college students and that, in females, this association is also accompanied by the occurrence of eating disorders, which are notoriously more common in women than in men. These researchers argued that the intense fear of becoming fat, a defining feature of eating disorders, may not be the fear of fat itself, but a fear that arises from the potential to be evaluated disparagingly by others. Therefore, just like Autism Spectrum Disorders may be the product of the combination of the extremely high systemizing and low empathizing tendencies that characterize the extreme male brain, eating disorders may be a manifestation of high negative evaluation anxiety that originates from the combination of the extremely high empathizing and low systemizing characteristics of the extreme female brain. Individuals with such brains may be hypersensitive to social stimuli and worry a lot being judged by others, including judged about their physical appearance.

Based on their characterization of the extreme female brain, Bremser and Gallup also propose a novel interpretation of the association between vegetarianism and eating disorders. In the past, vegetarianism among women with eating disorders was interpreted mainly as a consequence of their efforts to reduce caloric intake. B & G instead suggest that many women with eating disorders may become vegetarian because they have extremely high capacity for empathy and, consequently, strong concerns about animal cruelty and animal welfare. In other words, vegetarianism is another manifestation of the extreme female brain. This interesting suggestion, along with the other novel hypotheses and findings presented in this paper, should provide a lot of food for thought and be thoroughly enjoyed by anyone with an open (male or female) mind, a healthy appetite for new ideas, and no intellectual eating disorders.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 248-254.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The essential difference: male and female brains and the truth about autism. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bremser JA, Gallup Jr, GG (2012). From one extreme to the other: negative evaluation anxiety and disordered eating as candidates for the extreme female brain. Evolutionary Psychology, 10: 457-486.

 

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Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., is a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology at the University of Chicago.

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