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Male and Female Brains

Pink and blue are never true: pure fantasy!

We are still in a very early stage of effective brain research. There is so little known in comparison with what is yet to be known, a few drops in a vast ocean. As in most scientific fields, the advances in research come only after the advances in technology permit them. So, for example, we can now see via fMRI’s and PET scans, what areas of the brain are active in various tasks. We can see the human brain via autopsy and rare surgeries. The rest of the information comes to us through research on other species and the applicability to humans is a heady mixture of hope, conjecture and primitive empiricism.

Still, much of this research depends on the questions we ask and many of neuroscience’s early questions reflect the most obvious gender and racial biases of culture. And so scientists search for the differences between female and male brains. This is a simple and simplistic question for several reasons. Gender and sexuality are being shown to be much more diverse than the traditional Western dichotomy followed religiously by Western science. Male and female brains are much more similar than different[1] and the differences that do exist can be accounted for by the influence of the environment as much as by genetics and hormones.[2]

The new and burgeoning field of epigenetics[3] has begun to discover the complex interaction between genetics and environment. In this conversation, environment appears to have the louder voice. For example, early childhood trauma is associated with higher rates of illness such as cancer in middle age. Trauma experienced by your maternal grandmother in childhood can influence your own genes because the ovum that will be your mother is already in grandma’s body even when she is a child.

We still know so little about the incredibly complex human brain, but we do know this much. Your brain is neither female nor male, mars nor venus, pink nor blue. These are popular notions based more in fantasy than in fact. As a species, we seem to long for simplicity, but it rarely is there, so we sometimes achieve it simply by reducing complexity to simple, dichotomous categories. We then come to believe in these categories. Gender and race are two examples of such categories.[4]

In fact, every human brain is a complex mixture of so-called masculine and feminine qualities. While they are affected by the hormones estrogen and testosterone in utero and after, these two hormones are far from the only influence. An interesting and relatively recent line of neurological research makes us aware that the digestive system may have more influence on mood and emotions than the brain area itself. The gut, in fact, contains more serotonin and dopamine than does the brain. Thus, gut feelings.As I have said in Engendered Lives[5] and elsewhere, the mind is in every cell and not just inside the skull.

How we ask the question predetermines the answer. This is simple epistemology. We look first for differences because cultural values affect even scientists and even when they are wrong. It is science itself that is beginning to correct these misconceptions as they become irresistibly obvious.

[1] Joel, D. (2011), Men vs. Women: Our Key Physical Differences, Frontiers of Integrative Neuroscience,

[2] Eliot, L. (2012).Pink Brain, Blue Brain..

[3] McCarthy, M.M. and Arnold, A.P. (2011). Reframing Sexual Differentiation in the Brain, Nature Neuroscience, 677-683

[4] Kaschak, E. (2015) Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press.

[5] Kaschak, E. (1992) Engendered Lives: A New Psychology of Women’s Experience, Perseus, New York.

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