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Gender on the Brain
April 20, 2014
Men are naturally better at math. Women are naturally better at language. We’ve all heard the stereotypes. As neuroscience, the study of the brain, advances, we have an opportunity to discover differences between biology and culture. Where do we currently stand in terms of understanding how the brain shapes gender?

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Before looking at contemporary brain science, let’s take a look at its start. With Darwin’s theory of evolution came the idea that men were more evolved than women, which meant they were naturally smarter. As evidence, scientists claimed that men’s larger brains made them smarter. There are several problems with this idea.

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The first problem is that scientists didn’t know what was happening inside the brain. They were using anecdotal evidence. Secondly, while men’s average brain size is bigger, some women do have larger brains. Thirdly, does this mean men with larger brains are smarter than men with smaller brains?

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Examples of the anecdotal evidence Darwin and others used was pretty straightforward. Men were political and social. They worked to provide for their families. Women stayed home and took care of their families. So, since this was the norm, the scientists figured it had to be based on biology; not culture, environment or discrimination.

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I’d like to point out another huge mistake Darwin and his associates made; they were using the Western European ideal stereotype of gender to support their theory that men were smarter than women. Poor women in their own societies and the vast majority of women in the world did not fit their notions of gender.
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Let’s take a look at what we know about the brain today. Each side is primarily responsible for certain abilities. The left side for: logic, science, math, language, analysis and linear-reasoning. The right side for: creativity, artistry, imagination, nurturing, holism, emotions and communication.
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In the 1900s, this knowledge was used as evidence for stereotypes. Men used the left side of their brain more, so were naturally better at math. Women used the right side more, so naturally wanted to stay home and take care of children. People argued if there weren’t brain differences, more women would want to study math and more men would stay home.
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In terms of connectivity, men’s brains tend to transmit information vertically, whereas women’s brains tend to transmit information horizontally. This has led to some interesting theories, including that women can see the big picture better because they use their whole brain. I’d like to point out that Einstein’s brain had greater connectivity horizontally than most men.
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Scientists can even hook up electrodes to people’s heads and see the electrical currents flowing in the brain while processing information. While doing math problems, a large number of currents can be seen on the left side of men’s brains. For women, there are far fewer currents and they flow across both sides. One theory posits this proves men are naturally better at math.
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An opposing theory argues that the larger number of currents in men proves women’s brains are naturally better at math. Men’s brains have to work harder to process the information. For example, if a body builder and a wimp lift the same amount of weight, the wimp has to work a great deal harder to get the same result.
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In 2008, a study was done on America’s No Child Left Behind standardized math test. The study analyzed the scores of 7 million students in grades 2-11. They found there was no statistical difference between boys and girls at any grade level or on any type of math.
If boys were naturally better at math we’d expect them to always score higher. While the differences for gender were statistically insignificant, white males did have the highest scores for the most difficult math problems. The group with the second highest scores was Asian females, not males.
Another study in 2008 examined how girls and boys learn language. The study revealed that girls successfully learn either orally or visually, whereas boys struggled learning when only one method was used, but were successful when using both together. One possible conclusion is that girls are naturally better at language.
A problem with this theory is that as long as boys were being taught both verbally and orally, their ability kept pace with girls. Girls have an advantage in learning method, but since their final results are the same, are they really better? A second problem is girls may mature faster than boys. It’s possible boys’ ability matches girls’ at an older age.
One last interesting fact about the brain. A rare form of epilepsy that is located in one side of the brain can be treated by removal of the damaged hemisphere. If a hemispherectomy is performed on small children, whether boys or girls, the remaining hemisphere takes over all functions and many of those children lead normal lives.
When we look back at the scientific conclusions about gender made 100 years ago, we can clearly see how their use of anecdotal evidence and lack of technology led them to make erroneous conclusions. Won’t people in a 100 years look back at us and say the same thing about our conclusions of gender on the brain?
Neuroscientist Cordelia Fine urges caution in the scientific community. She argues that yes, men’s and women’s brains are clearly processing information differently, but neuroscience is in its infancy and we still don’t know what is actually happening inside the brain. She is very excited by the research, but warns against premature conclusions.
Part of the reason why I decided to talk about gender on the brain today is because a male student of mine last semester gave up on a difficult assignment because he believed girls were naturally better at English. He lacked motivation to try his best. Limiting one’s own potential is the first danger of these brain research conclusions.
Other dangers, which we have seen frequently, include teachers encouraging one gender more than the other and employers selecting workers based on gender, not on ability. Do we really want to live in a world where people with authority over us determine our future based on their pre-judging our math or language ability by our gender?
It seems highly likely that the average woman and man do have varying abilities based on the brain. But, we currently do not have the knowledge to 100% accurately determine what these are. And, of course there will always be exceptions. Personally, I use these uncertainties to explore notions of gender in all of my novels.
Jared Angel, Betraying the God of Light (Silver Leaf Books, 2012)
Jerry Bergman, “Darwin’s Teaching of Women’s Inferiority” (Institute Creation Research, 
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved (Harvard University Press, 2000)
Janet Hyde, et al., “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance” (Science, Vol.
   321, July 2008, Pp. 494-495)
Weiwei Men, et al., “The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein’s brain: another clue to his
   high intelligence?” (Brain: A Journal of Neurology, Vol. 137, Issue 4, 2013,
Nikhil Swaminathan, “Girl Talk: Are Women Really Better at Language?” (Scientific
   American, 2008,
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Slide 1
This is the transcript of the talk I gave at Pecha Kucha in Nishinomiya, Japan. To watch the video, click here.
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