Male vs. female brains - is there scientific evidence for our differences?

'Men are from Mars, women are from Venus' - do you recognize that quote? The title of the book written by John Gray has become one of the most cited phrases every time a woman shakes her head in disbelief trying to figure out a man and vice versa. So what does science have to say about the topic: scientifically speaking, how different are men and women from one another? 

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Our different brains

Looking at the literary status quo, the answer seems quite obvious: almost every book ever written about this topic has come to the conclusion that the differences between men and women are so astonishingly abundant, it is a wonder we can even communicate with our friends of the opposite sex. For the brave amongst us who still dare to engage in an intersexual conversation, a dictionary at hand will definitely come in handy as without it, the course of conversation might sound a lot like the debate you are struggling to have with a taxi driver in a foreign country you just landed in. A country whose language you do not even remotely speak that is. Wildly gesticulating at one another as if the words could be danced out silently has never been a more legitimate form of communication. Haven't we all been there? So let's see what science has to say about the differences between men and women. Are there actual fundamental differences in male and female brains? Or are the differences between us rather a result of social conventions?

An analysis of a thousand brains

In 2013, a study conducted at the University of Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania examined the brains of nearly a thousand men and women. The researchers were trying to figure out whether there were any notable differences in the structure of the examined male and female brains. And indeed, this is what they found:

- Male brains are on average 8% larger than female brains. However, the neural cells of female brains show a greater number of linkages. 

- Female brains carry a great amount of linkages between the left and the right part of the brain. A male brain on the other hand has more linkages between its front and back part. This is evidence to the fact that women are better at basing a decision on analytical (left part of the brain) as well as intuitive (right part of the brain) grounds. 

- However, this does not apply to the cerebellum of a brain as there are more linkages between the left and the right part of the cerebellum in a male brain than in that of a female brain. This indicates that men can master complex movement sequences such as skiing more easily.

- The so-called limbic system on the other hand is more pronounced in the female brain. One of the things the limbic system is responsible for is the emotional evaluation of social and interpersonal interactions such as conversations, leading to the assumption that women are more sensitive in emotionally evaluating social interactions.

- The so-called inferior parietal lobule is more distinctly developed in the male brain than in the female one. As we know from previous studies, this part of the brain is necessary for the development of mathematical skills. This is why men tend to perform better in mathematical exercises of IQ tests.

The role of stereotypes

Does our sex influence our performance?Even though these results are very unambiguous, we should be careful not to generalise them. Whether we are looking to solve a mathematical equation or interprete the emotional needs of our counterpart, our skills depend on a number of different features. Motivation for example is a key element in determining the success of an individual’s academic or professional performance as many of us probably know from experience. 

Against this background, it is worth mentioning a study conducted at the University of Vienna. The goal of the study was to compare the mathematical performance of young boys and girls in an IQ test. The participants were divided into two groups - one group did not receive any particular instructions, the other, in contrast, was told that boys and girls are equally competent in solving mathematical problems. The results were astonishing: the group that had not received any particular instructions illustrated the above-mentioned differences between male and female performances whereas there were no gender-related differences found in the performance of the participants of the second group - the group that had been told beforehand that the mathematical competence of women is equal to that of men. 

Reversing trends at University

A high amount of female studentsThese findings impressively show that the social context as a whole has to be considered when looking at the differences in performance of men and women as often times, stereotypes that are deeply rooted within us are influencing our perception of gender differences. Looking at the academic context, this theory can be confirmed. A few decades ago, the number of male students enrolled in subjects such as medicine was considerably larger than the number of female students - as the assumption was still predominant that men were more suitable to study medicine compared to women. Today however, it is the female students that generally make up the majority of medical students.

So in a nutshell, what can be said about the differences between men and women? We have seen that there are indeed significant differences between a male and a female brain. But we should be careful not to attach too much importance to these differences as social criteria such as stereotypes play an equally important role in assessing the differences between both sexes. Finally, there is also a positive side to these research findings: next time you are trying to figure out the mysterious minds of the opposite sex, rest assured that a) you now know where our differences come from and b) you are definitely not alone in your misery. 
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Sources:

Ingalhalikar, M., Smith, A., Parker, D., Satterwhaite, T. D., Elliott, M. A., Ruparel, K., Hakonarson, H., Gur, R. E., Gur, R. C., & Verma, R. (2013). Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (2), 823-828.

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