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As a neuroscientist, I can attest that searching for distinct "male" and "female" brains is a futile endeavor.

As a neuroscientist, I can attest that searching for distinct “male” and “female” brains is a futile endeavor.


There is a strong demand for knowledge on the distinctions between male and female brains, which the media actively utilizes. A recent study by Stanford University has gained attention for its unique approach in this area, utilizing an AI neural network model to examine brain scans and determine if it can accurately differentiate between male and female brains. In simpler terms, can the algorithm determine if the brain patterns belong to a woman or a man?

The response was affirmative, however, it was expressed with caution in the published paper compared to the discussions surrounding it. The study was noteworthy in its departure from the common “size matters” focus, which investigates the size of male and female brains in different regions. Instead, it utilized a technique that examined discrepancies in blood flow to various areas of the brain when it is functioning.

Unfortunately, even when differences were discovered, they were only explained based on biological sex (using the traditional binary definition). It is time to move away from labeling brains as “male” or “female” and solely relying on that perspective to analyze and present data that has the potential to be intriguing in many other aspects. Debates about sex differences in the brain have been ongoing for centuries, with early participants strongly advocating for the perceived inferiority of the female brain. It would be beneficial to progress beyond this mindset.

This paper is obviously not wanting to draw any inferences about the value, or even the meaning, of the differences they found, but the impression we are left with – magnified by the media interest it sparked – is clearly reflecting an ongoing “hunt the sex differences” agenda. There seems to be an implacable need, even in today’s world, to find a nice set of biologically programmed, sex-specific differences in the brain, and agree that these must be the basis of any female-male differences in behaviour, or temperament, or ability and achievement.

Regarding the field of science, there were two important facts that were overlooked by both this paper and its coverage. The first truth pertains to the distinction between sex and gender, which in the past may have been viewed as a debate between nature versus nurture. However, we now understand that our brains are adaptable and can change throughout our lifetime. For example, a brain scan of an expert musician can reveal if they are a keyboard player (with symmetrical finger control centers in the brain) or a stringed instrument player (with asymmetrical control centers). This suggests that our brains are a reflection of our life experiences and acquired skills, rather than solely predetermined by any “hard-coded” differences. This means that most studies examining adult brain scans are actually observing brains that have been shaped by lifelong experiences, rather than only innate disparities.

One important aspect of brains is their development to facilitate social interactions. However, what has been overlooked by the authors of the study is that the brain areas that differentiate between males and females are crucial components of the social brain network. This network has evolved to be highly attuned to social interactions and to focus on external stimuli and other individuals. The default mode network is responsible for storing important social knowledge acquired through interactions with the outside world, starting from birth and potentially even before. This includes information about oneself, others, social norms, and stereotypes.

The group of participants in this research consisted of 1,500 individuals between the ages of 20 and 35. This offers a wealth of diverse experiences that are likely reflected in their brain function. It should not be assumed that cultural influences are the sole determinant of brain function, as biology may also play a role. It is possible that there are variations in how social experiences shape the brain based on gender. However, when examining a diverse population, simply noting the gender of the participants (young women versus young men) will not provide a complete understanding of the origins of any observed differences.

Scientists must recognize that, while there are numerous research articles containing the phrase “sex differences” in their titles, there is limited or inconclusive proof that any brain disparities discovered can be solely linked to biological sex.

The belief that certain characteristics are inherent and unchangeable has harmful effects. In a recent statement, evolutionary psychologist David C Geary expressed doubts about implementing policies to decrease gender disparities if there is evidence that they stem from biological differences. Discussions on the apparent paradox of gender equality often attribute the issue to unspecified internal factors, without acknowledging that these countries also hold strong stereotypes about women’s aptitude in science.

If we accept the idea that differences between men and women are innate, unchangeable, and impossible to solve, then any efforts to tackle inequalities will likely be ignored, with science being blamed for its beliefs.

  • Gina Rippon is a retired professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University’s Aston Brain Centre. She is also the author of The Gendered Brain.

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Source: theguardian.com