Neuroscience offers answers to this centuries-old question.
For centuries, the study of the brain has focused on the differences between men and women’s brains.
Even within the popularization of science, titles such as “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” have become bestsellers. What are these differences and how much do they really matter?
Also read: Mind and brain: are they the same?
Neuroscience specialists Sandra Báez, from Colombia, and Diego Golombek, from Argentina, answered this complicated question in #DiálogosNCC: “Gender and Brain: When science debunks the myths”, organized in commemoration of World Brain Day.
We have learned more about the brain in the last ten years than in all of human history.
Today, we know that there are differences between men and women’s brains because hormonal factors influence how they develop.
Anatomically, there are also differences such as size and weight, larger and smaller brains, thinner and thicker cortex, and more or less gray matter.
But how much do these differences matter? Do these have any bearing on intelligence quotient or people’s abilities?
Although the hippocampus is associated with memory and the amygdala with the processing of fear and memory, these differences don’t explain anything, says Diego Golombek. What really matters is something finer; how these neurons communicate with each other.
“The idea used to be that bigger brains were smarter, which was debated for years. However, it’s not size or weight that’s related to the intellectual capacity of cognitive functions, but other aspects that have more to do with the brain’s architecture,” says Sandra Báez.
And the Argentinian scientist adds, “Nothing can be so absolute. Brain size doesn’t matter. What matters is what we do with it and the same goes for all those differences.”
Little by little, studies have stopped looking at size and now focus more on function. They have delved into the connectivity between areas of men and women’s brains to see if there’s a difference in their composition.
Our brains change all the time. This is called plasticity.
The changes that occur between neurons are a product of what we do —the roles imposed by gender, the tasks we perform, etc.— that’s how gender shapes the brain.
“Much of what we are lies in our brains: our decisions, morals, senses to some extent, activities, and actions have a lot to do with it. We aren’t just our brains, but brains play a large part in who we are,” says Golombek.
There are also other factors that influence how male or female brains develop as we grow up, including the following list from the Colombian specialist:
“It goes far beyond gender, it’s about who we are, what our factory settings are, how much is recorded in our genes, and how much comes from culture and the environment. It’s a constant interaction between our factory settings and what we do with them. This is what happens when gender is shaped in the brain, it has to do with factory settings,” says the Argentinian.
This means that what determines how we incorporate gender into the brain is actually the product of multiple factors, including culture, environment, and assigned roles.
For years, neuroscience research has focused on the differences between men and women’s brains, but recent studies like those from Daphna Joel have focused on the similarities, which her study says are greater.
Daphna proposes a new concept: the mosaic brain. This is a novel concept that arises from searching in the brain for the origin of this supposed divergence of abilities, preferences, and behaviors.
“It’s better to study it by regions or mosaics and see how each one develops, so we don’t miss something out by classifying it as male or female,” Sandra explained.
Human brains are mosaics of male and female characteristics, but there are no absolutes. In fact, there are more intermediate points between these characteristics.
“Statistically, it isn’t clear that we can speak of a male or female brain. The brain structure is similar. How important is it? There’s no difference in intellectual capacity between men and women. Memory and attention have nothing to do with your sex,” explains Golombek.
The brain is a mass weighing just over a kilogram housed in our skulls. Although it would be a mistake to conclude that there aren’t any differences between the sexes, science is still working on how these differences arise and to what extent they occur.