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Gender-Based Brain Differences

We know that there are gender-based differences in the bodies of humans. But what about in our brains? What are the cognitive differences that can be considered innate? Here is what some of the research shows.

BBC Science, working with researchers in North America and the United Kingdom, created a research project on psychological sex differences in conjunction with Secrets of the Sexes, a documentary program. During three months (February-May 2005) they surveyed people using the internet, with over 250,000 people from around the world responding.

The results, which were reported in the April 2009 issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior (Volume 36, No 2), included the following...

* Not surprisingly, it was confirmed that all mental abilities decline with age. However, men's mental abilities decline more on average than women's, and this appears to be true regardless of sexual orientation.

* Across all cultures, men scored higher on tests of mental rotation and the ability to judge line angles. Women scored higher on word fluency and tests of object location memory.

* Visual-spatial abilities of gay men were more likely to be similar to women’s abilities. The visual-spatial abilities of lesbian women were more likely to be similar to men's.

Other studies have shown differences that are innate. In a recent article on, Diane Halpern, who has studied cognitive gender differences for over 25 years and currently works at Claremont McKenna College in California as a professor of psychology, was quoted as saying, "We do socialize our boys and girls differently, but the contribution of biology is not zero."

The differences are sometimes exaggerated. It is commonly assumed that boys are better than girls at math, and that this difference is innate. But Halpern says that in cultures that are more gender-equal the higher scores and greater apparent math abilities for males is not evident.

On the other hand, when both boys and girls are given essentially equal encouragement (and access) to education, some differences are actually accentuated. Girls become better at reading, according to Halpern, and with visual-spatial tasks the scores for boys surpass those of girls even more.

Halpern notes that regardless of gender differences in their brains, cognitive development is impaired (on average) by poverty.

Research at the University of Iowa, reported on in a Scientific American article, shows that one particular part of the ventral prefrontal cortex is proportionally larger in women. The ventral prefrontal cortex is active when we make interpersonal judgments, and used for what is referred to as "social cognition." The part that is larger (by about 10% proportionally) in women is the straight gyrus or SG. This was not only a larger part of the brains of the women tested (30 women were compared to 30 men), but in men and women a larger SG correlated with higher scores on tests of interpersonal awareness.

One clear gender difference is that men's brains are larger than women's. They are about 10% on average. But this does not offer any specific advantage to men versus women, because the more relevant measure is brain size in relation to body size. Elephants, after all, are not considered more intelligent than humans, even though their brains are a little over ten pounds, compared to about three pounds for humans. An elephant's brain is about .1% of its weight, while a human's is about 2%, making it proportionally 20 times larger. Since the brain is used to direct all of the various systems in an animal's body, in general a larger body requires more brainpower, presumably leaving less for cognitive tasks.

Note: Perhaps the most relevant measure is brain size proportional to the size of the body systems (frame size, length of blood vessels, and so on), not weight. After all, there is little evidence that a person's brain function shifts focus from cognitive tasks to more body regulation with weight gain. In other words we do not become less intelligent because fat cells enlarge.

These are interesting findings perhaps, but are they useful in some way? When dealing with individuals and their characteristics, the generalizations that come from science are not usually relevant. For example, it is reasonable to conclude that men are, on average, physically larger and stronger than woman, but that says nothing about a specific person. Plenty of specific women are larger and stronger than many specific men. The usefulness of gender-based brain research might be in how we design education. Compensating for the differences with specific curriculums is a possibility. But there is a valid question as to whether attempting to equalize specific abilities or brain functions is a worthy or necessary goal.

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