Male vs. Female Brains

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The male and female human brains are different. Some of the better documented differences are similar to differences seen in other mammals. They are hard to find, very small, and may or may not be of great significance. Obviously, some are very important because they probably relate to such things as the ability … or lack thereof … to bear offspring. But this is hardly ever considered in the parodies we see of these differences.

[Repost from]

You have all seen the sometimes funny, sometimes not cartoon depictions of these differences, for example this one:

Obviously, this is in part a joke: If you looked at someone’s brain, you would not find it to be structured in this way at all. These vastly different “regions” are meant to lampoon culturally widespread perceptions of male-female differences in overall behavior, attitude, etc. by showing huge corresponding brain differences in the cartoon. It is interesting to consider that the differences purported in this sort of cartoon are huge, but the actual neurological differences we see in the real brains are small.

But what about these differences? It is often said that behind every stereotype there is some reality, or that everything no matter how fanciful has a grain of truth, etc. These are utterly idiotic things to say. If you were just now thinking that you kinda agree with these statements, please reconsider. Consider the possibility that people can habitually say or believe something and it is nothing close to, and not remotely based on, any kind of truth. Like that the stars are jewels stuck to the inside of an overturned bowl. That is not even close to the truth.

In almost all cartoon comparative neuroanatomy, males brains have large “sex” regions while female brains have large “don’t want sex” regions (such as a headache generator). This probably means that the person who drew the cartoon is either a teenage male or an older male who is too geeked-out to get dates. That is why he has time to draw these cartoons.

Other differences shown in the cartoons relate to language. These usually denigrate the female half of the equation (the “talk, talk, and more talk” region). It is interesting to note that in real life females have fewer language-related deficits than males, and can often engage in two conversations simultaneously, which most men can not do. It is possible that the language related differences, or some of them, relate to the difference between males and females in the number of connections between the left and right hemispheres (females have way more).

Other differences shown in many cartoons are obviously generation and subculture dependent. For instance, the ability to program a VCR and the fixation on the remote. I live with two females, and one of them is the only person in the house who can program the VCR. I can do it if I need to, but I threw out the directions and it will take me a while to figure out, and blood will be spilled and profanities uttered. Both of my female house mates are about as fixated on the remote as I am. They tend to be able to find it more easily than I can, because their ancestors were gatherers and finding the remote is roughly the same thing as finding nuts, berries, and most importantly, plant underground storage organs. I, on the other hand, descend from a long line of hunters, so I tend to hunt the remote. Hunting, as is well known, tends to yield a more inconsistent return. So most of the time I don’t find any remote at all, and now and then, I find three or four of them in one episode of searching.

In any event, I think the cartoon depictions of male vs. female brains have two functions. One is as a means of examining cultural attitudes towards sex differences. Cultural distinctions, cultural activities, enculturated values, beliefs, and abilities tend to be both much more dramatic and much less controllable or adjustable than so-called “biological” differences. (Which is the opposite of what most people believe.) The cartoons tell us more about the cartoonist than about the object of the cartoon’s message. Also, it is interesting to note that some of the sex differences shown in the cartoons … which are presumably always of heterosexual cartoon brains … are part of the widely enculturated beliefs about homosexuality. A gay man understands, appreciates, and is generally into shoes (men or women’s shoes). Gay men understand the difference between wants and needs. And so on. However, we rarely if ever see the gay vs. straight brain cartoon. Off hand, I can think of no examples.

Which reminds me, if you are interested, please post a comment pointing to any brain difference cartoons you think are interesting or at least (from some perspective or another) funny. If I get enough, and they are sufficiently interesting, I’ll make a post that has them all as a kind of Web Museum of Brain Difference Cartoons. I could use it in class.

The other, closely related, function of these cartoons is as a touchstone to beliefs about how the brain works regardless of sex differences. For instance, the brain seems to function, according to these cartoons, to regulate sexual behavior, linguistic activities, and grooming or household activities. I find it interesting that these cartoons rarely reference thermoregulation, which absolutely counts as a perceived sex differences, and is definitely regulated in the brain.

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40 thoughts on “Male vs. Female Brains

  1. This post reminded me of the time many years ago (1982, I think) when I received my SAT scores. Somewhere in the packet of information was a listing of top schools and the average scores of the schools’ incoming freshmen. My scores were 625 math and 675 verbal (that’s how they broke it down back then). I noticed something odd. There was only one school listed which had a higher average verbal score than average math score. Why was it only this one? Later, I did some investigation as to why, and the answer sort of jumped out at me. That particular school limited its enrollment to women only.

  2. “I, on the other hand, descend from a long line of hunters, so I tend to hunt the remote.”

    Same here. I generally hold very still and scan the room, hoping to stay unnoticed until the remote gets careless and reveals its position.

  3. On the topic of the hunter vs. gather thing.

    Are you aware of any studies that look at male vs female behaviour when trying to locate objects?

    I really do notice that when I’m looking for something I have a strong urge to freeze and take a full account of my surroundings while woman seem more apt to start rummaging around for the item right away. I’m curious if this is an actual cross-cultural difference or just my imagination.

  4. I see a lot of sexist talk here but no science to back it up, Greg.

    For example, regarding your comments on programming the VCR. It apparently hasn’t occurred to people that the root issue here (assuming it even is an issue – as the sage says, the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”) may not be what it seems.

    What if the male issue with programming video recorders is that it shouldn’t be so labor-intensive? What if alpha males feel that in this day and age, it ought to be far more effort-free, more natural, more intuitive (voice-controlled, perhaps), and these alpha males (or males who perceive themselves to be alpha) are less willing to endure or support incompetence, whereas women may be more inclined to work around issues rather than boycott them?

  5. For the irony impaired: Assume that men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. Please tell me how anyone in the house is not going to be descended from long lines of both.

  6. “Why was it only this one? Later, I did some investigation as to why, and the answer sort of jumped out at me. That particular school limited its enrollment to women only.”

    And how much is this “natural” and how much is this society telling women they are less interested in math?

  7. And how much is this “natural” and how much is this society telling women they are less interested in math?

    The assumption that something like this would be natural is astonishing to me, given what we know about brain, learning, and culture.

    There is a fair amount of research to inform us. There probably are some cognitive (capacity/intelligence) differences between average men and women that are typically the results of how brains are conditioned by hormones during sexual differentiation (with most of this being loss of capacity by males), but basic math abilities that we see in test scores seem to differentiate entirely because of cultural and educational effects.

  8. “Natural” was a bad word to use, but my non-caffeinated brain was having issues coming up with anything else, thus the quotes.:)

  9. Good God do I need coffee! I did not mean to hit submit.

    ” but basic math abilities that we see in test scores seem to differentiate entirely because of cultural and educational effects.

    This is what I figured! Thanks!

  10. To Change the Subject (a Little)

    You may be interested in Normal Sexual Dimorphism of the Adult Human Brain Assessed by In Vivo Magnetic Resonance Imaging by Jill M. Goldstein, Larry J., Nicholas J. Horton, Nikos Makris, David N. Kennedy, Verne S. Caviness, Jr, Stephen V. Faraone, and Ming T. Tsuang; Cerebral Cortex Volume 11, Number 6, June 2001.

    From the abstract:

    Sexual dimorphisms of adult brain volumes were more evident in the cortex, with women having larger volumes, relative to cerebrum size, particularly in frontal and medial paralimbic cortices. Men had larger volumes, relative to cerebrum size, in frontomedial cortex, the amygdala and hypothalamus. A permutation test showed that, compared to other brain areas assessed in this study, there was greater sexual dimorphism among brain areas that are homologous with those identified in animal studies showing greater levels of sex steroid receptors during critical periods of brain development.

    From the discussion:

    Findings from this study replicate that normal men have larger cerebrums than women, but also show that there are regionspecific sex differences in adult brain volumes, relative to cerebrum size, particularly in the cortex. That is, sexual dimorphisms of adult brain volumes are not diffusely spread across the brain.


    There are a number of study limitations that raise questions about the interpretation of our results. First, we are making inferences about associations between early developmental factors and adult brain outcomes 40 years later. There are many changes that affect the emergence of adult sexual dimorphisms that are unaccounted for here. These include circulating androgens in adulthood, as indicated by recent work demonstrating morphometric changes in specific amygdaloid nuclei in the adult rat that were wholly controlled by circulating androgens (Cooke et al., 1999Go; McEwen, 1999Go), and hormonal actions affecting structural plasticity of the adult brain during life experience (McEwen, 1999Go). Second, morphometric analyses of MR images are only an approximation of the architectonically defined brain regions evaluated in animal studies. Thus, further work is required to demonstrate the translation from animal to human brain areas. Third, this study was not a study of developmental mechanisms, which would be necessary in order to actually test the hypothesis that hormonal activity early in development is associated with adult human brain volumes. Nevertheless, we do find region-specific, volumetric sexual dimorphisms of the adult human brain. Further, we suggest, in a preliminary step, that they may be, in part, associated with sex steroid activity early in development.

  11. Other differences shown in the cartoons relate to language. These usually denigrate the female half of the equation (the “talk, talk, and more talk” region).

    Hasn’t there been at least one study that’s indicated that in mixed social settings men usually do much more of the talking than women?

  12. I find it interesting that these cartoons rarely reference thermoregulation

    Most people probably don’t realize that the brain regulates pretty much everything at some level. Perhaps thermal regulation is assumed to be regulated by the skin.

  13. My girlfriend and I are both video gamers. We tend to play games in a completely different style — she focuses on advancing the plot, while I focus on “completion”, e.g. collecting all the widgets in a particular level to get that extra 1% on my final score. Where possible, she will avoid enemies, sometimes yelping if one surprises her, while I will fight every enemy that comes along — for the experience, or to prove I’m better than them.

    Just adding another anecdote to the “data”.

  14. My daughter is easily able to been similar-aged males in any video game, and she mops the floor with me all the time. Clearly there is a huge sex difference working here…

  15. Yes, clearly gender has no affect on whether people take up games with physical coordination requirements and how long they play them.

    C’mon, people! A lot of the differences between men and women may be developed rather than innate, but it doesn’t follow that innate tendencies have no influence on whether potentialities are developed or not.

    Boys tend to play-act violence more often than nuturing, and vice versa for girls. It is possible that cultural influences are not the only reason for this difference.

  16. Caledonian, which people are saying there are no innate differences? Or is pointing out the fact that there are pervasive cultural influences the same thing in your book?

  17. In my comment regarding the SAT scores, I certainly did not mean to imply that men were better than women at math. And I certainly don’t think any of the differences point directly to a difference in the brain, though that could be a factor. Women I have known seem to me to have a much better grasp of the nuances involved in language processing when compared to men I have known. Is it biological? Is it cultural? I have no idea. I think this may be responsible to a certain degree for the amount of time we men spend with one foot firmly implanted in our mouth.

  18. I’m the girlfriend that Jason mentioned ^ up there.

    It’s true, I often yelp and give the controls to him when I encounter enemies in adventure games.

    Although, I think it should be said that I kick his butt in Mortal Kombat.


  19. It is possible that cultural influences are not the only reason for this difference.

    Can someone from the “nature” side either provide me a satisfactory explanation of why they start arguing against someone else who categorically, a priori denies any biological influence on gender difference in observed behavior and measured abilities, every time we express skepticism about the latest status-quo-reinforcing just=so story, or acknowledge that flagrant intellectual dishonesty is the norm on their side of the argument? I’m really getting sick of that straw herring.

  20. @Azkyroth:

    I suspect it’s because too often the suggestion that there might be an environmental explanation is being used as an excuse to shut off a non-politically-correct idea: that there are inherent, genetic differences between people that impact their ability to perform in this (or any) culture.

    I’ll grant that there isn’t much of that here, but there are other blogs where it’s de rigueur. For those of us who’ve lived with the “politically correct” efforts to censor free speech, much less free scientific investigation, since the 70’s, this tends to be a flash point.

    Evidently, in the last decade the efforts to suppress such investigations seem to have started to break down, but there’s still a lot of opposition, and many people are somewhat over-sensitive.

  21. It upsets me that any time someone makes any implication that sexual dimorphism in humans might have some effect on thought patterns and habits, someone comes along and screams misogyny, e.g. that any admission of difference in genders will ultimately lead to women being subjugated, and then someone else comes along and screams that obviously gender differences are the *only* factor, leading to someone claiming that down that road lies racist, sexist, classist behaviours. In my experience, reality does not conform to any extremists’ viewpoints in just about any instance, so it’s safe to say neither view is right, but some people will be swayed by one or the other.

    I’m going to put my neck in the guillotine and say “men and women are different, but should be treated equally as far as human rights and the workplace are concerned”.

    This will inevitably get me drawn and quartered by all parties involved.

  22. @Jason Thibeault:

    I think anybody familiar with the research would agree that both nature and nurture probably have a hand in the ultimate outcome. Moreover, all this is involved in determining statistical outcomes: the differences among individuals of any such group are normally much larger than the differences among group averages.

    The biggest problem, IMO, is the tendency to think that the results of such statistical research mandate (or even encourage) some sort of social action.

  23. The antipathy towards the “nature” proponents stems largely from pattern recognition. There certainly may be different trends in the innate neurological characteristics of men and women (research suggests this is the case), but there are so many confounding factors and uncertainties (the fact that there’s more than one way to approach a real-life problem, as opposed to a highly artificial abstraction meant to more precisely measure the skills assumed to be employed in solving the associated real-life problems, fruitfully is a big one that tends to be overlooked), that no rational person would try to argue that the debate is settled or that the overall answer is clear. Given this, the desire of some parties to declare the debate settled demands an alternate explanation. In the case of those who argue that all measured or perceived gender differences are clearly and obviously inborn and immutable (apparently without realizing that these are two different assertions), the fact that the majority of those who argue this position A) wish to declare the debate settled in a way that either presents males as superior or, more commonly, reinforces the assumptions used to prop up the existing social order which privileges males, and B) are male, suggests one.

    Frankly, I haven’t met a single person who actually dogmatically asserts that no innate differences are possible. I have met a lot of people who are aware of the scientific community’s shameful record of “finding” results from studying certain demographic groups that reinforce popular prejudices about those groups, and are sick and fucking tired of the people who show up in a debate and try to do a verbal sleight-of-hand between “there are some differences in the way men’s and women’s brains are structured that may result in differences in certain cognitive abilities or behaviors” to “we don’t need to do anything about the lack of women in engineering – they ain’t being discriminated against, their poor little brains just can’t handle it!” as though the former proposition implied the latter.

  24. I liked this read. Although, you may want to make it clear that you are critiquing the cartoon before you post it. I almost didn’t make it past the very inaccurate partitioning of my brain.

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