August 28, 2020

Credit: RubberBall Productions / Getty Images

*This piece was originally published on January 17th, 2020

It’s no secret that men and women are different — it’s the punchline of a hundred jokes, the subject of bestsellers, and part of an infamous manifesto. But does our sex really show in our brains, or is there something else at play?

Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Aston University in the U.K. and author of “Gender and Our Brains,” argues that sex doesn’t play nearly as big a role in influencing our brains as we might think. Rather, she says, social cues likely start to influence children at very young ages - and it is those cues that really account for many of the differences we see.

Three Takeaways:

  • Male or female is not “hardwired” into people’s brains, according to Rippon. She says that the brain remains plastic throughout life, meaning that it changes constantly depending on what experiences we have (how we’re treated, our jobs, our hobbies, etc.). And while males and females have different hormones affecting physical development - like testosterone and estrogen - Rippon says there’s no reason to believe that those hormones radically change the organization or functioning of the brain.
  • The reason behind the marked differences between males and females, according to Rippon, might depend more on how we’re taught to behave. Rippon says that children start picking up on how people define gender before two years old, which affects the choices kids make later on. Rippon also cites a study saying that upwards of 90% of boys feel that their parents wouldn’t want them to participate in feminine behaviors. 
  • Gender is not unimportant - Rippon argues that while it creates little difference in brain organization, there are clear differences between men and women when it comes to brain-based diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression, and eating disorders.

More reading:

  • Neuroscientist Daphna Joel and historian Cordelia Fine write more about gender and the brain in this op-ed in the New York Times.
  • Girls are being underdiagnosed with autism, but why? Read this article by WIRED to hear about how both social and biological factors are impacting the problem.
  • A new study shows boys and girls have about the same skills in math. Read about the study, and the social side of the gender gap in this article from NPR.

science and tech, Culture, gina rippon, psychology, gender

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