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A 19th-century cartoon on the prospect of women being admitted to Cambridge University, England. Image/Getty.

Are female and male brains different?

 Why women can read maps and, really, no one’s much good at multitasking.

That gelatinous organ inside our skulls has been subjected to considerable scrutiny in recent decades, but according to Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain, there’s still little good evidence the male brain is different from the female brain.

I know! After all these centuries of being told otherwise – as far back as the 19th century, at least, when we were told the male brain was larger than the female brain, which explained the intellectual, biological and social inferiority of women.

Few brain scientists in their right mind would now say brain size is an indicator of intelligence or social competence; the average female brain is smaller than the male brain because it needs to fit inside a female skull that is, on average, smaller than a male skull. And while the average male brain is bigger than the average female brain, it’s also smaller than the brains of elephants and sperm whales.

In recent decades, the differences between men and women have been put down to structural differences in the brain, or the shape of our brains, or the way different parts of the brain are connected, or the hormonal influences on the brain and so on.

But according to Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Birmingham’s Aston University, news of differences between the male and female brain continue to be wildly exaggerated – and she marshals a mountain of evidence to argue her case. 

Many of the recent studies showing physiological differences are methodologically flawed, she says, and often informed by gender-biased researchers asking the wrong sort of questions. It doesn’t help that studies supposedly showing differences between male and female brains tend to get published and generate a lot of media coverage, while those that find little evidence of difference go unreported. (To be fair, her own book has attracted considerable media attention.)

“But why are they [men] so different?” asked a female friend, who has been happily partnered for more than three decades to someone of the opposite sex, when I mentioned Rippon’s book. She’s of the generation who brought up children in the 70s and 80s when parents, aware of the influence of nurture over nature, actually tried to break down the stereotypical messages they were sending their kids, only to find them conforming to gender stereotype.

“And why can they only do one thing at a time?”

To which I suggested most of us can do only one thing at a time, but women might feel obliged to multitask more often than men because men are culturally sanctioned to get away with doing one thing at a time – leaving women to pick up the pieces.

“And why am I rubbish at reading maps?” she said.

Good point. Me too. I dropped out of Brownies after failing at a racing game that involved running north, south, east and west. I have a vivid memory of being yelled at by frustrated fellow Brownies: “North!” they screamed, “north!” I didn’t know what they were shouting about, dropped out of Brownies, and I’ve had no faith in my ability to tell north from south ever since.

Related articles: How much genes determine identity|How reading in a digital world affects your brain

But the idea that men are better at map reading, or have more spatial awareness, than women is just another “gender essentialist” myth, says Rippon, and one of the most persistent. There is some data that suggests boys and men do better in spatial awareness tests, but the differences are tiny. Also, those differences could reflect the methodology of the testing and researchers’ vulnerability to confirmation bias – finding evidence of what conforms to their historical beliefs about the differences between men and women.

There are, she notes, studies that show there’s no difference in spatial awareness between men and women, or between boys and girls, and video gaming apparently makes us all better at it.

We are all guilty of confirmation bias, and my own response to Rippon’s book could probably be put down to it. I’m no neuroscientist, just long enough in the tooth to think people are an incredibly complicated mix of genes, education, family, money, luck and chance – influences that are more traceable (in terms of cause and effect) than biological differences in grey matter.

Rippon isn’t saying men and women aren’t different, only that those differences could be better explained by the gendered world into which our brains are born. Babies and children are “tiny social sponges”, she says, who pick up on social and cultural information early, figuring out “who is part of their in-crowd” and how best to fit in with it.

The messaging starts absurdly early. She recalls the night in 1986 when her second daughter was born, the same night football star Gary Lineker scored a hat-trick at the World Cup. When the nurse handed a bundle of blue to her neighbour in the ward, she said: “Here’s Gary. Cracking pair of lungs!” When Rippon was presented with her daughter wrapped in a yellow blanket, the nurse said: “Here’s yours. The loudest of the lot. Not very ladylike!” As Rippon writes, “Thus, at the tender age of 10 minutes, my tiny daughter had her first encounter with the gendered world into which she had just arrived.” 

Fast forward three decades and consider the recent vogue for “gender-reveal” parties, held for and by parents-to-be at which they announce the sex of their unborn foetus. Follow the money when it comes to gender stereotyping: those in the party industry are now offering balloons to pop, filled with either pink or blue confetti, or cakes that are cut to reveal colour-coded sponge.

We have already been through this nature-versus-nurture argument, and most would agree we’re a result of both. But what the past few decades of brain research has revealed is that the brain is “plastic”, and changes in response to learning and doing new things well into adulthood. One of the most famous examples of this is the study showing London black-cab drivers who, after learning their way around the city streets, had enlarged hippocampi. It didn’t make them “brainier” necessarily, but certainly better at finding their way around London, and it also demonstrated that the brain changes in response to new information.

Numerous studies have also shown brain changes if we learn to play violin, or a new language, even if we practise video gaming. So I might be rubbish at map reading, but is that a result of innate structural aspects in my brain or of my absorbing the message (girls can’t read maps), which stopped me from growing my hippocampus?

I don’t know. It depends on who you read. Rippon has come in for considerable criticism from some neuroscientists, who would insist that men and women use different parts of the brain to encode memories, sense emotions, recognise faces, solve certain problems and make decisions. The brains of men and women of similar intelligence and aptitude perform equally well but work in different ways. They also argue that it’s important to understand this, as it may play out in neurologically based diseases, and raises the possibility of sex-specific treatments.

The critics may be right. Yet given how much the brain has been studied, and that those differences are still “impossible to pinpoint”, it would surely make sense for us non-neuroscientists to take a cautionary approach to headlines that put differences between men and women down to our grey matter. And remain alert to the complex myriad influences that we now know shape our brains in the lived-in world and what might hamper and inhibit their development, and find better ways to help them be the best brains they can be. 

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.