Neuroscience of the sexes: Gender differences in the brain?

We all know the differences between male and females. For centuries we’ve discussed the physical, social and emotional differences between man and woman. But one questions still remains: are there gender differences in the brain? Scientists are starting to show that there are actually neurological differences between male and female. How do they know? Let’s find out!

Are there gender differences in the brain?

Battle of the sexes

How much do you know about gender differences? Take this quiz to find out!

[rapid_quiz question=”Humans are made up of 23 pairs of chromosomes, one of which determines sex. Which of the following is the chromosome pair for a male?” answer=”XY” options=”XX|XY|YY|I’m not sure!” notes=”Females carry the XX chromosomes and males carry the XY chromosomes. In development, a fetus is actually at a “default” setting of both male and female. When the Y chromosome is activated, it sends signals for the fetus to fully develop into a male.”]

[rapid_quiz question=”Testosterone is responsible for what in men?.” answer=”All of the above” options=”Aggression, competitiveness and sexual drive|Fetal development before birth|Sexual development during puberty|All of the above” notes=”Testosterone is a sex hormone in men that contributes a lot to growth and development. It triggers the development of reproductive organs both in utero and during puberty. It also contributes to male emotional and social developments.”]

[rapid_quiz question=”Testosterone is only found in men, while estrogen is only found in females.” answer=”False” options=”True|False|I don’t know” notes=”The ovaries of a female actually produce both testosterone and estrogen! In females, there are high levels of estrogen and low levels of testosterone. Males produce estrogen as well, and their levels are the opposite: testosterone is high and estrogen levels are low. These two hormones play a key role in the growth and repair of reproductive organs.”]

[rapid_quiz question=”What is the name of the hormone produced by women during birth?” answer=”Oxytocin” options=”Estrogen|Dopamine|Oxytocin|Serotonin” notes=”Oxytocin is both a hormone and a medication. When in delivery, oxytocin is responsible for the uterine contractions during labor. It also helps to create a sense of euphoria for the mom, and fosters a connection between mother and baby. It’s used as medication to induce labor, if there are any dangers or complications during the delivery process.”]

[rapid_quiz question=”Men are more affected by X- linked conditions than women.” answer=”True” options=”True|False|I don’t know” notes=”Sad but true! Since females have two X chromosomes, if there is something wrong with one X chromosome, the other one can just take over. But males only have one X chromosome, so there is something wrong with it, they have no backup and they’re likely to develop certain conditions. One example is color blindness, which effects 1 in 12 men, and 1 in 200 women in the world.”]

Gender differences in the brain

To determine the differences in the brain between genders, scientists observe 4 key areas of the brain: processing ability, structure, chemistry, and activity.

Processing and Gender Differences in the Brain

Our brain can be divided into two types of matter: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter refers to the areas of the brain that contain more of the dendrites, cell bodies, and axon terminals of the neurons (For more information, check out this article!). White matter refers to the axon part of a neuron connecting everything together.

Research shows that men have almost 7 times more gray matter than women do, but women have 10 times more white matter than males! What does this mean? Well, it could be a possible reason as to why men and women think so differently. Gray matter is found in specific areas of the brain, where information and action processing takes place. This translates into men being so focused on one task that he often forgets the people or the things around him- “tunnel vision” as we call it. On the other hand, white matter connects all the processing centers to each other. This explains why females can switch between tasks and multi-task so easily.

Structure and Gender Differences in the Brain

When it comes to structure, scientists look at the actual size and mass of different parts of the brain. Females have larger and more connections to the hippocampus– a center responsible for memory- than men do. This means that women process more sensory and emotional information than men do.

Believe it or not, gender differences in the brain are apparent even during fetal development! Scientists have found differences in the development of the left and right hemispheres between the sexes. One example is the verbal centers. For males, the verbal centers are only found on the left hemisphere, whereas females have verbal centers on both hemispheres. This means that females may use more words when describing memories or events, and may have more emotional connection to words.

Chemistry and Gender Differences in the Brain

Males and females have the same chemicals in the brain. But the levels in which the chemicals are present is what really matters. For example, both males and females produce the hormone testosterone, but males produce it at much greater levels than females. Similarly, both sexes produce estrogen, but women produce much more than men. Another difference between the genders is the presence of oxytocin, which is largely responsible for bonding between a mother and baby.

More testosterone translates into men being more aggressive and more physically impulsive. Not to mention, sex hormones are also a key role in sexual and physical development during puberty.

Brain activity and Gender Differences in the Brain

Ladies, the next time you’re feeling pretty emotional, don’t be afraid to let it out! The truth is, females are actually hardwired to experience more emotion. Some studies have shown that females have more blood flow to more areas of the brain (because of more white matter). There’s even higher blood flow in an area called the cingulate gyrus, which is largely responsible creating emotional responses to memories. Men, on the other hand, tend to briefly analyze their emotions and then move on to another task. But it’s not that they’re avoiding their feelings, they’re just choosing to do a more active task than analyzing feelings.


What the future holds for us: Men vs. Women

Before you start arguing over which is the better sex, let’s just take a step back. These findings on gender differences in the brain are patterns seen across people and other studies. While some studies may find that there are gender differences in the brain, others may say just the opposite. Everyone is different, and it can be a little difficult to find distinct differences between large groups of people. Our environments play such a key role in our development, from a social to a neurological level.

Nevertheless, this research can do some great things for the future. For one, it can change the way our society defines gender. It can help us further appreciate the differences between genders, and even change the way we raise and support our children. We can also use it to change the way we look at mental health. For example, knowing that males are “wired” to be a little more aggressive can help us teach boys how to relieve their stress in healthy ways. It can also help us figure out early intervention methods for females, who are more likely to experience depression or anxiety than males.

While it can be very helpful, this kind of research may also have the potential to cause harm. Finding out that one sex has superior cognitive abilities can really impact the bias and disadvantages towards the other sex. Regardless, just remember that understanding gender differences in the brain brings us one step closer to understanding us as human beings.

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