Tag Archives: binary gender

Our Brains Are Gendered … by the Scientists Who Study Them


Laurie and Debbie say:

Lise Eliot, in her review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain sums up the central message of the book as “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain.” Since our aggressively gendered world produces endless myths about gendered bodies, gendered emotions, and gendered preferences, no one should be the least surprised that (extremely gendered) neuroscientists have extended this simplistic binary into the realms of neuroscience.

The history of sex-difference research is rife with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias, weak statistical power, inadequate controls and worse. Rippon, a leading voice against the bad neuroscience of sex differences, uncovers so many examples in this ambitious book that she uses a whack-a-mole metaphor to evoke the eternal cycle. A brain study purports to discover a difference between men and women; it is publicized as, ‘At last, the truth!’, taunting political correctness; other researchers expose some hyped extrapolation or fatal design flaw; and, with luck, the faulty claim fades away — until the next post hoc analysis produces another ‘Aha!’ moment and the cycle repeats. As Rippon shows, this hunt for brain differences “has been vigorously pursued down the ages with all the techniques that science could muster”. And it has exploded in the past three decades, since MRI research joined the fray.

Eliot does not mention (so perhaps Rippon does not either) that any questions of gendered brains must rely on a certainty that we know which brains are male and which brains are female (and that all brains are one or the other), which is in itself a fatally flawed assumption on which to build. The International Olympics Committee, perhaps one of the organizations in the world with most to gain from being able to make a bright-line gender test, has repeatedly failed to be able to do so. In 2018, they simply gave up.

So all gendered neuroscience (“neurosexism”) rests on a faulty foundation. But Rippon, even if she doesn’t question the foundation, has many critical comments about the structure:

… the hunt for proof of women’s inferiority has more recently elided into the hunt for proof of male–female ‘complementarity’. So, this line goes, women are not really less intelligent than men, just ‘different’ in a way that happens to coincide with biblical teachings and the status quo of gender roles. Thus, women’s brains are said to be wired for empathy and intuition, whereas male brains are supposed to be optimized for reason and action.

This was how researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia framed a highly touted 2014 MRI study that seared into the public imagination a picture of men’s and women’s brains as diametrically opposed subway maps: the connections in women are mostly between hemispheres, and those in men within them (M. Ingalhalikar et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 823–828; 2014). However, the map omits the vast majority of connections that did not differ between the study’s adolescent participants; nor did it control for puberty-related maturation or, once again, for brain size, all of which reduces apparent male–female difference.

According to Eliot, the last part of Rippon’s book

… brings us into the twenty-first century, although not to any happy ending. It focuses on women in science and technology, and how the gendered world — including the professionalization of science and a masculine stereotype of “brilliance” — has impeded their entry into, and advancement across, this high-status realm. Talented women are regarded as “workhorses”, men as “feral geniuses”, a distinction that children internalize by the age of six, according to research by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian (L. Bian et al. Am. Psychol. 73, 1139–1153; 2018). And all of this factors into the brain-building cycle of differential expectations, self-confidence and risk-taking that drives boys and girls down different trajectories of career and success.

“Brain-building” here is meant literally; as we learn what is expected of us, our brains (to some degree, at least) modulate themselves to fit. And the reinforcement is constant and vicious. Transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, who transitioned after he had already built a career in neuroscience, is often quoted for his comment “By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Rippon apparently just touches the fringes of the questions of transgender and genderfluid people, noting that the vast majority of people are still locked within the gender binary. Eliot concludes “The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart.”

Gender Binary Exposed Again; Replaced (or Not) with Neuroscience Binary

Debbie says:

I found a lot to appreciate in Robert Sapolsky’s thoughtful essay, “Caitlyn Jenner and Our Cognitive Dissonance,” published last week in Nautilus.

Sapolsky’s piece is in two parts. The first is an overview of why gender isn’t binary, and how complicated gender really is. Some examples:

For starters there’s plants, a number of which are “monoecious,” which is to say that any given plant has both female and male organs (those stamens and pistils). Things are stranger with animals. There are parthenogenic species, where females reproduce without males—numerous reptiles fall in this category, including the incomparably cool Komodo dragon. There are synchronous hermaphrodites where, like monoecious plants, an individual has both sexes’ organs simultaneously. This includes worms, sea cucumbers, snails, and sea bass.

Then there’s spotted hyenas, gender-bending pseudo-hermaphrodites. It’s nearly impossible to determine the sex of a hyena by just looking, as females are big and muscular (due to higher levels than males of some androgenic hormones), have fake scrotal sacs, and enlarged clitorises that can become as erect as the male’s penis. None of which was covered in The Lion King.

That section goes on to examine gender in humans:

The sine qua non of human sex designation in humans is chromosomal—all your cells either have two X chromosomes, making you female, or one X and one Y, making you male. End of story. But no: Instead, there’s various chromosomal disorders where individuals can be XYY, XXY, XXX, X, or XXYY. Most result in infertility; some, like Turner syndrome (in which there is solely an X) produce neurological, metabolic, endocrine, and cardiovascular abnormalities. …

[t]here’s numerous ways where chromosomal sex and phenotypic sex differ, accounting for 1 percent of births. This is not rare—pick a human at random and the odds are greater that they were born with ambiguous intersex genitals than they have an IQ greater than 140.

Perhaps the most interesting dissociation occurs one step further down the line. This is where the person has the chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitals, and secondary sexual characteristics—hair, voice, musculature, facial structure, the works—of one sex. But has always felt like the other.

This is the transgendered world, and some intriguing science hints at its neurobiological bases. There are a number of places in the human brain that are “sexually dimorphic” (where the size, structure, function, and/or chemical makeup of the area differ by sex). The differences aren’t big enough so that you could identify someone’s sex just by knowing the size of one of those regions.

And a clear conclusion …

In other words, it’s not that transgendered individuals think they are a different gender than they actually are. It’s that they’ve had the profoundly crappy luck to be stuck with bodies that are a different gender from who they actually are.

Slowly, a word becomes pertinent—“continuum.” Gender in humans is on a continuum, coming in scads of variants, where genes, organs, hormones, external appearance, and psychosexual identification can vary independently, and where many people have categories of gender identification going on in their heads (and brains) that bear no resemblance to yours. All with a frequency that, while rare, are no rarer than various human traits we label as “normal.”

On a side note, this article comes to a very closely related conclusion about sexual orientation, as opposed to gender identification. “The difference that jumps out at me right away is the new appreciation for “fluidity.” The binary view of male sexual orientation that dominated the field a decade ago has softened. Back then, there was real skepticism about men who reported being anything other than heterosexual or homosexual. After all, lab data tended to suggest that their arousal — which effectively defines sexual orientation in men — was either to male erotica or to female erotica, but not to both.”


Sapolsky and I part company in the second part of his piece, when he discusses human neurobiology and how he claims it locks us in to binary impressions of gender, even though he has just convincingly shown that binary gender is incorrect.

… we think categorically. And dichotomized gender is one of the strongest natural categories the brain has. The categorization is crazy fast—neuroimaging studies show the brain processes faces according to gender, within 150 milliseconds—that’s 150 thousandths of a second—before there’s conscious awareness of gender.

He illustrates this with a study dividing up various categories based on photos of basketball players. The study, for which he does not provide a reference, apparently demonstrated that jersey color overrides race as a category, but gender overrides jersey color. Because there’s no reference (and Google searching doesn’t yield anything obvious), there’s no way to tell how big this study was, how it was conducted, or any of the other ways we separate junk science from useful science.

What bothers me more is that even if this was a huge study, with great double blinds, superb statistics, and unimpeachable methodology (wanna bet?), it still has an obvious flaw: it’s single-culture. It’s about contemporary Western, probably American, sports. It doesn’t take into account the cultures that already don’t operate on a simple binary gender model. Hijras in India, berdache among Native Americans: just two examples of nonbinary gender expectations that — wow! — the brains of the people in those cultures learned (probably early, probably automatically) to recognize and accept.

Not to mention that even in the majority of cultures that do categorize gender as binary, all of them have different lines along which gender distinctions are drawn. In my lifetime, seeing a person in long pants has changed from becoming a gender marker to becoming gender-irrelevant in my U.S. culture. So has seeing a person with long hair. If recognizing gender is hard-wired and unchangeable, how have I changed those two clues inside my brain? I’ve watched young children figuring out gender, asking questions, making mistakes, learning contexts. I’ve listened to elderly native Chinese speakers, having spoken English for sixty years and completely fluent, be unable to “correctly” use gender pronouns. I see the exact same phenomenon in a friend who had a bad stroke.

Sapolsky is putting way too much weight on a few bits of neurological data, and ignoring the vast range of data which don’t fit his thesis. He says,

It’s difficult to imagine, though, any strong selective pressure against our brain’s automatic binary categorization by gender—it can be handy when it comes to that evolutionarily relevant goal of finding a mate. Accepting the fragility of that categorization requires some heavy lifting by the neocortex, the recently evolved, egg-heady part of the brain that is tasked with assimilating the information in an article like this. In 35 years, most of us will still be sniffing at crotches, asking, Boy or girl?

I agree with him that the industrialized world is not going to stop trying to fit people into “women” and “men” any time especially soon. And I even agree that there are evolutionary advantages to knowing “boy or girl”? At the same time, I believe that we can change that, and that the possibility of that change, and the seeds of how it can happen, and is happening, are everywhere if we look for them.