Today lots of media outlets are reporting on a study that claims to have found that male and female brains are “wired differently”.
The scientists claim to have found that women’s brains have more connections between the left and right hemispheres, whereas men’s brains have more connections within the hemispheres.
The study mapped neural connections in the brains of 428 males and 521 females aged eight to 22.
Previous studies have shown that the left and right hemispheres tend towards different tasks. So today’s findings have been said to explain why women are supposedly better at, for example, multitasking and men are better at reading maps.
But it might not be that simple.
1. Men’s and women’s brains are different. But we don’t know how these differences relate to behaviour.
In general, men have larger brains than women. They also have more white matter, whereas women have more grey matter. For a great background read on this try Mo Costandi’s post at the Guardian.
In it he says:
“Subtle observable differences exist between male and female brains, but how exactly these relate to differences in behaviour is unknown. Such gender variations in the brain are often exaggerated and misappropriated, not only by the mass media but also by scientists, to reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate myths”
2. Let’s talk about “hardwiring”.
Your brain is not a circuit board, but that doesn’t stop everyone using the term “hardwired” to describe it. Even the scientists who did this study.
“If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better,” Ragini Verma, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and study author, told the Guardian.
But plenty of neuroscientists are not happy with the term. Some basic things are essentially fixed in the brain, but in general our brains have a huge capacity to change.
“Hardwiring is a very dodgy term to use,” Dr Dean Burnett told BuzzFeed. “Everything you ever experience affects what your brain’s connections are like.”
By the time these people participated in the study, they’d had between eight and 22 years of society thrown at them. So saying what the scientists found is “hardwired” is a huge leap.
3. The participants in this study are WEIRD.
That is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. All of the adults in the study were recruited from the University of Pennsylvania.
While this is a problem with a lot of studies, it’s not one that can be ignored. “It makes it easier to compare between study participants, but you can’t generalise that to the wider population,” Burnett says.
Basically, if you only study Americans that doesn’t tell you anything about, say, people brought up in China.
4. The study only compares between sexes.
In the scientific literature, there’s evidence for bigger differences in brains between age groups than sexes, Burnett says.
But the scientists who undertook this study don’t compare between ages. If they did, chances are they’d find bigger differences there than between sexes. “They seem to be ignoring anything that would contradict their hypothesis,” Burnett says.
And the study authors also don’t say how much of a difference they found between male and female brains.
5. The stereotypes this study claims to support might not even be true.
Are men just as capable of browsing the internet and petting a cat at the same time as women are? Several studies have shown that neither men nor women are, in general, better at multitasking.