Gender And Brain Science: Understanding The Male and Female Brain

Since hunters and gatherers first tended to their respective, gender-specific roles; books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus hit bookshelves; and recently, movies like The Female Brain made waves in theaters, there seems to be ongoing and often conflicting ideas, questions and assumptions about the differences between men and women and, specifically, the male and female brain. And, while we know that there are certainly specific similarities and differences between the genders—although these difference can be and are increasingly blurred—how much do we really know about the the male and female brain?

Neuroscientists are on it and making new discoveries everyday. Research will likely change what we know today, but here are a few facts to get you thinking about the brain.

Total brain size: The male brains weigh about 11 percent more than the female brain. This is necessary because men’s larger muscle mass and body size require more neurons to control them. This does not suggest that men are smarter than women.

Cell numbers: Men have four percent more brain cells and 100 grams more brain tissue. This may explain why women are more prone to dementia. Although both may lose the same number of neurons due to disease, males have a greater functional reserve.

Corpus callosum: The corpus callosum moves data between the right and left hemisphere. The research here is mixed. Some studies say that it is bigger and more developed in women; other studies find no differences.

Hypothalamus: This portion of the brain is twice as large in heterosexual men than in women and homosexual men, pointing toward a biological basis for homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Language: For men, language is most often just in the dominant hemisphere of the brain (usually the left side), but a larger number of women seem to be able to use both sides for language. If a woman has a stroke on one side of the brain, she may still retain some language from the other side. Interestingly, people who use pictographic written languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) tend to use both sides of the brain regardless of gender.

Inferior Parietal Lobule: This region is significantly larger in men. This is an interesting area because it is linked to a trait we often think of as both male (mathematical intelligence) and female (emotional intelligence).

Limbic size: Females have larger deep limbic systems—the part of the brain that controls emotion. Women, on average, are more in touch with and generally better able to express their feelings. They have an increased ability to bond and be connected to others. However, they are more susceptible to depression, especially at times of significant hormonal changes, and attempt suicide three times more than men. Yet, men kill themselves three times more than women—in part because they use more violent means, and in part because they are generally less connected to others, increasing their risk of completed suicides.

Three Types of Brains?

Up until now, I’ve discussed two types of brains—the male and the female—but, not so fast. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University (and the cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen: AKA, Borat) posits three common brain types:

  • The “female brain” in which empathizing is stronger than systemizing.
  • The “male brain” in which systemizing is stronger than empathizing.
  • The “balanced brain” in which there is equal balance in systemizing and empathizing.

A key feature of this theory is that your gender cannot tell you which type of brain you have. Not all men have the male brain and not all women have the female brain. Males and females differ in what they are drawn to and what they find easy, but both sexes have their strengths and weakness. Neither sex is superior overall.

Interestingly, when we deliberately change sex-role behavior, say, men become more nurturing or women more aggressive, our hormones and even our brains respond by changing too.