Although gender differences are not always etched in stone, when it comes to masculine and feminine behavior and traits, arguments are frequently torn between “nature and nurture”. Where gender traits are often shaped by one’s environment and individual life experiences, it leaves scientists wondering whether there is such a thing as a male or female brain and exactly what those gender differences are in brain function.
In the past 10 years, research has shown there are definitive sex-based biological differences between the male and female brain; in structure, chemistry, and in function. Variations of these occur throughout the brain in areas of language, memory, emotion, vision, hearing and navigation.
Typically and overall, men’s brains are 10% larger than women’s. Though this statistic does not necessarily denote brain superiority, when it comes to certain segments of the brain, in some parts, size does matter. Under the frontal lobe of the brain, there is a narrow strip of the cerebral cortex called the “straight gyrus” or SG. According to a University of Iowa study, this SG appears to be 10% bigger in women who tested high in social cognition. Since it is not gender-specific, both males and females who had high scores in interpersonal awareness also had larger SGs.
The straight gyrus may be a reflection of a person’s femininity; those who had a larger SG tended to be more feminine, indicating the difference could be a psychological gender, rather than a biological one. In addition, the study concluded perhaps female brains had a more developed SG for purposes of child-rearing, making it a more biological bent. As mentioned previously, all conclusions of brain research are not etched in stone.
Motor Skills – While women are better at fine-motor skills, men are more adept at large-motor coordination, especially those involving target-directed activities like playing darts, use of bow and arrow, gun-shooting, etc.
Mathematical Thinking – Traditionally, it has been surmised that boys are better at math than girls. Even though males may be better at mathematical reasoning, females are more adept in mathematical calculations such addition/subtraction/multiplication/division.
Vision – While men are better at abstract thinking (certain spatial tasks), women deal better in perceptual speed, such as being able to put together pictures of things that look alike, a lot faster than men.
Verbal – Women tend to be more fluent verbally, and better at expressing their feelings than men. They also have better memory when it comes to displacement of items when found in picture-testing. According to a report by Northwestern University, when it comes to processing language, girls and boys use slightly different parts of the brain.
This testing was done through a process called “functional magnetic resonance imaging”. When it came to making a list of words that rhymed, girls used more language areas of the brain than boys. On the other hand, boys used more of their brain when it came to doing this same task.
Social Cognition – This is a theory based on emotional intelligence and relationships. Traditionally, women have outperformed men in this aspect of brain function. While the structure of the brain is purely biological, life experiences can change the brain. When it comes to empathy, women have more than men. This divide between men and women seem to increase with age. However, scientists tend to think this part of social cognition is attributed more to conditioning and environmental factors than sex-specific brain function.
When it comes to treating various brain abnormalities, there may be more serious implications. Treating either a male or female brain may require sex-specific therapies for such diseases as addiction, depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.
In the case of Alzheimer’s, men and women experience different behavioral problems, with different symptoms of abnormalities. In schizophrenia, the age of onset is different in men and women; symptoms and length of disease also differ. Structural differences show men with schizophrenia have larger ventricles (communicating cavities in the brain) in comparison to healthier men. As such, no enlargements appeared in women with schizophrenia.
As research continues for studying differences between men and women, especially brain function, the scenario continues to be an interesting venue in the proverbial “battle of the sexes”.