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Are Male And Female Brains Different? Two Leading Opinions

You may think that men and women look differently and think differently from each other. But does that mean that men’s and women’s brains are different?

While men and women may have a lot in common, sometimes it feels like we are two different species. Physiologically, we have more similarities than differences, however, there are particular distinctions beyond physical traits that seem unique to each sex.

Culturally, people tend to assume that women are more emotionally aware and communicative, while men tend to be more aggressive. A widespread assumption is that women are better at multitasking, while men are better at carrying out a single-focused project. These are, of course, generalized assumptions and not true for everyone.

This article will explore the differences between men’s and women’s brains and whether we’re born different or if these are learned behaviors.

Are Male And Female Brains Different?

This question has been on the mind of researchers for decades, with animal studies showing significant differences in male and female brains. But how different are male and female brains in humans?

The answer is a bit nuanced, as there seem to be two opposing opinions.

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Opinion 1: There Are Significant Differences In Male and Female Brains

Epidemiological studies show that men and women have different susceptibility to mental illness. For instance, women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, withdrawing from life, or internalizing their feelings. On the other hand, men tend towards substance abuse or antisocial disorders and externalize emotions leading to aggression and impulsivity.[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402021/

While susceptibility to certain mental health conditions doesn’t necessarily indicate specific brain differences, it indicates some separation between the male and female nervous systems.

This is what’s led researchers to dive deeper into the anatomy of the brain to see if there are any marked differences in the biological structure of male and female brains.

Physical Differences Between the Male and Female Brain

From an anatomical perspective, research shows that the volume of specific areas of the brain differs for males and females. This is especially true in the cortex of the brain, the area that controls thinking and voluntary movements.

For instance, females tend to have greater volume in the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, superior temporal cortex, lateral parietal cortex, and insula. Female brains are also about 11% smaller than male brains, with a higher percentage of gray matter and greater levels of cerebral blood flow.

Meanwhile, males tend to have greater volume in the ventral temporal and occipital regions— two areas involved in high-level visual processing, along with a higher percentage of white matter and a larger amygdala (involved in fight or flight).[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402021/https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/sex-differences-brain-anatomy

Studies that look at the differences in male and female brains not only suggest anatomical variations, but they also explain some of the cognitive and emotional differences experienced by men and women. For instance, research shows that gender has a substantial influence on emotion, memory, and perception. Men and women appear to have unique ways of encoding information, sensing emotions, and solving problems, and making decisions.[3]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006322307001989

When comparing the neurochemicals in male and female brains, significant differences are found in dopaminergic, serotonergic, and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABAergic markers. These markers are involved in mood, motivation, cognition, and circadian rhythm, indicating neurochemical distinctions in the male and female brains.[4]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2019.00185/full

The implications for these differences are important factors to consider when looking at any neuroscientific research. This is especially true in the areas of mental health and neurological health.[5]https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn1909

 

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Opinion 2: There Are Very Few Differences In Male and Female Brains

While the traditional opinion has always been that there are differences between the male and female brain, a new message has recently emerged that has scientists questioning how valid this assumption is.

In a comprehensive meta-synthesis of human brain studies spanning 30 years, investigators found that there were actually very few differences in the male and female brains. While women’s brains are indeed about 11% smaller than men’s, this is in proportion to their body size. To quote from the study:[6]https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210325115316.htm

“This means that the brain differences between large- and small-headed men are as great as the brain differences between the average man and woman.”

From their analysis, the investigators concluded that sex accounts for only about 1% of the variance in brain structure.

What About Behavioral Differences Between Men and Women?

So, how do we explain the rather noticeable differences in emotional processing, cognition, and other behaviors between men and women? The researchers suggest that the neuroplastic nature of the brain gives way to different brain structures that evolve over a lifetime.

Experience alters brain cell function, and epigenetics can influence the development of the central nervous system. Therefore, social and environmental gender-specific learning may be behind the differences we see in the brains of men and women.

The researchers also note that the handful of features that do differ between male and female brains are very small in magnitude. For instance, the male amygdala is only 1% larger in males.

Furthermore, there’s a longstanding notion that men’s and women’s brain hemispheres interact differently. For men, previous research has suggested that each hemisphere acts more independently, while women’s left and right hemispheres are better connected, operating in sync with each other.

However, the consensus of the analysis shows that the differences between these connections in the male and female brain are very small, accounting for less than 1% of the range of left-right connectivity.

And finally, when looking at functional MRI differences to see what areas of the brain “light up” during particular mental tasks, the scientists found very little reproducible data showing any difference in these centers for males and females.[7]https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763421000804?via%3Dihub

The Takeaway

On both sides, the evidence suggests that there are at the very least some differences in male and female brains. However, how this translates into how we act, our cognitive function, how we express emotions, and how we process life experiences is still up for debate.

Generally speaking, there are certain behaviors that males tend to exhibit more than females and vice versa. But these characteristics may be a product of environmental learning as opposed to innate differences in the neurological structure and function of male and female brains.

This information sheds a light on the fact that each individual is unique, and that age, sex, and environment all play a role in your current mental health and cognitive abilities.

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FAQ

Why are men’s brains larger than women’s brains?

Men’s brains tend to be about 11% larger than women’s due to the proportion of their head size. Therefore, brain size is not determined by sex (male or female) but rather by the size of the head of the individual.

What part of the brain controls aggressive behavior?

The amygdala, which is an ancient brain structure, is the primary control center for aggressive behavior in the brain. Men tend to have a slightly larger amygdala than women (about 1%), which may explain why males tend to be more aggressive.

Are women more susceptible to anxiety and depression?

Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or depression than men. This is likely due to fluctuations in female hormones, as the prevalence of both anxiety and depression increases during puberty, following pregnancy, and during menopause.

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