Day 047 - Male and female brains

Submitted by Sam on 6 July, 2011 - 23:25

In 2001, Simon Baron-Cohen and other researchers from the University of Cambridge published a paper exploring whether human sexual dimorphism in sociability (i.e. anecdotal and scientifically observed differences in behaviour between men and women) is a result of biological or socio-cultural differences between the two sexes. The study examined 102 new-born babies (only a day old so that they would not have had time to be influenced by social and cultural factors), testing whether there was a difference in the amount of time the boys and girls spent looking at a face compared to a mechanical mobile. Averaged over the group, their results showed that the male infants spent longer looking at mechanical objects whilst the females showed a stronger interest in the faces 1 , suggesting that the sex differences arise from a biological (i.e. innate neurological) difference, rather than through the social environment.

The male preference for systems is supported by other psychological tests, including the on-average better performance of males at mental rotation tests, where the task is to identify whether a shape is a rotation or a mirror of another. Males are generally both quicker and more accurate at such tests than females, who score more highly in tests measuring empathy. Twelve-month old baby girls, for example, expressively signal more emotional concern through facial expressions and vocalizations than boys of a similar age when confronted with the distress of other people. Women, in general, are more sensitive to facial expressions, and tend to score higher than men when asked to identify what expression a particular image depicts.

These differences, which emerge as statistical trends when groups are compared, have lead Simon Baron-Cohen to create the 'empathizing-systemizing theory', which identifies three common brain types. In this scheme, the 'male' brain is predisposed towards understanding and building of systems; the 'female' brain is hard-wired for empathy, and the 'balanced' brain is equally attuned to both systemizing and empathizing. Crucial to the theory is that your sex doesn't necessarily determine which type of brain you have, as men can have the female brain and women can have the male brain, but trends suggest that men are more likely to have 'male' brains and women more likely to have 'female' brains.

Neurologically, it could be suggested that each brain type is determined by the number or efficiency of its mirror neurons, and thus that male brains have fewer mirror-neurons than female brains.

The BBC has a comprehensive set of six online tests which help identify the 'sex' of your brain, whilst an adaptation of Baron-Cohen's emotional empathy image test is available online here.

I scored 30/36 on the emotional empathy image test, and the BBC test tells me I have a male brain, as I can't spot the difference, and have a preference for more feminine faces.

  • 1. Connellan, Jennifer, Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, Anna Batki, and Jag Ahluwalia. "Sex Differences in Human Neonatal Social Perception." Infant Behavior and Development 23 (2001): 113-18. Print.
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