The Myth of the Male and Female Brain: Five Questions for Gina Rippon

The author of “Gender and Our Brains” argues that there is no such thing as a male or female brain.

There’s no such thing as the “male” and “female” brain, according to psychologist Gina Rippon, in her new book, “Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds.”

In her new book “Gender and Our Brains,” cognitive neuroimaging professor Gina Rippon explains that brains aren’t gendered, but research can be.

The differences among women as a group, or men as a group, are greater than the differences between men and women, Rippon says.

Rippon sifts through centuries of research into supposed differences in areas such as behavior, skills, and personality, and shows that external factors like gender stereotypes and real-world experiences are the likely cause of any detectable differences in mental processing. And she demonstrates that the differences among women as a group, or among men as a group, are much greater than the differences between men and women.

She cites a 2015 study looking at 1,400 brain scans as an example. Comparing 160 brain structures in the scans — identifying areas that were, on average, larger in men or in women — researchers could not find any scans that had all “male” traits, or all “female” traits — physical attributes such as weight or tissue thickness. “The images were, literally, of a mosaic,” she says. “We’re trying to force a difference into data that doesn’t exist.”

Rippon teaches cognitive neuroimaging — the study of behavior through brain images — at Aston University in England. For this installment of the Undark Five, I spoke with her about how neuroimages are misinterpreted and whether PMS is real, among other topics. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Undark: Scientists have been trying to find differences in the brains of men and women for years. What are some examples of how the cherry-picking approach is problematic? 

Gina Rippon: It’s what I call the “hunt the differences” agenda, which started about 200 years ago when scientists were starting to understand the importance of the brain in explaining human behavior and human ability.

And they looked at society and they saw that women were … inferior to men in their place in society, access to education achievements. And they took that status quo and then said, “Well, we’re researchers entering an amazing new world of understanding the brain, so we’ll show that these differences between men and women come from differences in their brains.”

And that’s really very overtly informed their research agenda from the beginning — they were trying to explain the status quo and not just trying to see what brains were like.

“If you believe a particular syndrome exists, you will attribute differences you’re experiencing to that syndrome.”

That continues to this day, in that the very name of their research is about sex differences. And so, psychologists are saying, “Men and women are different, so let’s have a look at the brain, see if we can find where in the brain these differences come from.”

One of the very first studies was a language study, by a researcher called Shaywitz, who was trying to demonstrate that men and women processed language differently. They used four different tasks, and one of the tasks showed glimmerings of a sex difference — [in a] very small group of participants in this case — and women processed language using both sides of their brain, and men processed language using one side of their brain. And that fitted in neatly with existing preconceptions about differences in language abilities and language use. That particular finding has proved to have remarkable stickability: People still think that there is this sort of very profound sex difference in how men and women process language.

UD: You teach cognitive neuroimaging, yet you write about the problems in the early days of neuroimaging with how the pictures were interpreted. When certain areas of the brain that are activated are color-coded, for instance, we often perceive a greater change than really exists. How does this happen?

GR: We’ve got this really complex data — hundreds of channels of brain-imaging data collected over an hour, say — and there was a need to explain what this was showing. The color-coding was really a way of highlighting the differences that people found — they weren’t a representation of what was actually going on in the brain.

So if you were carrying out, for example a brain-imaging study, and you’re interested in memory, you would put your female or male participants in your scanner and give them a task such as just reading different words. Once you’d tidied up your data, you’d try and find some kind of difference in brain activity associated with your task. But the differences you find are very tiny and buried in all the other “brain chatter” which is pretty much continuous.

So you set a particular threshold saying “I’m only interested in differences, which are bigger than this amount. And gradually, you focus in on those differences”. And then you allocate them, you select an agreed upon standard of differences, “I’m going to call it red. It’s an increase. And I’m going to call it blue, if it’s a decrease.” You’ve got very compelling images, which show a distribution of a different color.

“If you train an individual of either sex on spatial tasks, their brains will change and their performance will get better.”

But what you’re really looking at is the end product of a very complicated series of image manipulation and statistical analysis, which isn’t fraudulent, but it’s just saying, “We found a way of showing you the differences that we’re interested in.” But people will say, “This part of the brain lights up when somebody’s memorizing words” — which isn’t really what happens.

UD: There are certain mental tasks in information processing, such as spatial skills — map reading, or constructing and manipulating three-dimensional objects — in which men, on average, outperform women. How have these differences emerged?

GR: Spatial skills supposedly [show] a robust sex difference — that men on average perform better on tasks involving spatial thinking than women. Because this is such an apparently reliable finding, it is claimed that it is evidence of an innate, biologically-based aptitude.

But if you take into account spatial experience — people who’ve played with construction toys or play high-action videogames or have hobbies which involve some kind of spatial processing such as building cars or playing darts — that’s a much better predictor of who’s going to be a better spatial thinker.

If you match women with high levels of visuospatial experience with men with the same level, the differences between men and women disappear. What looks like a sex difference has actually arisen from something different — that difference is the gendered opportunities that society may offer to individuals.

UD: You write that sex differences in the brain, or behavior, are often attributed to hormones. For instance, PMS is often associated with “dramatic outbursts of negative mood, poor performance in school or at work, overall decline in cognitive competence.” How do hormones relate to the brain?

GR: With the PMS example, I was tapping into the old idea that women are inferior because of their “biological vulnerability,” because of the physical differences associated with their role in the reproductive cycle. In the 19th century, the suggestion was that they shouldn’t be exposed to education because it could affect their reproductive system.

In talking about the way that beliefs in biological vulnerability might be challenged, I joked about the only questionnaire associated with menstruation: the “menstrual distress questionnaire.” I said there should be an “ovulation euphoria questionnaire” as well. [I found] research which demonstrated that at the point of ovulation, there are some very positive effects on women’s perceptual skills and behaviors — but we don’t tend to hear so much about those. That’s an imbalance in how these findings are reported.

“Every brain is different from every other brain, and our brains are mosaics of all sorts of different characteristics.”

If you believe a particular syndrome exists, you will attribute differences you’re experiencing to that syndrome.

Of course, hormones do affect our behavior. The brain is very flexible throughout our lives, and the human brain is more affected by external demands, including social attitudes and expectations, than any other species. It’s good for us to be social beings, but it’s bad for us if the expectations and attitudes are negative.

We now know that hormones are as flexible and responsive to social situations as the brain. We know that testosterone levels reflect the kind of social situation a man finds himself in. So testosterone levels of new fathers are much lower than testosterone levels of fathers who are not primary carers of new children.

UD: Can we learn anything from looking at the brains of people who are non-gender-identifying? Or trans?

GR: I’m trying to break the idea that there’s an inevitable link between being male [or female], having XX or XY chromosomes and the particular kind of brain you have. But it’s a well-entrenched belief, and informs a lot of expectations we have.

With transgender individuals, or individuals who don’t adhere to the standard binary of male/female, it’s quite clear that the link is not inevitable. [Many] claim, “I was born with a female brain in a male body.” It’s quite challenging if someone like me comes along and says, “There’s no such thing as a female brain.”

But every brain is different from every other brain, and our brains are mosaics of all sorts of different characteristics. No brain is wholly “male” or wholly “female.” We’re starting to unpack that equation.


UPDATE: A previous version of this piece incorrectly characterized Gina Rippon’s argument regarding the existence of a “male” or “female” brain by stating that they are one and the same. The piece has been updated.

Hope Reese is a writer and editor in Louisville, Kentucky. Her writing has appeared in Undark, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Vox, and other publications.

Top visual: Pixologics Studio / Science Photo Library via Getty Images
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6 comments / Join the Discussion

    I can understand wanting to say that biology is not destiny, but it’s equally harmful to ignore the fact that there are biological differences between men and women. To pretend otherwise harms both men and women (think drug testing only in men, ignoring symptom differences for diseases, even marching in the military can harm women because they are generally shorter than the male standard).

    If the author were to take even one injection of testosterone she would understand that at least for any given individual, being testosterone-based vs. estrogen-based comes with concrete differences. Any transgender person who has used hormone therapy can tell you that. At a minimum, sex drives and the way we experience orgasms differ depending on which hormone is dominant. The ability to cry and experience emotions is different. I’m speaking from personal experience. Any transgender man can tell you that it is physically much more difficult to cry when on testosterone than estrogen, and transgender women start crying more freely when on estrogen. I found amusement parks significantly less thrilling after being on testosterone.

    This would have been a much more interesting book if the author had actually listened to transgender people and included a chapter on us instead of ignoring our experiences and further more attempting to say that if we merely had less rigid gender roles that transgender people wouldn’t need to transition or change our bodies. The author writes, “Debunking the myth of the male brain or the female brain should have implications for the transgender community which will hopefully be seen as positive,” i.e., transgender people won’t need to exist because we won’t have any gendered expectations.

    Attempting to theorize away the existence of transgender people, in reality, does nothing to help transgender people, most of whom experience devastating cognitive dissonance from having a body that does not match their brain’s expectations of their body. This book will do nothing to alleviate the 41% attempted suicide rate just because the author paternalistically (maternalistically?) thinks she knows what’s best for people whose direct experience she willfully ignores. (Negative bonus points for the author erroneously saying that life-saving, widely-accepted-among-experts-in-the-field puberty suppression for transgender adolescents is “controversial” and painting the fact that more parents are supporting their transgender children and more transgender adults accessing care as being dangerous epidemics.)

    At a minimum, our brains have a detailed map of our body, and that includes sex characteristics (see the work of V.S. Ramachandran.) People don’t just willy-nilly undergo genital reassignment surgery as a cosmetic procedure. Would the author physically transition and live as a man for the rest of her life if we paid her five million dollars? Why is this not a reality show already? Because, apparently, the brain has a sex that no amount of nurture (or money) can overcome. We don’t need men and women to be biologically equivalent in order for society to be equal, so let’s focus on science that honors differences instead of eliding them.

    Reply

    Male brains are larger than female brains.
    There are many other differences
    Brain Differences Between Genders | Psychology Today
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hope-relationships/201402/brain-differences-between-genders
    27 Feb 2014 … Researchers have discovered almost 100 major differences between male and female brains.

    It’s very very disappointing that Undark should publish this story as if it is the prevailing view of brain differences.

    Reply

    sadly everything she writes is biased .
    you can clearly see 1 zero references 2 always taking the opposing side.

    Reply

    “THERE’S NO such thing as the “male” and “female” brain, according to psychologist Gina Rippon, in her new book,”
    Brain size – Wikipedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain_size
    The size of the brain is a frequent topic of study within the fields of anatomy and evolution. Brain … in women about 1200 g. The volume is around 1260 cm3 in men and 1130 cm3 in women, although there is substantial individual variation
    So the bigger brain is likely to be male- the first sentence is wrong.

    Reply

    Being able to contextualize and see the bigger picture is crutial in science. Here is how science works.
    Let’s imagine this scenario: We are measuring the effect of our independent variable A (gender) on our dependent variable B (brain size). We find a correlation: A relates to B. Eureka! Brain size depends on gender! Well… We need to watch out for any confounding effects. And here comes into play the bigger picture. It could also be that a third variable C (confound) is having an effect on the dependent variable B. That is, it could also be that A is related to B only through C and we if we take C into consideration, the correlation between A and B disappears. This is exactly what happens here in our example of brain size. The brain size is directly proportionate to the size of the body. The size of the body (our confound) and not gender is the variable that really explains variable B (brain size). And it is also the source of the substantial individual variation that you mention. To wrap up, if we see a brain of about 1260 cm3 (as opposed to 1130 cm3) the correct assumption would be: This brain belongs to a person with a bigger body size. And from there another step would be hypothesizing: Ok, is it more probable for a man or a woman to have a bigger body size?
    Finally, we could conclude that gender is related to body size, but there might be a confound variable there as well.

    Reply
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