Myths and stereotypes about the sexes abound in our society. Girls love Barbie and boys love Lego. Women are more sensitive and cooperative, whereas men are more aggressive and sexual. However much these apparent differences are borne out by the behaviour of men and women, many experts argue that they are driven by cultural forces, not biology – and recent research appears to back this argument up. Neuroimaging of human brains shows that while some features are more common in the brains of women and others are more common in the brains of men, the vast majority of people have a highly individual mix of both. In other words, we all have an intersex brain, neither male nor female. And far from being rooted in biology, it is argued, behavioural differences between the sexes are due to the fact that we live in a highly gendered world where society’s expectations of what boys and girls should be like begin from the moment they are born.
That’s the argument made by those who claim that there is no such thing as the female brain. But not everyone agrees that the science behind it is correct. In fact, some neuroscientists say that human brain scanning allows us to predict whether a person is male or female with 90% accuracy. And while they wouldn’t want to deny the importance of culture in explaining behavioural differences between the sexes, these experts argue that this isn’t the whole story. For example, you only have to look at most other primates to see that physical aggression is a predominantly male attribute, explained by the biological pressure to find a mate. Human males are far more violent than females across all cultures, and new research links this trait to specific mechanisms in the brain. Other traits such as risk-taking, behaviour while playing, and responses to social defeat also differ between the sexes in the animal world as they do among men and women, which suggests that these differences are fundamentally rooted in our biology.
So are women’s and men’s brains fundamentally the same? Or are they innately different in ways that can help us better understand ourselves?
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