Girls’ and boys’ brains: How different are they?

Reposted from  

When my son was a toddler, his  best friend, a girl, gave him a sparkling dancing Katrina doll for a birthday present. He’d apparently admired the doll at her house, but once he got it he never played with it – until the day I found him chasing his little brother around with the doll, which he’d managed to twist into the shape of a gun.

Boys will be boys? Proof that gender differences are hardwired? Not so fast. Like most parents, I have just as many tales illustrating the influence of nurture on my son’s behavior. At preschool one day, as he was playing dress up with two girlfriends, he donned a scarlet tutu. Within a minute an older, cooler boy guffawed, “Boys don’t wear dresses!” He never put on girl clothes again.

In recent years, the age-old question of nature versus nurture has sprung up in neurobiology. Are boys’ brains essentially different from girls’ brains? If so, how?

This question has been at the center of a debate that has ping-ponged back and forth over the last couple of decades, and many of the “facts” that have filtered up into popular discourse are both unsubstantiated and untrue. It’s no wonder that many parents are confused about boys and girls and that most essential of organs: the human brain.

How did we get so muddled? The story is an intriguing one involving brain science, bestsellers, and a fair share of baloney.

Back in 1992, when John Gray published Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, he tapped into the public’s tremendous appetite for information about sex differences. Mars vs. Venus is about the gulf between men and women — a chasm so immense, Gray insists, that males and females may as well be from different planets. The book was a dizzying success — Gray’s website calls it “the most popular book of the decade” — and it continues to do well almost 20 years later, generating lucrative spinoffs including couples’ seminars, product endorsements, and revamped versions of the original book (the most recent volume is titled Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice.)

Over the last decade, a number of books identifying essential differences in the male and female brain have had popular appeal. One of these books, The Female Brain by University of California, San Francisco neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, is a bestseller that has been published in 26 countries.

Brizendine stresses the differences between the brains of the two sexes, and exalts the female brain for, among other qualities, its, “tremendous unique aptitudes — outstanding verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind, and the ability to defuse conflict.”

Four years later, in her second book, Brizendine took a close-up look at the male brain, which she calls a “lean, mean problem-solving machine.” As in her first book, The Male Brain focuses on brain differences to explain discrepancies in male/female behavior.

The Female Brain and other, similarly popular books marshal scientific studies to shore up generalizations about the male versus female brain – claims that girls are better at recognizing emotions, for example, or that boys are hardwired for aggression. Such generalizations are delicious fare for popular media and have been echoed in magazine articles and on websites (including an article formerly published here). As a result, these claims have filtered into the collective consciousness. It’s common to hear parents and educators make generalizations about girls’ and boys’ brains, and the way the differences between them are reflected in behavior, learning, and development.

The only problem with these generalizations is that they aren’t substantiated by the scientific evidence — or, at least, they aren’t as true as the “sex difference evangelists” — as Slate calls Brizendine and others who share her approach — imply.

Read the rest of the story here …


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