Is there any difference between male and female brains? What does it mean for trans folks?
Lise Eliot is out with a new interesting article on the idea that male and female brains are different. She and her colleagues have published a new meta-study of research on existing biological research that, as she sees it, shows that there is no difference between male and female brains beyond size.
It is a very interesting paper. I would argue, though, that the arguments she makes against this part of neuroscience does not prove that there is no biological component to gender identity and that transgender identities therefore must be purely psychological. More about that further down.
The gender stereotypes of the brain
Everyone knows the difference between male and female brains. One is chatty and a little nervous, but never forgets and takes good care of others. The other is calmer, albeit more impulsive, but can tune out gossip to get the job done.
These are stereotypes, of course, but they hold surprising sway over the way actual brain science is designed and interpreted. Since the dawn of MRI [Magnetic resonance imaging, used for brain scans], neuroscientists have worked ceaselessly to find differences between men’s and women’s brains. This research attracts lots of attention because it’s just so easy to try to link any particular brain finding to some gender difference in behavior.
A zombie concept
The comprehensive review she and her colleagues has made on 30 years of research on the brain and sex/gender is, however, that none of these claims have been proven.
She argues that the male vs. female brain dichotomy is a zombie concept:
Still, “sexual dimorphism” won’t die. It’s a zombie concept, with the latest revival using artificial intelligence to predict whether a given brain scan comes from a man or woman.
Computers can do this with 80% to 90% accuracy except, once again, this accuracy falls to 60% (or not much better than a coin flip) when you properly control for head size. More troublesome is that these algorithms don’t translate across populations, such as European versus Chinese. Such inconsistency shows there are no universal features that discriminate male and female brains in humans-unlike those deer antlers.
She also put these finding into an LGBTQA context:
The absence of binary brain sex features also resonates with the increasing numbers of people who identify as nonbinary, queer, nonconforming, or transgender. Whatever influence biological sex exerts directly on human brain circuitry is clearly not sufficient to explain the multidimensional behaviors we lump under the complex phenomenon of gender.
But does all of this mean that gender identity is purely psychological?
No. What Eliot has documented is that there is no easily identifiable female/male switch somewhere in the brain that determines if someone experiences themselves as male or female or which triggers them live up to the gender stereotypes.
Gender identity may still have a biological component.
Originally published at https://trans-express.lgbt.