Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nature, Nurture and Gender Differences

This article is borrowed from Suite101.com 

Same question: culture or biology? Same answer: it's complicated. This is the end, for now, of this issue for me. But if readers have other sources of interesting research, supported beliefs and concepts, pass them along. We probably can't come to a definitive conclusion but seeing the bell-shaped curve of the discussion could be fun.

Gender and the Brain: Hormonal and Cultural Influence

Nov 7, 2010 Gina Barrett
The Human Brain - aigarius
The Human Brain - aigarius
We've all heard that men and women are so different; they might as well hail from different planets. Men and women are said to use their brains in different ways, and it can be proven with MRIs and PET scans. But does this mean that biology is trumping culture? Recent evidence exists for both sides of the nature verses nurture argument.

 Research on Gender, Hormones, and the Brain

The National Association for Single Sex Public Education's website details many recent findings on the structural differences in male and female brains, maintaining that hormonal influences in utero have irrevocably marked brains as male or female. The differences found in male and female brains lead the association to call for single sex education.
Women are said to use both left and right sides of the brain when processing language, men only the left side. Parts of the brain used to navigate have been found to be different in men and women as well. Men are said to be unable to clearly process their own emotions, as they do not activate the cerebral cortex in the same way as women. The male and female brains are said to mature at very different rates as well, with boys brains in some respects resembling a girl's brain that is six years older.

Hormones prime male brains to pay attention to sexual cues, threats to territory and status, while women's are pre-wired to be more empathetic, responding to facial cues. In men, the left inferior parietal lobe is larger, in women, the right. The left side is associated with preception of speed [sic?](I know that the left side is associated with speech, but I don't know what "preception of speed" means. Do you? JCT)  among other things, the right with feelings.  But are hormones our destiny?

Criticism of the Interpretation of Current Gender-based Brain Research

Yet even these hormonal arguments are fuzzy when examined more closely. One intriguing finding is that while testosterone affects the brain, both men and women with high testosterone levels ("high T") react similarly to challenges, cranking up brain activity. Other research notes that our hormone levels themselves fluctuate with environmental influences. Men produce more oxytocin, the "female" hormone, after orgasm. Brizendine chronicles the influence of hormones on men's brains, particularly in relationships, but also notes what cultural factors interact with and modify those hormonal influences. Brizendine notes, for example, that a male's brain circuitry will change as it learns the male cultural norm of not expressing emotion.

Social research has demonstrated the strong influence of cultural expectations about gender. In fact, research on assumptions about gender and behavior demonstrates that being even subtly reminded of a cultural stereotype affects behavior. When students must check off gender before performing mathematical tests, for example, research shows that females tend to do worse. This "priming" has been demonstrated to affect tests of spatial abilities as well. If behavior and brain activity were primarily mediated by patterns set before birth, such differences would not be expected to occur.

In sum, our brains respond to our hormones, which vary between and within members of both sexes. In fact, in large population studies, only slight trends emerge. While we maybe predisposed to one type of response or another, culture has a profound affect on the end result of the response. In short, it's complicated.
Related article
Are there Differences between the Brains of Males and Females? accessed November 7, 2010.
Brain Differences accessed November 6, 2010.
Brizendine, L. The Male Brain: A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think. Broadway Books, New York. 2010.
Fine, C. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. 2010
Oxytocin accessed November 7, 2010
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