Whose brain is better? Male or female? is a debate that has given rise to gender stereotypes about intellect, skill set, and careers. It has been evidenced that structural differences exist between certain brain areas in men and women. A man’s brain is 11% larger than a woman’s . This relates to the physical body size of men. There is a deeper intricacy to your cognition than your brain size. The real question is, when it comes to brain power, are male and female brains different?
Brain size or brain connections?
A ground-breaking review of 30 years of brain research concluded that gender accounts for a 1% difference between male and female brains . This reinforces that intellect is unrelated to structural differences in the brain.The brain’s ability to communicate between different parts and make connections is what makes it powerful. Everything you have accomplished is a result of the connections your brain cells made. You can arrive at the same destination by taking two different roads. Similarly, male and female brains process information differently to arrive at the same solution. Both brains are equally capable of making diverse connections.
A study involved 9620 participants (4495 males and 5125 females) and mapped their brain connections. Their connection patterns were matched with those previously identified as male or female patterns. 25% of the participants’ brains categorised as male, 25% categorised as females and the majority 50% had both male and female connections . This highlights that brain connections and behaviour influence each other, irrespective of gender.
Psychologist Janet Hyde analysed studies on behaviour and cognitive skills of 7 million people and found that almost 80% of the studies reported similarities between men and women .
Do sex hormones influence the brain?
Sex hormones like testosterone in men and estrogen in women are strongly gender specific and influence the workings of your brain. This partly explains why certain disorders are more common in one gender, for example, women are more likely to have mood disorders while men are more likely to have antisocial disorders . Oestrogen, whose levels fluctuate during a woman’s lifetime, is directly involved in production of brain chemicals that regulate mood. It also influences brain areas responsible for new cell production, thereby increasing protection against dementia  In men, optimal levels of testosterone are needed to regulate mood, form new brain connections, and influence social behaviour .
This is further seen in transgender studies. When those transitioning to female were treated with oestrogen, there was a decrease in brain size. Similarly, those transitioning to male and treated with testosterone had an increase in brain size .
How do gender stereotypes affect cognition?
There are reports of the female brain being better at verbal tests while the male brain performing better at maths and object orientation (mentally organising objects in different positions) tests. Scientists have looked at one possible contribution to these differences: gender stereotypes. In a study, males and females were tested on verbal and object orientation tests. In one group, gender stereotypes were reinforced using a questionnaire before conducting the tests, while the other group answered a neutral questionnaire. The gender stereotype activated group scored in accordance with the stereotype where females did better at verbal tests while men did better on the object orientation test , compared to the neutral group.
Dr Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University reviewed over 100 studies and found that boys and girls were equally smart in maths and science . This dispels the myth that one gender is smarter than the other. Over time, stereotypes can impact cognitive abilities.
Internalising stereotypes can influence cognitive abilities and mental health. A review of 78 studies found that men who conformed to negative male gender stereotypes were more isolated and had psychiatric issues . An interesting global study involving 27 countries found that women living in countries with high gender-equality performed better at cognitive tests compared to those living in countries with traditional gender norms . Women were more likely to underestimate their intelligence (30% women vs 5% men) and had lower academic self-esteem, while the opposite was true for men , despite measured IQ being equal between both genders.
Can intelligence be gender-neutral?
The good news is that gender stereotypes might soon be a thing of the past. A review of public polls of 30,000 people between 1946 and 2018 brings hope . In 1946, 35% of people believed men and women were equally intelligent. In 2018, 86% believed that both genders were equally smart, with 9% believing women were smarter.
Intelligence is inherently gender neutral. The ability of brain cells to make diverse and strong connections drive learning and memory processes and consequently intelligence . Social environment, education, exercise, nutrition, stress, and sleep are some modifiable factors that influence your brain’s ability to make connections. You can make relevant improvements to help your brain make connections throughout life. A better-connected brain is a smarter brain, regardless of whether it resides in a man or a woman.
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