The XX Factor

The Idea of a “Male Brain” and a “Female Brain” Is Likely a Myth

Dubious theories of sex differences in the brain lead us to educate boys and girls differently.

Men and women are equal—and so are the architectures of our brains, according to a new study by neuroscientist Lise Eliot of the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. According to a write-up in Wired, the study was aimed at evaluating the theory that the hippocampus is larger in women than in men; since the hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory and emotion, this has been proposed as an explanation for all those feelings ladies tend to have. Eliot and her team analyzed 6,000 MRI scans and found “no significant difference in hippocampal size between men and women.”

This is more than a matter of abstract interest for Eliot, the author of the 2010 book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, about how dubious theories of sex differences in the brain lead us to raise and educate boys and girls differently. She’s devoted years to decrying these kinds of stereotypes and their frustratingly strong grip on the American approach to childrearing. In 2011, she teamed up with other experts to write an article in the journal Science debunking the work of several same-sex education theorists, and in 2013, she debated conservative pundit Christina Hoff Sommers, author of a book that argues feminism initiated a “war on boys” in American schools.

The science involved in the claims Eliot tackles is usually impossible for lay readers to evaluate. For example, longtime same-sex education advocate Leonard Sax has argued that the male hippocampus responds better to stress and competition while the female one reacts better to gentleness; his counterpart Michael Gurian has argued that boys are born with a more developed “non-verbal, spatial, kinesthetic” brain while girls are born more “ready to use words.” As Eliot herself has acknowledged at Slate, these claims sound perfectly in line with everything our culture conveys about the innate differences between boys and girls. “It all sounds so sensible—right on target with most gender stereotypes and therefore perfect justification for educating boys and girls differently.”

These theories may be tidy, but that doesn’t make them true. The Science article describes them as “misguided, and often justified by weak, cherrypicked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence.” Unfortunately, as long as they dovetail neatly with American culture, these ideas may remain popular with both parents and principles. As Eliot told Wired in regards to her newest study, “Sex differences in the brain are irresistible to those looking to explain stereotypic differences between men and women, [a]nd they often make a big splash. … Many people believe there is such a thing as a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain.’ But when you look beyond the popularized studies—at collections of all the data—you often find that the differences are minimal.”