Gender and Neurology

by Ava

 

Recently, I’ve noticed a surge in the amount of people who say that gender is a social construct. I’ve been hearing this everywhere: not just in the depths of tumblr.hell, but also on nicer parts of the internet and even from people I know in real life. This got me thinking, and after a bit of research I concluded that I do not agree with this statement.

In this article, I’m going to use scientific articles (all sources listed at the bottom of the page) to back up my opinion on this issue. However, although I think that gender is biological, I will also be arguing the point that transgender people are perfectly valid. This will become clear later on in the article.

In order to see how gender is developed, we have to look at the very first life stage of a human being. You may have heard before that every fetus starts off as a female, and although that is simplifying the matter a little bit, it is essentially true. A fetus will, by default, develop female sex organs if a masculinizing hormone does not activate to change this. This hormone is activated by the Sry gene found on the Y chromosome. This gene, however, does not only make changes to the body, but also to the brain.

Scientists have begun to study the brain’s connection to gender in order to better understand certain mental illnesses. For example, females are more likely to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD), while males are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). What they’ve discovered is that the Sry gene, when activated in utero, sets off a hormone called androgen. This hormone is considered responsible for the feminization or masculinization of the brain, a process which happens during fetal development.

This is especially evident in people with intersex conditions involving androgen. One of these conditions, CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome), occurs in people with XY chromosomes. For some reason, as the name suggests, androgen does not affect them as it would most males. They still develop male gonads, but externally they appear female, and consistently identify as women. The same goes for people with CAH (congenital andrenal hyperplasia), who have XX chromosomes, but whose bodies make far more androgen than the typical female. These people, in the same way, undergo some degree of masculinization of the brain.

When it comes to brain shape and size, there are clearly quantifiable differences between male and female brains. Women have larger frontal cortexes as well as limbic cortexes. Men, on the other hand, have larger amygdala and parietal lobes. These cause many subtle differences in behaviour. This is why, on average, men and women are thought to act in certain ways.

The size and shape, however, are not the defining factor of a brain – neuron activity takes that title. A Penn Medicine study on brain connectivity discovered a major difference between male and female brains. It was found that females have greater connectivity between the two hemispheres of the brain, whereas males have greater connectivity within each hemisphere. In short, women’s neurons “communicate” back and forth between the left and right hemispheres, whereas men’s stay in their own hemispheres. The only exception was in the part of the brain responsible for motor control, where the opposite was observed.

This shows that women are more likely to connect the parts of the brain that are responsible for analyzation and intuition. On the other hand, men are more likely to connect those parts responsible for perception and coordinated action. This explains the results of several studies done in the past, where men and women were given the same tests. On certain tests, men consistently outperformed women, while on other tests it was the opposite.

This is enough evidence to suggest that gender is an ingrained part of our neurology. However, I would like to add that neurology is a complicated field. Every human’s brain is different, and there is nothing wrong with being a feminine man or a masculine woman; you are no less of a man or woman, if you are comfortable living as such.

This brings us to the topic of transgender people. Less than 1% of the population identifies as transgender, making it difficult to study, but some scientists have gathered enough transgender individuals to do substantial research. Brain scans have showed that white matter, the substance that connects the different part of the brain as discussed above, consistently correlates with the person’s gender identity and not their biological sex – even before they have medically transitioned in any way.

Transgender people are born with a mental illness known as gender dysphoria. Dysphoria is basically an extreme discomfort with one’s primary and secondary sex characteristics. It is usually treated by transitioning physically, which usually includes changing the secondary sex characteristics, and sometimes primary ones as well (although this involves an invasive surgery, so some people choose to opt out). If gender were a social construct, then no one would suffer from gender dysphoria. This is another point leading to gender being neurological.

Gender does not have to do with the clothes you wear, or the interests that you have. I could walk around in men’s clothing and fix cars all day, but that would not make me a man, because my neurology dictates otherwise. I think that most people who believe that gender is a social construct are thinking of gender roles, such as the clothing and interests that men and women are expected to have. But in my opinion, the real definition of gender is rooted in neurology.

As one final point, no discussion of gender is complete without one person asking about the validity of non-binary genders. I’m not going to go in-depth here, but I will say that I am open to the idea. I can understand how someone might feel non-binary; however, how would this translate to their neurology? Unfortunately, there are very few (if any at all) neurological studies on this topic, and none that I have been able to find. In the brain scans that I referenced earlier, certain people had brains with both masculine and feminine features. These people, however, all identified as male or female anyway. This is likely because, as some neurologists hypothesize, gender is primarily decided by neuron activity in the white matter. The size of other parts of the brain play a smaller part in gender. So, as it stands, I’ve never seen any proof of non-binary genders, nor have I seen any particularly persuasive arguments. However, I like to keep an open mind, and hopefully we will see some studies to prove or disprove the concept of non-binary. (And, before that happens, I will likely write an article going into more depth on my opinions!)

That’s all from me today, but I’d like everyone to remember: despite our neurological differences, everyone’s brain is based on the same structure. Translated from science-geek to English, that means that despite our differences, we are all human. Treat each other with kindness and respect. See you next time!

 

Sources

Hormones, Sexual Dimorphism, and the Brain

Sex Differences in the Brain – The Scientist Magazine

Brain Connectivity Study – Penn Medicine

Transgender Differences on Brain Scan – New Scientist

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5 thoughts on “Gender and Neurology

  1. I want to point out some major flaws in this. The first major flaw in this is that the author sources a study by Penn University that states that there are inherent differences in the brains of men and women. The author uses this study as an example of how men and women have an innate neurological differences the article however says that these differences were not observed in the subjects younger than 12.
    This could mean many things. With the release of estrogen or testosterone the brain develops differently during puberty; or it could mean that due to social pressure and expectations men and women are forced to activate and use different pathways in their brains leading to more developed pathways for different genders.
    As for this pertaining to trans people most trans people try to force themselves into the gender stereotypes that the gender they identify with has been given. If they have spent their life trying to fit into their assigned gender the person may have connectivity in the areas associated with their assigned gender and when they start to actively identify with their chosen gender they would start to develop the pathways and neurological differences that their chosen gender has because of societal pressure.
    Another thing mentioned by the author is the difference in diagnosis between men and women with certain mental illnesses. I was left wondering if they read the article as the point in which they discuss is how the neurological differences result in different mental illnesses but the actual article in which they got their source talks about how societal influences may and do play a part in the large gap between diagnoses. The article even discusses how a brain cannot be ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ as a brain is an organ consisting of many interacting parts and is more like some areas are feminine and others masculine in any brain.
    Also the author may want to reconsider referring to trans people as having a mental illness. Gender dysphoria is not related to being trans in any way. Trans people may not experience gender dysphoria but are still trans in that they identify with a gender other than the one assigned at birth and people with gender dysphoria feel a deep anxiety over the fact that their body is not right for them. This does not mean that people with gender dysphoria are trans. By generalizing an entire group of people and calling them mentally ill and saying that dressing and acting as a male would not make the author male is disrespectful and awful to trans people. (this is what the author did regardless of intentions)
    As for gender as a social construct when people are discussing gender and gender roles and saying that they are social constructs they are right. You know what else is a social construct? Money, numbers, language, time, ect. anything we use today in modern society is a construct but just because it is doesn’t mean it’s not real. Nobody is saying that gender doesn’t exist but is instead saying that since we as a society have created roles and expectations for each gender and the constraint of a binary system it should not matter if a person identifies or presents outside of it. In fact many past societies have had a third gender and roles for that gender. This means that gender had been constructed in a different way for that society but still existed. Examples of this are two-spirits of the indigenous groups in Canada and the United States, the bissu and warias of Indonesia, the muxes of the Zatopek in Mexico, mahus of Hawaii, and so on. Just because the European binary is considered normal does not mean it is the only social construction of gender. People do not want gender to disappear but instead mold to people who do not fit into it.
    Gender is not related to biology or neurology. Everything the author has stated is the biology of the person in question not just the neurology. Biology and therefore neurology is sex and different from gender. Look just because you’re in a literary arts programme doesn’t meant that you are right about everything you write. I am not saying that I am an expert in this field but I certainly know and will always know more than you will on trans people and gender.

    ~Mars (a non binary trans person)

    Sources:
    – The same as yours
    – My experience as a trans person
    http://listverse.com/2015/10/21/10-examples-of-nonbinary-genders-throughout-history/ (used solely for example I am not an expert on cultures aside from my own and don’t claim to be)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am afraid I would have to disagree with you there, Mars. Just becuase you are something, does not mean you have any particular insight into the neurology behind how you are. Just because I have depressive disorder, that does not mean I have more insight into my condition than Dr. Ed Watkins, a specialist in the field. While Ava may not be an expert, her information and capacity for knowledge can not simply be discounted on the premise of lived experience.
      http://psychology.exeter.ac.uk/staff/index.php?web_id=ed_watkins

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      1. I get that in certain fields study and years of research count as more credibility but for someone who has never lived or experienced life as a trans person it is similar to how one observes a practice then writes a dissertation or essay on it. Papers about trans people written by cis people are second hand knowledge. I know more about being trans than any cis person on the planet because I myself have lived with coming to terms with my gender identity and dealing with coming out to friends, family, and strangers. None of those terrifying moments can be truly captured and studied by people who have not experienced them. It’s like a person who’s been struck by lightning saying “Lightning hurts.” and someone who has never been struck saying “Well lightning could hurt.” who are you going to trust more? The person who has experienced it or the person who has heard the story of being hit.
        Being trans is not something that can easily be defined like how depression can’t. People who have depression express and experience it in different ways than each other and people do not define depression solely in the physical symptoms that they express. If I was forced to prove my depression using physical symptoms I would not be diagnosed without a expensive brain scan. Depression is not just the neurology of it and can’t just be defined by the physical, so why is confine that to trans people.
        My entire argument in the comment before was that gender is not just neurology. Ava did her research and I reviewed her sources and pointed out the flaws in her argument. I never said I had any particular insight into the neurology of being trans but neither does Ava. I looked at her sources and there were not any definite conclusions to draw from that. The differences between peoples brains has not been effectively studied outside of the US centered culture stemming from Europe. There haven’t been follow up studies done yet to determine if it is the release of hormones or social cues that determine the pathways, they haven’t done studies of individuals outside of US centric cultures, and if they have Ava did not use them.

        -Mars

        P.S. how did you post that in the future? it’s 11pm on the 2nd of May when I’m writing this but your post is dated at 3am tomorrow??

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