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Who’d a-thunk it? There are inherent differences in how men’s and women’s brains are wired and how they work?
View related content: Carpe Diem
In Stanford Medicine’s spring issue “Sex, Gender and Medicine,” there’s a fascinating article titled “Two minds: The cognitive differences between men and women,” here’s a slice:
[In the 1990s], the neuroscience community had largely considered any observed sex-associated differences in cognition and behavior in humans to be due to the effects of cultural influences. But over the past 15 years or so, there’s been a sea change as new technologies have generated a growing pile of evidence that there are inherent differences in how men’s and women’s brains are wired and how they work.
Not how well they work, mind you. Our differences don’t mean one sex or the other is better or smarter or more deserving. Some researchers have grappled with charges of “neurosexism”: falling prey to stereotypes or being too quick to interpret human sex differences as biological rather than cultural. They counter, however, that data from animal research, cross- cultural surveys, natural experiments and brain-imaging studies demonstrate real, if not always earthshaking, brain differences, and that these differences may contribute to differences in behavior and cognition.
In a study of 34 rhesus monkeys, for example, males strongly preferred toys with wheels over plush toys, whereas females found plush toys likable. It would be tough to argue that the monkeys’ parents bought them sex-typed toys or that simian society encourages its male offspring to play more with trucks. A much more recent study established that boys and girls 9 to 17 months old — an age when children show few if any signs of recognizing either their own or other children’s sex — nonetheless show marked differences in their preference for stereotypically male versus stereotypically female toys.
Many of these cognitive differences appear quite early in life. “You see sex differences in spatial-visualization ability in 2- and 3-month-old infants,” Halpern says. Infant girls respond more readily to faces and begin talking earlier. Boys react earlier in infancy to experimentally induced perceptual discrepancies in their visual environment. In adulthood, women remain more oriented to faces, men to things.
MP: What’s surprising to me is that anybody would find these results surprising, and not obvious, even without a “growing pile of research”?