In my latest book, 12 Rules for Good Men, that
will come out later this year, I explore what I’ve learned in the last fifty
years doing men’s work. In it, I report on a new study that offers startling
new evidence to support the reality that there are significant, brain-based
differences between males and females.
My colleague, Michael Gurian, has been reporting on
male/female differences in brain function for decades. In a recent a video blog, posted on April 11, 2019, he updates the
research that has been going on for more than 40 years and shares evidence from
a new study that shows brain differences, in utero, long before the effects of
Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., is a family physician, PhD
psychologist, and author of Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge. In a recent
Psychology Today article describing the study, “A New Study Blows Up Old Ideas About Girls and Boys,” he
asks, “Is gender a mere tool of the patriarchy or is it hardwired prior to
Dr. Sax discusses the work of Berkeley professor Judith
Butler, author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, who
is best known for the idea that “male” and “female” are merely social
constructs. He notes that Butler is a professor of comparative literature, not
a neuroscientist, but her ideas about gender have become widely accepted
worldwide in the nearly 30 years since the publication of Gender Trouble.
Cordelia Fine, professor of historical and philosophical
studies at the University of Melbourne, has a similar perspective to Butler’s.
In her 2017 book Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and
Society, she asserted that any claims that women and men differ
significantly in brain or behavior are simply myths perpetuated by our sexist
While accepting that there certainly are social and cultural
aspects to gender differences, Sax is concerned that ignoring the research on
brain differences limits our understanding of who we are as males and females.
“The worldview promulgated by Butler, Fine, and their
followers now constrain what neuroscientists are allowed to say in public,”
says Dr. Sax. “A professor of neurophysiology at Lund University in Sweden
recently told undergraduates that the categories of female and male are, to
some degree, biological realities rather than social constructs and that some
differences in behavior between women and men might, therefore, have a
biological basis. He was promptly denounced by students who claimed that his
remarks were ‘anti-feminist.’ The dean of the medical school duly launched an
It’s difficult to separate the effects of “nature vs
nurture” because they are intimately related. Once the doctor announces “It’s a
boy” or “you have a beautiful baby daughter,” we begin the process of
socializing our children to behave in certain ways.
That’s why the recent study using fetal MRI scans to show
significant female/male brain difference, is so significant. In reviewing the
study, Dr. Sax notes that the researchers were able to do MRI scans on pregnant
mothers in the second and third trimesters, with sufficient resolution to image
the brains of the babies inside the uterus and they found dramatic differences
between female and male brains.
Take a look at this scan from the study:
It shows differences in female connections between the
left cerebellum (CB) and the left superior frontal gyrus (SFG), and
between the left temporal pole and the posterior cingulate cortex
(PCC) compared with males. Remember these are scans of babies in utero, long
before sex and gender socialization could occur.
A great deal of research has demonstrated that there are
significant brain differences between males and female adults, that female
brains show greater connections from one side to the other. But this is the
first research that shows clearly there are differences between males and
females that occur prenatally.
So, who is right? Are sex differences biologically based or
the result of gender socialization? Some want to choose one side or the other.
In a world where sex differences are still used to justify keeping men and
women in their separate boxes and constraining who they can become, some would
side with “nurture over nature.” For those who support the status quo, they
side with “nature over nurture.”
The good news is that we don’t have to choose sides. Both
are true. There are, in fact, important biologically based differences between
males and females. But just because something is biologically based, or even
part of our genetic heritage, doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. The new science
of epigenetics has proven that. Further, biologically based differences don’t
need to be used to restrict what we can do or who we can become.
There are also many aspects of what we’ve come to see as
“inherently male” or “inherently female,” differences that are social
constructs and can, and must, be changed.
Let’s stop trying to win the battle of the sexes and
recognize that males and females are different and alike, that nature and
nurture can’t be separated, and the truth can set us all free, if we’re willing
to let the truth change our hearts and minds.
I look forward to your comments, thoughts, feelings, and ideas. My popular ebook, Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome, is still available. Check it out here and learn what nature and nurture have to do with male anger.
This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.