"Gendered" differences in the brain aren't so clear cut
by Brenda Jin
However, in a recent article in Scientific American, Lise Eliot explores the surprising recent findings on social cognition and interpersonal judgment by a team of researchers at the University of Iowa. Interestingly, this group of researches has added two crucial elements to their study which throw into question the idea that our brains have been “biologically” set up to make females more sympathetic or understanding—age and a “psychological” gender test (in addition to the conventional standard of biological sex). They discovered that not only does the area of the brain responsible for social cognition and interpersonal judgment—known as the “SG” for “straight gyrus”—change during puberty; the section is larger in prepubescent boys than in prepubescent girls! Furthermore, the “SG” is correspondingly larger in individuals determined to be more “psychologically” female.
Therefore, although a common assumption associated as well with the so-called “evolutionary” reason that women have developed an ability to empathize and understand others better (because they have historically been care-givers of children), research reveals that it is actually unclear whether certain behavioral differences are hard-wired, given the extreme malleability of the brain, which also begs the question: are we asking the questions backwards? Does society simply associate “social cognition” with gender so strongly that those who are supposedly more socially aware are also determined to be more “psychologically feminine”?
One thing is for sure: experience changes the brain, and this research reveals that there is a huge grey area in determining which behaviors are socially learned and assigned by society versus those that have been with us from birth. A new understanding of nature vs. nurture as seen by how the brain changes before and after puberty and the relationship of brain function to social function might show us that nurture plays a larger role than previously though in defining so-called “gendered” behavior.