Joy of joys, a programme on a fascinating topic presented by my two favourite science programme presenters, Michael Moseley and Alice Roberts.
The question at issue was whether male and female brains are different apart from the well documented fact that male brains are, on average, larger. It also transpired that the hypothalamus is better developed in males and the hippocampus better in females.
The main focus of the programme was on brain function rather than structure.
Alice made it clear from the start that she believes any differences in brain function as manifested by behaviour are the result of social conditioning, whereas Michael believes that the differences are innate – partly genetic and perhaps partly the result of the intra-uterine hormonal environment.
The well known propensity of infant boys to play with cars and infant girls with dolls was demonstrated but is this just a reflection of parental expectations influencing the type of toys provided? To test this hypothesis is not possible in humans but the fact that with macaque monkeys the males show a preponderant interest in toy cars whereas the females show more interest in dolls seems to suggest that this difference in preferences is innate. There is a view that the male preference for toy cars is in fact a preference for things that move.
It has long been thought that males are better at visuo-spatial challenges whereas females are better at reading social signals. This was tested using standard tests and a mixed sex group of volunteers and the results were as expected, but only by a small margin. The differences between the genders are significant but not large.
Autism, it seems is just an extreme form of the male mindset – good at visuo-spatial tests but poor at social skills. High intra-uterine testosterone levels may be a key factor here.
Another interesting finding was that the dominant brain functional connections in children are the same in both genders but change after adolescence with male connections being predominantly longitudinal – from visual cortex to frontal cortex and female connections being predominantly transverse – from right lobe to left lobe.
In the end Michael and Alice agreed that the currently available evidence suggests that the differences between males and females are in part innate and in part socially/environmentally conditioned. So Michael accepted that he is not from Mars and Alice was adamant that she is not from Venus!
All in all an informative and well presented programme which gained from the sparky interaction between its two stars.
When I was a boy it was a rare to see a woman driving a car. When I achieved my 17th birthday my father gave me driving lessons but he did not do the same for my three sisters. Last week in the course of having an extension built on our house the mechanical digger used for excavating the trenches for the foundations was driven by a woman. So the impact of social conditioning towards the traditional female role is clearly in decline. The innate differences between the brains of males and females are likely to persist for the foreseeable future but, being small, in the end will have little impact on who does what.
Paul Walker, October 2014.continue reading