Scientists haven’t found any major differences between women’s and men’s brains
Are there innate differences between female and male brains?
People have searched for sex differences in human brains since at least the 19th century, when scientist Samuel George Morton poured seeds and lead shot into human skulls to measure their volumes.
Gustave Le Bon found men's brains are usually larger than women's, which prompted Alexander Bains and George Romanes to argue this size difference makes men smarter. But John Stuart Mill pointed out, by this criterion, elephants and whales should be smarter than people.
So focus shifted to the relative sizes of brain regions. Phrenologists suggested the part of the cerebrum above the eyes, called the frontal lobe, is most important for intelligence and is proportionally larger in men, while the parietal lobe, just behind the frontal lobe, is proportionally larger in women. Later, neuroanatomists argued instead the parietal lobe is more important for intelligence and men's are actually larger.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, researchers looked for distinctively female or male characteristics in smaller brain subdivisions. As a behavioral neurobiologist and author, I think this search is misguided because human brains are so varied.
Anatomical brain differences
The largest and most consistent brain sex difference has been found in the hypothalamus, a small structure that regulates reproductive physiology and behavior. At least one hypothalamic subdivision is larger in male rodents and humans.
But the goal for many researchers was to identify brain causes of supposed sex differences in thinking – not just reproductive physiology – and so attention turned to the large human cerebrum, which is responsible for intelligence.
Within the cerebrum, no region has received more attention in both race and sex difference research than the corpus callosum, a thick band of nerve fibers that carries signals between the two cerebral hemispheres.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, some researchers found the whole corpus callosum is proportionally larger in women on average while others found only certain parts are bigger. This difference drew popular attention and was suggested to cause cognitive sex differences.
But smaller brains have a proportionally larger corpus callosum regardless of the owner's sex, and studies of this structure's size differences have been inconsistent. The story is similar for other cerebral measures, which is why trying to explain supposed cognitive sex differences through brain anatomy has not been very fruitful.
Female and male traits typically overlap
A chart showing how measurements that often differ between sexes, like height, substantially overlap. (Ari Berkowitz, CC BY)
Even when a brain region shows a sex difference on average, there is typically considerable overlap between the male and female distributions. If a trait's measurement is in the overlapping region, one cannot predict the person's sex with confidence. For example, think about height. I am 5'7". Does that tell you my sex? And brain regions typically show much smaller average sex differences than height does.
Neuroscientist Daphna Joel and her colleagues examined MRIs of over 1,400 brains, measuring the 10 human brain regions with the largest average sex differences. They assessed whether each measurement in each person was toward the female end of the spectrum, toward the male end or intermediate. They found that only 3% to 6% of people were consistently "female" or "male" for all structures. Everyone else was a mosaic.
When brain sex differences do occur, what causes them?
A 1959 study first demonstrated that an injection of testosterone into a pregnant rodent causes her female offspring to display male sexual behaviors as adults. The authors inferred that prenatal testosterone (normally secreted by the fetal testes) permanently "organizes" the brain. Many later studies showed this to be essentially correct, though oversimplified for nonhumans.
Researchers cannot ethically alter human prenatal hormone levels, so they rely on "accidental experiments" in which prenatal hormone levels or responses to them were unusual, such as with intersex people. But hormonal and environmental effects are entangled in these studies, and findings of brain sex differences have been inconsistent, leaving scientists without clear conclusions for humans.
Genes cause some brain sex differences
While prenatal hormones probably cause most brain sex differences in nonhumans, there are some cases where the cause is directly genetic.
This was dramatically shown by a zebra finch with a strange anomaly – it was male on its right side and female on its left. A singing-related brain structure was enlarged (as in typical males) only on the right, though the two sides experienced the same hormonal environment. Thus, its brain asymmetry was not caused by hormones, but by genes directly. Since then, direct effects of genes on brain sex differences have also been found in mice.
Learning changes the brain
Many people assume human brain sex differences are innate, but this assumption is misguided.
Humans learn quickly in childhood and continue learning – alas, more slowly – as adults. From remembering facts or conversations to improving musical or athletic skills, learning alters connections between nerve cells called synapses. These changes are numerous and frequent but typically microscopic – less than one hundredth of the width of a human hair.
Studies of an unusual profession, however, show learning can change adult brains dramatically. London taxi drivers are required to memorize "the Knowledge" – the complex routes, roads and landmarks of their city. Researchers discovered this learning physically altered a driver's hippocampus, a brain region critical for navigation. London taxi drivers' posterior hippocampi were found to be larger than nondrivers by millimeters – more than 1,000 times the size of synapses.
So it's not realistic to assume any human brain sex differences are innate. They may also result from learning. People live in a fundamentally gendered culture, in which parenting, education, expectations and opportunities differ based on sex, from birth through adulthood, which inevitably changes the brain.
Ultimately, any sex differences in brain structures are most likely due to a complex and interacting combination of genes, hormones and learning.
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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Controversial physics theory says reality around us behaves like a computer neural network.
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- The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".
Vanchurin interview:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="539759cbfd8fcd5b6ebf14a3b597b3f9"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bmyRy2-UhEE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Vanchurin on “Hidden Phenomena”:<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="18886ffd5e5840bb19d4494212f88d82"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2NDVdNwsHCo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>Vitaly Vanchurin speaking at the 6th International FQXi Conference, "Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World." The Foundational Questions...
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