May 3, 2021

Debunking the female brain vs. male brain myth (and why it is not as easy as it might seem)


Lise Eliot is out with a new interesting article on the idea that the brain is gendered (i.e. different between men and women). She refers to a new meta-study of research on biological research that, as she sees it, shows that there is no difference between male and female brains beyond size.

I am a big fan of Lise Eliot, who is  a Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in the US of A. 

Her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It taught me a lot about modern neuroscience, and how some scientists takes a too simplistic approach to how our feeling of being gendered is created.

I would argue, though, that the arguments she makes against this part of neuroscience does not prove that there is no biological component to gender identity and that transgender identities therefore must be purely psychological. More about that below.

Mars vs. Venus

In a new article over at Fast Company she writes:

Everyone knows the difference between male and female brains. One is chatty and a little nervous, but never forgets and takes good care of others. The other is calmer, albeit more impulsive, but can tune out gossip to get the job done.

These are stereotypes, of course, but they hold surprising sway over the way actual brain science is designed and interpreted. Since the dawn of MRI [Magnetic resonance imaging, used for brain scans], neuroscientists have worked ceaselessly to find differences between men’s and women’s brains. This research attracts lots of attention because it’s just so easy to try to link any particular brain finding to some gender difference in behavior.

But as a neuroscientist long experienced in the field, I recently completed a painstaking analysis of 30 years of research on human brain sex differences. And what I found, with the help of excellent collaborators, is that virtually none of these claims has proven reliable.

April 30, 2021

On my most popular tumblr-posts on transgender lives and topics

I have been posting transgender news and articles over at my tumblr blog since early 2014, and have learned a lot about that section of the transgender community in the process. 

Tumblr is dominated by younger people, and I can see that they – for instance – love positive stories about being trans and references to reputable science sources that affirm transgender identities.

You can read more about this in my article "What my most popular posts on tumblr can tell us about what transgender youth are looking for" which I have posted over at Medium.

(I am testing out Medium as an alternative way of making my content more well known.)

April 19, 2021

The Rise of the Left-handed Cult

The 20th century saw a dramatic rise in the number of left-handed people. Was it all part of a leftist conspiracy? Read on to find out!

Right now ant-transgender activists, left and right, are trying to tell the world that the current rise in the number of transgender people is caused by a transgender conspiracy.

RightLeftRightWrong tells a similar story about left-handed people:

The history of the sinister left-handed

In pre-modern times left-handed people were thought to consort with the Devil. Left-handedness in women might be considered proof of them being witches.

In the 19th century science and medicine were used to fight the threat of those left handed:
The infamous (but influential) 19th Century physician Cesare Lambroso, who identified various facial and racial characteristics with criminal traits, turned his attention to handedness at the end of the century and the start of the next and, perhaps not surprisingly, he identified left-handedness as a mark of pathological behaviour, savagery and criminality.
At the middle of the 20th century American psychoanalyst Abram Blau suggested that left-handedness was caused by perversity and the result of emotional negativism.

April 5, 2021

Yes, Ernest Hemingway was Transgender

PBS has made a new documentary
on Ernest Hemingway which presents their
gender variance. (photo by Yousuf Karsh)

Ernest Hemingway is know as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  Hemingway is also known as one of the most macho male authors of the time. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that the great author was some shade of transgender. 

Before we start: I am using the term "transgender" in its most common meaning here, i.e. as an umbrella term for all kinds of gender variance. 

We cannot know how Hemingway would have identified today, in a time that  is a bit more forgiving towards queer and trans people than the world Hemingway lived in. 

However, I will argue that given all the time they spent on trying to come to the bottom of their own gender variance, this was much more than a "fetish" (even if Hemingway, like most people, had their kinks). What we are facing here is a more fundamental nonbinary or transgender  identity.

Given that I do not know how Hemingway would have presented today, I stick to gender neutral pronouns.

My main sources on Hemingway's transgender nature are Mary V.. Dearborn's book, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography, and Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes'  Hemingway's Genders. (References below).

Fetish or identity?

Keep in mind that few of the authors who have looked into this side of Hemingway are transgender themselves, which often leads – as I see it – to some misinterpretations of Hemingway's  gender.

For some the very presence of erotic crossdreaming or sexual role play, immediately leads to the term "sexual fetish". This is a term that is actively used to invalidate trans people. 

Mind you, I am not saying that fetishes do not exist. Most, if not all, people have them.  But it should be pretty obvious that a transgender identity is likely to express itself through sexual dreams and desires as well. Instead of using fetishes and sexual fantasies to dismiss transgender identities, we should use interpret them in a transgender and queer context.

March 13, 2021

Is it possible for your true gender to change over time?


 

I got this question over at tumblr:

Is it possible for your gender to really Change?

Like instead of just unlocking your true identity (an oversimplification), is it possible for your gender identity to have shifted over time instead of just having been the One True Gender (or lack of gender) the whole time?


Here's my response:

There is much that is unknown about how gender identities are formed. The current scientific consensus seems to be that a stable gender identity appears relatively early in life, at around 3 years old at the latest, and that it is caused by an interplay between different factors.

Genes play a part, but there is no single “gender identity gene”. Many genes are involved in the development of both biological sex and the experience of “being gendered”.

Studies of identical twins show that if one is transgender, the chances of the other one being trans too, is much higher than pure chance would allow for. But there are a lot of cases where one is cis and another is trans, which tells me that although genes are part of the explanation, they do not tell the whole story.

Hormones seem to play an important part, especially in the womb, where the production of hormones and the cells’ ability to “read” these hormones, influence the development of both body and brain.

Your own personal life story definitely shape the way you understand your own gender identity. Culture and the social dynamics are therefore also important factors.

January 23, 2021

New study gives insight into the spectrum of gender as regards brains, psychology and mental health

A new study argues that 50% of people are some shade of androgynous and that this gives them an advantage as far as psychological health goes.

Male brains and female brains.

Is there such a thing as a “male” or a “female” brain?  Scientists have desperately scanned, dissected and mapped brains in order to see if there are any solid differences. Researchers have found some parts of the brain that seem to be different between men and women, but there are two important caveats:  

These differences are only found on an aggregate level, so there are a lot of men with “female” structures and vice versa. 

Moreover, scientists have never been able to fully document a causality between these brain differences and – let’s say – gendered behavior as reflected in interests, abilities, expressions and identities.

Men are not from Mars

One problem is that we have very messy and blurry notion of what it means to male or female, so the research becomes equally messy. Much of this research is based on culturally defined gender stereotypes, which are not fixed in biology in humans. Since culture and our ideas of the normative female and male behavior changes,  the scientists are basically trying to hit a moving target.

One of the scientists who constantly talk about “female” and “male” brains is Simon Baron-Cohen. His own research shows that only half of women have “a female brain”, as he defines it. Yeah, right...

Contemporary science is gradually giving up on the idea that men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. We are all from Earth.

The adrogynous brain

To give you a recent example: Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues Christelle Langley, Qiang Luo, Yi Zhang and more,  decided to use the connectivity between different brain areas as a measure of gender (as this kind of connectivity has been known to vary between men and women on an aggregate level).

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