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).

They included 4,495 scans of brains (magnetic resonance imaging  or fMRI) from men and 5,125 from women in their sample. There is no data on trans participation, so I assume “male” and “female” refer to biological sex.

They write over at Science Alert:

We discovered that brains were indeed distributed across the entire continuum rather than just at the two ends.

In a subsample, approximately 25 percent of brains were identified as male, 25 percent as female, and 50 percent were distributed across the androgynous section of the continuum.

What's more, we found that participants who mapped at the centre of this continuum, representing androgyny, had fewer mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, compared with those at the two extreme ends.

These findings support our novel hypothesis that there exists a neuroimaging concept of brain androgyny, which may be associated with better mental health in a similar way to psychological androgyny.

Gender is a spectrum

There are at least two take-aways from this research:

1. Gender is indeed a spectrum. As they put it in the original paper: “The importance of brain androgyny, akin to psychological androgyny, is that you are neither male nor female, but a combination of both.”

2. Being somewhere in the middle between the male and female extremes is good for your health.

The latter may come as a surprise to trans and nonbinary people who have been bullied for not living up to the gender binary, but the point here is that being more “androgynous” gives room for a wider spectrum of feelings and expressions. 

They write:

A meta-analysis of 78 studies of about 20,000 participants revealed that men who conform to typical masculine norms, for example never relying on others and exercising power over women, suffered more psychiatric symptoms than others, including depression, loneliness and substance abuse. They also felt more isolated, lacking social connections to others.

This tells me that trans and nonbinary people would probably have been more psychologically balanced than extreme cisgendered people as far as mental health goes, hadn’t it been for all  the transphobia and the bullying.

Androgyny is natural and good

The researchers argue that this study documents that  people who are more androgynous in their behavior are not going against their biological nature. They are doing things that their brains are  optimized for. 

So although their paper is not about transgender and nonbinary people per se, it does debunk the idea that androgyny is caused by the “transgender cult”. It is a natural part of biological and psychological variation.

But what are they talking about, really?

To be honest with you, I am still not sure about what they are really measuring here, as brain connectivity is clearly  not a solid measure of assigned gender, experienced gender or gender expression. It is simply a measure of brain connectivity. Reducing the “gender continuum” to a measure of brain connectivity is therefore not unproblematic. 

To give one example: The effect a culturally conservative and restrictive upbringing has on a person’s psyche, may also be reflected in brain structures. The brain is flexible. Cultural conditioning causes it to change. But even if these brains are as they are partly because of social pressure, the study nevertheless says  a lot about the relationship between  androgynous personalities and mental health.

The article also documents how far contemporary neuroscience have moved from previous attempts at documenting a strict gender binary. I suspect that the strong influx of female researchers, with a more flexible view of sex and gender, has caused these communities to develop new and more interesting research questions. At least half of the authors of the original paper are women.

The original science paper is called “The Human Brain Is Best Described as Being on a Female/Male Continuum: Evidence from a Neuroimaging Connectivity Study”, and was published in Cerebral Cortex in January 2021

See also: 

Figure from the science paper: “Behavioral association of the brain gender continuum. Scatter plot of the brain gender continuum score and the internalizing symptom score among (A) all participants; (B) male participants...” “Internalizing problems” refers to a group of emotional symptoms  that reveals more prevalent effortful control of behavior, feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, behavioral inhibition, and fears. The second figure shows that men are more likely to be internalizing problems if the are are closer to the masculine end of the gender spectrum.

Top illustration: Jolygon

See also this video from SciShow Psych.

2 comments:

  1. Well, this comes as no surprise to me at all. People who can integrate various experiences and have a broad range of intellectual and emotional responses to external situations will adapt far better to a constantly changing world than people with less flexible inclinations.

    I'm a TG woman who has elected not to transition to living full-time as a woman, but appreciate the opportunity to be honest about myself and not be trapped in socially conditioned gender roles.

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  2. its good that you have found your own solution as I have Rachel for there is not one single path to find balance that suits our needs. Probably the biggest lesson we must learn is to decouple ourselves from the expectations of others and forge our own path. It may be rocky at times but at least it belongs to just us...

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