A piece by Tom Whipple, Science Editor, in today’s Times:
It is unlikely to prove that men are better at map reading or women win at multitasking, but a study has found for the first time that brain differences between the sexes begin in the womb.
The research, described as “heroic” because of its complexity, suggests that some of the divergence in male and female neurology is innate, rather than due solely to culture. [J4MB: This has been accepted by neuroscientists, other than feminist ones, for many years.]
Scientists were able to conduct brain scans of foetuses to look for the changes in the connectivity of a growing brain and how it relates to sex.
The work, involving 118 foetuses in the second half of pregnancy, speaks to an occasionally acrimonious debate in neuroscience about the extent to which the differences seen between the brains of men and women reflect fixed biology or the effects of socialisation.
Yesterday some academics [J4MB translation: feminist ideologues aka blithering idiots] strongly questioned the findings, published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.
Moriah Thomason, from New York University Langone, conducted the research in part better to understand conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which affect boys more than girls.
“What we are trying to discover is how the functional organisation of the brain begins,” she said. “Understanding how the brain becomes assembled may provide insight into its overall architecture.” She said that she was not surprised to find differences in the wiring of the brains but was still impressed by how clear it was. “There were many differences in the organisation of male and female foetal brains,” she said. “That’s what I would expect. From what we know about evolution it seems likely that sexual dimorphism would emerge at an early age.” [J4MB emphasis]
One of the biggest differences found by Professor Thomason and Muriah Wheelock, the study’s lead author, was in connectivity across areas of the brain that are far apart. As they matured in the womb, girls produced more “long-range” networks than boys. It is impossible to know what this means in practice, but Professor Thomason said that one fact that has long intrigued her is that the brains of young boys tend to be more changeable than girls.
“Males are more susceptible to environmental influences than female babies,” she said. “We have previously seen that the prenatal brain of the female appears to be more robust, more linked to future behaviour. It’s almost as if the female brain has a tighter brain-to-outcome pairing. If that’s true that could partially account for the fact the male is more vulnerable, and programmable.”
She said that none of the findings precluded the influence of society on girls as they develop, but they also show that biology must play a role. “There are studies that show that sexual acculturation happens from day one, but I don’t see a good argument for the fact it is happening in the womb.”
Stuart Ritchie, of King’s College London, welcomed the study. “I’m pleased to see researchers looking at this kind of very early difference,” he said. “If this sort of result was confirmed to be replicable, that is, found in other samples, and reliable, that is, the brain network difference found at this point isn’t ephemeral, then it might shed some light on the debate we’re having on whether social influences are the cause of the substantial brain sex differences we see in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.”
However Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive imaging at Aston University, strongly disagreed. She has written a book, The Gendered Brain, that promises to “shatter the myth of the female brain”. She said the study was “heroic” in overcoming the technical difficulties of scanning brains in the womb but accused the researchers of being misleading in their interpretation. “They have potentially really interesting and innovative data which deserves better treatment than this,” she said. “In pursuit of a poorly defended hunt-the-difference agenda, they subjected their data to indefensibly weak statistical comparisons and drew unfounded conclusions.”
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