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March 1, 2005

Gender Brain Differences: A Big Deal, But Not the Way You'd Think

This week's Time magazine issues a magnificant slapdown to Harvard president Larry Summers (whose ill-conceived remarks were mentioned here and here previously) as well as a roundup of coverage on the issue of attracting and retaining women in the sciences. The main article is subscribers-only, alas, but you can read some of the other articles.

The main article begins thusly:

The rest of us were left with a nagging question: What is the latest science on the differences between men's and women's aptitudes, anyway? Is it true, even a little bit, that men are better equipped for scientific genius? Or is it ridiculous—even pernicious—to ask such a question in the year 2005?

It's always perilous to use science to resolve festering public debates. Everyone sees something different—like 100 people finding shapes in clouds. By the time they make up their minds, the clouds have drifted beyond the horizon. But scientists who have spent their lives studying sex differences in the brain (some of whom defend Summers and some of whom dismiss him as an ignoramus) generally concede that he was not entirely wrong. Thanks to new brain-imaging technology, we know there are indeed real differences between the male and the female brain, more differences than we would have imagined a decade ago. "The brain is a sex organ," says Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist who became famous in the 1990s for her study of Albert Einstein's brain. "In the last dozen years, there has been an exponential increase in the number of studies that have found differences in the brain. It's very exciting."

But that's just the beginning of the conversation. It turns out that many of those differences don't seem to change our behavior. Others do—in ways we might not expect. Some of the most dramatic differences are not just in our brains but also in our eyes, noses and ears—which feed information to our brains. Still, almost none of those differences are static. The brain is constantly changing in response to hormones, encouragement, practice, diet and drugs. Brain patterns fluctuate within the same person, in fact, depending on age and time of day. So while Summers was also right that more men than women make up the extreme high—and low—scorers in science and math tests, it's absurd to conclude that the difference is primarily because of biology—or environment. The two interact from the time of conception, which only makes life more interesting.