Male & Female Brain Differences, Again @DrAliceRoberts

Drs Alice Roberts and Michael Mosely on BBC2 Horizon today 29th September.

Just rough personal notes here, whilst watching: Vive la différence, I usually say 😉

Hmmm. Nothing is “hard” wired. Some stuff is pre-wired, genetically and in foetal development, neurally and hormonally, and a great deal is infant developed by stereotypical “encouragement”, and a lot more is moulded by formal parenting and education, and even more is moulded by experience of the social / peer environment.

Roughly 5, 15, 30, 50 % contributions maybe (after Pinker), depending which specific traits you’re evaluating. Anyone can do anything equally well, but their innate propensities do start different, and these differences are re-inforced or de-emphasised.

So testing an adult human, will be a complex – pointless – situation, without an enormous amount of historical data to support the exercise. Also very hard to create totally controlled boundary conditions for testing pre-and-early-post-natals – a human individual is not to be seen as a repeatable experiment – macaque’s could be different.

Anyway there are real from birth differences – for GOOD evolutionary reasons. Equality of opportunity is one thing, but vive la difference is also important if we humans are to develop maximum value together.

Direct objective measures of physical brain differences can be highly misleading, because correlations between mental, behavioural and physical are complex patterned in many dimensions and levels. Many of the defining differences arise from the connective and permissive control mechanisms (hippocampus, corpus-callosum, etc) not size and wiring-symmetry of cortex, etc.

My most recent reference to this is the left-right brain difference between male and female – but remember left-right brain concerns not the jobs the halves do but the mechanisms that bring them into play in “mind”. The Gur input is important – left-brain analytical propensity to physical detail, exaggerated in males – and in the autistic. Note it’s the connections between the hemispheres, not the hemispheres themselves that are important. I see the Gur data supports the McGilchrist hypotheses. Women are typically “better connected” than men, though again there are developmental and plasticity mechanisms – causality is two way – and again the life of a human individual is not a repeatable controlled experiment.

Men are not “better” decision-makers unless your idea of a good decision is analytically objective. Women (archetypically) make decisions differently, though we can all learn better behaviour any number of ways. My thesis is that the difference, variety, is better for humanity, than having all our eggs in the one basket of one decision-making paradigm. But of course the more we understand the explanatory cause and effect model, from genes onwards the better equipped we are to make the political and ethical choices. The science may be incomplete, but it’s not really controversial.

The parentally-subconscious preference on how they see infant boy & girl capabilities is an interesting part of the 15% contribution – not seen that before. Parents can choose to avoid explicit stereotyping, but this sub-conscious effect could be important and culturally variable. But, as I say, I don’t see the gender differences as necessarily a bad thing, and it’s never a bad thing to know what they are. Vive la différence.

The two presenters eventually agree (actually they don’t, see post note below). Small but real genetic & infant biological development difference, huge socio-cultural plasticity. Stereotypes can be destructive, but archetypes remain valuable.


[Post Note : Didn’t spot this piece based on the program at the time. Concludes with real differences, including the degree of left-right interconnection. Seems Mosley really did disagree with Roberts.]

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