miceMale and female brains are pretty much the same, but male and female behaviour is different. It turns out that the same neural circuitry exists in both, but is differently used.

A word of caution. We are talking about mice, in the main: those obliging creatures who seem ready to provide evidence to back all sorts of fascinating theories that somehow don’t transfer to human beings. And we’re also talking specifically about parental behaviour patterns; it seems those are rather well conserved between species – up to a point – but we shouldn’t generalise recklessly.

Catherine Dulac of Harvard explains the gist in this short Scientific American piece. A particular network of neurons in the hypothalamus was observed to be active during nurturing parental behaviour by females; by genetic engineering (amazing what we can do these days) those neurons were edited out of some females who then showed no caring behaviour towards infants. Meanwhile a group of males in which those neurons were stimulated (having been made light-sensitive by even more remarkable genetic manipulation) did show nurturing behaviour.

For male mammals it seems the norm is to kill strange infants on sight (I did say we should be careful about extrapolating to human beings); another set of neurons in the hypothalamus proves to be associated with this behaviour in just the same kind of way as the ones associated with nurturing behaviour.

One of the interesting things here is that both networks exist in both sexes; no-one knows at the moment why one is normally active in females and the other in males. If we were talking about human beings we should be tempted to attribute the difference to cultural factors (I hope that by now nobody is going to be astonished by the idea that different cultural influences could lead to different patterns of physical activity in the brain); it doesn’t seem very plausible that that could be the case for mice. It goes without saying that to identify a new hidden factor which sets certain gender roles in mice would inevitably trigger a highly-charged discussion of the possible equivalent in human beings.

So much for the proper research. Could we dare to venture on the irresponsibly speculative hypothesis that men and women habitually think somewhat differently but that each is fully capable of thinking like the other? I shouldn’t care to advance that thesis and the whole topic of measuring the quality and style of thought processes is deeply fraught scientifically and beset with difficulty philosophically.

There is, though, one rather striking piece of evidence to suggest that men and women can enter fully into each others minds; novels. Human consciousness is often depicted in novels; indeed the depiction may be the central feature or even pretty much the whole of the enterprise. Jane Austen, who arguably played a major role in making consciousness the centre of narrative, never wrote a scene in which two men converse in the absence of women, allegedly because she considered she could have no direct experience of how men talked to one another in those circumstances. Moreover, while she was exceptionally skilful at discreetly incorporating a view from inside her heroines’ heads, she never did the same for Darcy or Mr Knightley.

But others have never been so restrained; male authors have depicted the inward world of females and vice versa with very few complaints; that rather suggests we can swap mental gender roles without difficulty.

But are we sure? I suppose it could be argued that as a man I have no more access to the minds of other men than to those of women, so to a degree I actually have to take it on trust that the male mind is accurately depicted in novels. In some cases, certain allegedly typical male thought patterns depicted in books (Nick Hornby choosing a routine football match over a good friend’s wedding) are actually rather hard for me to enter into sympathetically. For that matter I recall the indignant rebuttal I got from a female fan when I suggested that Robert Heinlein’s depiction of the female mind might be slightly off the mark. Perhaps, then, none of us knows anything about the matter for sure in the end. Still I think nil humanum me alienum puto (I think nothing human alien to me) is a good motto and, I’m slightly encouraged to think, an attainable aspiration.

10 Comments

  1. 1. Sci says:

    Is there a Turing test for gender? It seems people can impersonate the other gender for weeks even face-face (there was a book about this, can’t recall the title, where a woman imitates a man for several months).

    Online I suspect you could spend years so long as you didn’t have to reveal your face.

    I mean as a man I might be missing something, but ultimately it’s always seemed the similarities far outweighed the differences?

    Perhaps the study of trans* individuals for comparison purposes might yield new insights?

  2. 2. Cognicious says:

    Sci, I used to participate in an online forum for writers and editors. Someone there linked to a site where a computer purported to deduce your sex from a sample of your writing. The computer often got it wrong. Specifically, it tended to mislabel women’s prose as written by men. Maybe there’s something about women who take a close interest in writing? After all, so much of what we read was written by men, and we grow up thinking good writing looks like that.

    Humans on the Web often use “male” as the default sex. I’ve several times been called “he” or “dude.” This bias would complicate a Turing test.

  3. 3. Sci says:

    Curious, have you ever felt there was a substantive difference between women as written by men and your own consciousness?

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Is there a Turing Test for gender?

    In fact the Turing Test derived from the Imitation Game, in which Turing and his friends had to guess whether the person on the other end of the teletype machine was a real woman or a man pretending.

    It’s interesting to reflect that one of the most important concepts of the twentieth century emerged from this time-wasting, irresponsible misuse of office equipment…

  5. 5. Sci says:

    @Peter: Heheheh 🙂

    @Cognicious: I should qualify my question to ask do you feel that when a serious, fleshed out female character is created by a man is it believable? I realize there are lots of times where the female character is just a romantic prop or pornographic icon.

  6. 6. Cognicious says:

    Sci, I can only answer “Yes and no.” Some women in male writers’ fiction are believable in the sense that I can identify with them as a reader is supposed to. Others are not, but this isn’t necessarily a failing of the writer. Female characters aren’t all Everywoman types. They can be peculiar, mentally ill, or villainous. They may simply have personalities that differ so much from mine that what they do, say, or think in the story distances me from them. (I could never be Lorelei Lee, to pick an extreme example.) All these things are also true of male characters and of women in real life. Then there’s the whole question of the unreliable narrator, who may be female. We’re presented with events as she perceives them, and after a while we realize that something in her connection to reality is a little off.

    Do you find women writers’ male characters realistic?

  7. 7. Sci says:

    @Cognicious: “Do you find women writers’ male characters realistic?”

    Usually, with the same caveat. Some men just seem to exist solely as props or wish fulfillment.

    Thanks for your reply by the way. Just reinforces my suspicion that the minds of men & women are more similar than not.

  8. 8. Witness: 9 January 2016 – Sakeel says:

    […] mice, we’ve further reinforced that there’s no gender distinction in neural circuitry. Male and female mice do use their brains differently, however. Mice, remember. […]

  9. 9. John Davey says:

    Sci

    “Curious, have you ever felt there was a substantive difference between women as written by men and your own consciousness?”

    Definitely. Women can just about write about men, but the reverse i think almost never happens. Some great writers like Joseph Conrad seem to me to be positively awful at it, but are “masterful” (spot the sexist adjective) when describing men. That women can manage it probably says something about the ongoing domination of the male in culture.

    Is it biological or cultural though, that is the question .. there can of course be substantial neurophysiological differences between humans that have nothing to do with genetics. A different cultural background could produce a physically different individual.

  10. 10. Cognicious says:

    I find Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona quite plausible, given the artificiality inherent in the verse form. Lady Macbeth, maybe; I always want to say about her, “She’s not one of ours!”

    Judgments of whether the other sex’s consciousness, as demonstrated in fiction or in real life, is like or unlike one’s own are limited by the possibility that a person could say and do things consistent with one’s own speech and behavior but mean them differently.

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