Dec 25 15 7:30 AM

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Emma has sent me a PDF presentation by Daphna Joel on the recent Israeli research on the differences between male and female brains. I have uploaded this file to the library.

The main message from this research is that the differences between male and female brains are marginal at best and only makes sense on an aggregate level.

I have asked Emma to add her comments to this research, as she has been in contact with Joel.

Click here to read the presentation!

​I have published a blog post on this research here!

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#1 [url]

Dec 25 15 4:51 PM

My thanks to Jack for posting this here and asking me to comment.  I just watched her TEDx talk - which helps a lot since I attended her lecture in April this year and some of the details escape me. But now I remember it well.  I am trying to be objective here.  I certainly don't know if there are or are not gender differences in human brains, whether cisgender or transgender.  My concern with her lecture is that, with fairly limited information, she is declaring the search to be over and done with: she asserts that there are no differences, period.  

In my email to Jack with the PDF I wrote:

The problem that I had with the presentation (and that I expressed to Dr. Joel via email) was that it was like she was trying to find a needle in a field of haystacks, and when she didn't find it she then concluded that, therefore, the needle does not exist: 

1. She identified several areas of the brain that have differences that are correlated with sexual organs. Using some rather crude tools (weight, size) she "confirmed" that she was focused on the right areas. 
2. She then tried to isolate differences within those areas (which makes some sense).  Again, I don't recall exactly how she did this, but I do remember that the volume of data was enormous and impractical, so she tried to choose details that might find what she was looking for.  And when she didn't find them she declares that gender is not dimorphic.   

As far as I'm concerned: 
1. Despite recent advances we can be pretty sure that our diagnostic tools are still very immature.  The holes in her sieve are quite likely huge relative to the size of what she is trying to isolate (if it exists). 
2. It's also quite possible that those diagnostic tools do not have the capability of even identifying the correct aspects to measure and study.  We don't know what we don't know. 3. Last, I know she honestly tried to choose the right haystacks to investigate but here again, can she really be that positive?

I indeed found it interesting that there are aspects of the brain that seem to shift from male to female (or vice versa) with stress.  Isn't it also possible that there are areas that haven't been localized and that are correlated with male/female gender, that stay static?  

I admit that I would love it if neuroscientists did identify an objective test of one's gender, so maybe that is biasing me against accepting Joel's "finding." I am (really) trying to be objective.  If there was such a test I'd get it right away.  If my brain tested as "male" gendered I'd then assume that my gender dysphoria is more associated with, perhaps "trauma and schema." Not that it would "fix" me but it would be interesting to at least know what my issues aren't related to.  And if my brain tested as "female," well, that would be lovely!  I imagine then I'd have a stronger position and confidence that it's okay for me to be myself.  I think I could choose what gender I want to be, perhaps going back and forth irrespective of my sexual characteristics.  

So again, I don't know if Dr. Joel is correct or not.  I just didn't appreciate her declaring victory with such limited information.  Maybe that's the normal way for academics?  I don't think so but I'm not one.  


Last Edited By: Emmasweet Dec 25 15 5:11 PM. Edited 1 time.

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#2 [url]

Dec 26 15 1:20 AM

Why would there be a brain gender binary? I think what she was saying about human brains being unique mosaics of male and female characteristics is very plausible. She also says it makes more sense to talk about high versus low, long versus short (re: dendritic spines or whatever else she is alluding to).

This may be a bad analogy, but about mosaics— sex chromosome karyotypes can be mosaics. For example, people with Klinefelter's syndrome can either have a karyotype of 47XXY or a mosaic of 46XY and 47XXY. The degree of mosaicism influences how much testosterone a male fetus produces, which is what shapes a fetus into a male infant. The less testosterone, the less masculinized ("virilzed") the fetus becomes. There can be even more complex mosaics, like 47XXY/48XXXY/46XY—stuff like this can sometimes only be detected if a sufficient number of cells are tested—blood cells and skin cells. Then there are chimeras (something Jack mentioned in another recent thread):
"Chimeras are not the only people who carry different sets of DNA samples in their bodies. Mosaics also have variation in their DNA from one cell to the next.
A mosaic, unlike a chimera, starts out with the same set of DNA in every single cell. You could look at any cell in the body and the DNA inside of it would be exactly the same as the DNA inside a different cell.
At some point during a mosaic's life, though, his or her DNA changes in some but not all of the cells. Now, the DNA in one cell is slightly different from the DNA in the neighboring cell.
This scenario is actually very common. In fact, we are all actually mosaics.
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. Most of these cells contain the exact same copy of our DNA. Over the course of our development and lives, however, the DNA in some of these cells can change."

I'm only mentioning this not because having mosaic genes is the same as having a mosaic brain, but because there are already very well-documented ways in which humans can be mosaics of characteristics.

And then there is the issue of mutations. A human zygote with a 46XY ("male") karyotype can have a mutation on the AR (androgen receptor) gene that affects androgen sensitivity and ultimately the gender it gets assigned at birth:
"Mutations in the AR gene cause androgen insensitivity syndrome. This gene provides instructions for making a protein called an androgen receptor. Androgen receptors allow cells to respond to androgens, which are hormones (such as testosterone) that direct male sexual development. Androgens and androgen receptors also have other important functions in both males and females, such as regulating hair growth and sex drive. Mutations in the AR gene prevent androgen receptors from working properly, which makes cells less responsive to androgens or prevents cells from using these hormones at all. Depending on the level of androgen insensitivity, an affected person's sex characteristics can vary from mostly female to mostly male." If a 46XY baby has complete androgen insensitivity (CAIS), they can be indistinguishable from 46XX girl-babies— sometimes CAIS isn't noticed until a girl reaches puberty and never has a period. Then their doctor discovers that they have no uterus or ovaries. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complete_androgen_insensitivity_syndrome

I'm going to stop here because I'm not a scientist or doctor, and I'm only recently getting familiar with these interesting facts—I don't want to make statements that are idiotic or false (please let me know if I do!). Still, I think it is fun to ponder how we are all mutants, mosaics and maybe even chimeras in our genetics, our bodies and brains. Maybe people's experienced gender identity is a binary-ish side-effect of all these glorious internal genetic and biological complexities interacting with our environments and experiences before birth and after birth.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's simpler.

"I could have been wild and I could have been free 
But nature played this trick on me..."

-The Smiths

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#3 [url]

Dec 26 15 9:24 AM

There has been a lot of crude attempts at defining clear cut "female" and "male" brains; Simon Baron-Cohen being the most insistent researcher in this respect. They have done so by identifying specific abilities, traits and interests as "male" and "female", and then tried to see if there are differences in the brains of men and women that explains these traits.

The problem is that the differences they have found are very small. They may be significant statistically speaking, but only make sense on very aggregate levels. Even Baron-Cohen's data tells us that less than half of the women he has studied have "a female brain."

More devastating, however, is research that shows that the ways men and women respond to the relevant questionnaires and tests are highly influenced by the expectations of the respondents. Women score worse on math and spatial abilities if they are reminded of the fact that they are women, for instance.

The recent advances in brain research also tells is about a "plastic" or changing brain. We "rewire" our brains when we learn something. It is therefore close to impossible to ascertain whether the differences in the brain observed in autopsies, pet scans or MRIs are caused by biology alone or by an interaction between nature and nurture.

This is why so much of this research reminds me of phrenology. They look for parts of the brain that seem to be different between men and women, and when they find such a place, they often claim that this is the magic place that proves that men and women have different psyches. The fact is often that they do not know anything of the kind. The differences observed may be caused by completely different factors. (See Anne Fausto-Sterling or Cordelia Fine's books for more on this).

Daphna Joel's research is in the same tradition. They find that abilities and traits that are considered "male" or "female" are found among both men and women and conclude that even calling them "female" or "male" is a mistake. How can compassion for children be a female traits when so many fathers love their children so much, and in many cases also show greater capability of taking care of them?

Much of the research on "transgender brains" suffer from the same weaknesses. In order to identify the true "brain sex" of transgender people they make use of tests based on the stereotypes of modern neuroscience. If they find any clear patterns at all (MTF transgender women have "female" brains) that is only on an aggregate level. This means that they have not found a sufficient cause for a "female identity". After all, many non-transgender women who identify as women, have "male" brains.

And the attempts to identify the sections of the brain that give birth to gender identity are equally ambiguous. The findings may be statistically significant on an aggregated level, but too many cis and trans people score as the "opposite" sex.

So I agree with Emma: The research in this field is not mature enough to conclude in any way about gender identity and brain biology. The brain/mind-system is far too complex. The diagnostic tools are far too crude.

For me this also means that we cannot conclude that gender identity has no biological basis at all (as some of the feminist researchers above often do). Maybe gender identity has nothing to do with gender stereotypes. Maybe gender identity is more like instincts like hunger or playfulness: They are not defined by their content (love of French wine or playing "cowboys or indians"), but by a drive that compels you to explore the world where you are as it is. In other words: Maybe the gender dysphoria of many transsexual people is caused by an instinct that drives them towards expressing themselves as their target sex, but that they way they do this is socially constructed.

If that is the case, the fact that trans women and trans men seem to have the brains of their target sex (on an aggregate level and as defined by the stereotypes) may simply reflect their attempts at expressing their deep-felt gender identity in the social context where they live. Their brains have been shaped by their attempts to explore their real gender identity.

All of this has made me conclude that we have to reserve judgment as to the final cause of transgender conditions.

That being said: I tend to believe in a biological component in the complex that causes dysphoria. Given the extreme social pressure to conform to gender roles, I find it hard to explain my own dysphoria if there is not such a component.


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#4 [url]

Dec 26 15 11:27 AM

Jack, I wish this forum had a "Like" button similar to Facebook's, because I would "Like" so many of your posts, including your most recent one. :-)

I think it's so important to share links like the one to Daphna Joel's TedTalk, the Gendurality blog and the books you pointed to, and to puzzle over all of this information together. It can be difficult to tell what is valid, flawed or nonsensical without the points of view of others here.

"I could have been wild and I could have been free 
But nature played this trick on me..."

-The Smiths

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#5 [url]

Dec 26 15 11:57 AM

@Jack: I also thank you for your reply; you add a lot of clarity to my thinking.

I do have a comment about this sentence: The problem is that the differences they have found are very small.

I don't know but don't think that size of differences matter. For example in the book you recommended to me (thank you) "Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience" by Mark Solms, he writes "The easy problem is the one that most neuroscientists are concerned with..." is finding the neural correlates of consciousness (e.g., language, sight, memory, etc.). The hard problem which is totally unresolved "is a conundrum of a different magnitude - it raises the question of how consciousness ("you, your joys, sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, ...") actually emerges from matter. Modern neuroscience is well equipped to solve the easy problem, but it is less clear whether it is capable of solving the hard problem." In other words, neuroscientists have been unable to determine where our consciousness and self-awareness emerges although we obviously know it is present in each of us. Thus, whether the currently-identified physical brain differences are "small" or "large" may very well be entirely unrelated to how we perceive and conceptualize our genders.


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#6 [url]

Jan 9 16 11:29 AM

I recently came across this journal, Transgender Studies Quarterly out of Duke University.  I am thinking about subscribing and am looking at the free issue they posted this morning.  One article caught my attention that may add to this thread, which is talks about Brain Imagine.  Here's a couple of excerpts:

"To date, no consistent evidence of brain-based sexual dimorphism exists, in part because there are no stable criteria that distinguish sexes reliably or concretely (Fausto-Sterling 1985a). Despite this fact, the theory of sexual dimorphism remains entrenched within Western culture. Experiments are designed around brain organization theory, which posits that the brain is a sexually dimorphic structure prior to birth and lends itself to the sexual differences people experience in their lives— which is not supported by existing data (Jordan-Young 2010: 21)..."

"Jordan-Young calls for a departure from brain organization theory, with its poor experiment design, and for a genuine exploration of the complex nature of sex, gender, and sexuality (3, 9)."

Now, it may be true that I'm once again falling into the trap of my own confirmation bias.  Okay, but doggone it, I know I'm right!



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