The Neural Correlates of ‘Women Empathize, Men Systematize’

The current neuromemex contains more than 225 human and animal studies demonstrating neural sexual dimorphisms, none of which are uncorrected for the larger average brain and body size of men. 
The Neural Correlates of ‘Women Empathize, Men Systematize’
It is quite possible--overwhelmingly probable, one might guess--that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.
-Noam Chomsky
If you read enough studies, you pick up generalizations not generally known, like the fact that the male and female brains are subtly different.

In the current zeitgeist of Anglo-American intelligentsia, it is fashionable to deny the existence of natural male and female psychological gestalts, except as ‘socially-constructed gender binaries’.  It arguably feeds the need for self-renunciation as described by philosopher Eric Hoffer. Non-believers are castigated as perpetrators of 'epistemic violence', and academics must tiptoe around these dogmatic gender clerics. A subsector of this movement denies that the developmental cascade kicked off by the Y-chromosome SRY gene results in male-typical overrides to the female human brain plan.  When you have read enough studies you know that, while males and females have the same number of noses, ears, and brain regions, prenatal and post-natal exposure to estrogens and androgens can cause the brain to rewire itself into female- and male-typical white matter connection strengths, receptor expression levels, and cause reversal of male-typical and female-typical behaviors.  This happens in lab animals that never get to experience any societal influences, and humans too. Many of these changes are not visible to the eye, but involve subtle changes at the cellular, connectivity, and neurotransmitter sensitivity levels.  Males and females often have opposite behavioral reactions to neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and vasopressin.  There are also characteristic fingerprints that can be detected via brain imaging, analogous to the characteristic skeletal fingerprints (e.g. hip shape and width, differential X- and Y-chromosome gene products) that are used to determine sex by archeologists.  

This does not mean that any individual cannot have a mix of configurations, but that the distributions of each often fall into two distinct groups divided by sex.  One cannot escape this with rhetorical word games, claiming human exceptionalism to patterns that apply to the entire animal kingdom, and muddying the waters by referencing exceptional fungal mating systems, rare intersex conditions, and the like.  This does not exclude sexual minorities or genders; it situates them as mosaicisms of the conventional sex duality.  

Fig. Women are from cingulate, men are from temporopolar/ventral temporal cortex.  (Top) Amen et al, showing the cingulate-precuneus region as more active in females (red), while the temporal pole, ventral temporal cortex, and cognitive cerebellum are more active in males (grey->blue). (Bottom) DeCasien et al, three different large studies across the US, UK, and Germany show female-typical cingulate and precuneus (blue) differences, and male-typical temporal pole and ventral temporal cortex (red->yellow). (Please note that the color gradient is reversed between the two studies.)

To summarize the figure above, Daniel Amen is a controversial psychiatrist whose eponymous Amen Clinics have amassed more than 40,000 brain scans; this proprietary resource was the source of his team’s study data.  DeCasien et al found the pattern across the massive HCP (US), UK Biobank (UK), and Lotze studies (Germany).  DeCasien did not cite Amen, yet they found the same patterns in their respective cohorts. This cross-referencing is what the neuromythographer does.

To summarize our interpretation:

The “feminine” cingulate/precuneus and “masculine” temporopolar and ventral temporal cortex motifs found in neuroscience are precisely the neural correlates of the psychology quip, “women empathize, men systematize”.

One will not today find this motif stated so bluntly in a neuroscience or psychology textbook.  It is far too controversial, simultaneously too new and too old, it requires pulling very specific needles out of a research haystack, and a willingness to risk blowback from interlocking systems of power within the Academy.  Researchers with axes to grind may resolve that a petition needs to be organized to cancel this dangerous idea immediately before it inflicts further epistemic violence and harms.  Perhaps wisely seeking to avoid being the target of such a petition, the editor of the publication that published the DeCasien paper proffered in an editorial note, “We do not yet know if any of the reproducible sex-differences in regional human brain anatomy have any functional implications”.  The neuroscientist who is familiar with these cingulate and temporal cortex regions will recognize that they are centers of intuitive social / conflict / perspective processing and the object-classifying “what pathway”, respectively.   The knowledgeable neuroscientist may realize that this obvious interpretation (empathize / systematize) may have been sitting in front of us all along, but must stay silent in their public persona if they do not want professional troubles.  

These are not cultural tropes, they are biology that culture may reflect in the aggregate.  This does not exclude reflections back from the environment onto biology, social constraints upon behavior, or researchers looking at results through gender-assumption-distorted lenses.  But the above is a case of an undeniable biological pattern that shows up across studies with massive data sets. 

This is an example of what the neuromythographer, who must maintain a Tom Bombadil-like immunity to such social pressures, can contribute: refining raw neuroscience research ore into value-added insights for neuroscientists themselves, and everyone else, in those remaining spaces in which neuromythography is still permitted to be practiced.  The current neuromemex contains more than 225 human and animal studies demonstrating neural sexual dimorphisms, none of which are uncorrected for the larger average brain and body size of men.  For once one understands that gender foundations are constructed from major chords that span across the black and white keys of a conserved biological sex piano, that transcends its genetic implementation across species, the illusory conflict between the black-and-white and the continuous rainbow can be resolved to most any reasonable person's satisfaction.

Amen paper:

DeCasien paper:

Sex differences in the human brain: a roadmap for more careful analysis and interpretation of a biological reality - Biology of Sex Differences
The presence, magnitude, and significance of sex differences in the human brain are hotly debated topics in the scientific community and popular media. This debate is largely fueled by studies containing strong, opposing conclusions: either little to no evidence exists for sex differences in human neuroanatomy, or there are small-to-moderate differences in the size of certain brain regions that are highly reproducible across cohorts (even after controlling for sex differences in average brain size). Our Commentary uses the specific comparison between two recent large-scale studies that adopt these opposing views—namely the review by Eliot and colleagues (2021) and the direct analysis of ~ 40k brains by Williams and colleagues (2021)—in an effort to clarify this controversy and provide a framework for conducting this research. First, we review observations that motivate research on sex differences in human neuroanatomy, including potential causes (evolutionary, genetic, and environmental) and effects (epidemiological and clinical evidence for sex-biased brain disorders). We also summarize methodological and empirical support for using structural MRI to investigate such patterns. Next, we outline how researchers focused on sex differences can better specify their study design (e.g., how sex was defined, if and how brain size was adjusted for) and results (by e.g., distinguishing sexual dimorphisms from sex differences). We then compare the different approaches available for studying sex differences across a large number of individuals: direct analysis, meta-analysis, and review. We stress that reviews do not account for methodological differences across studies, and that this variation explains many of the apparent inconsistencies reported throughout recent reviews (including the work by Eliot and colleagues). For instance, we show that amygdala volume is consistently reported as male-biased in studies with sufficient sample sizes and appropriate methods for brain size correction. In fact, comparing the results from multiple large direct analyses highlights small, highly reproducible sex differences in the volume of many brain regions (controlling for brain size). Finally, we describe best practices for the presentation and interpretation of these findings. Care in interpretation is important for all domains of science, but especially so for research on sex differences in the human brain, given the existence of broad societal gender-biases and a history of biological data being used justify sexist ideas. As such, we urge researchers to discuss their results from simultaneously scientific and anti-sexist viewpoints.
About the author
Steven Florek

Steven Florek

Steven Florek is the creator of neuromythography and founder of Neuromemex.

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