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Do Men And Women Have Different Brains?

An illustration of a couple sitting at a table and talking.

A sharp and well-reasoned letter in The Guardian a few days ago by University of Cambridge philosophers Rae Langton and John Dupre makes a much needed observation: If there are behavioral or cognitive or mental differences between men and women, you would expect these to reveal themselves in neural differences. The discovery that there are such neurological differences, though, doesn't tell you anything about why men and women are different in cognitively significant ways (assuming they do so differ), and it certainly doesn't suggest that there are reasons to think the differences between men and women are necessary, or somehow intrinsic to maleness and femaleness.

To suppose otherwise is a bit like claiming that the discovery that guitar players show a marked tendency to have calluses on some of their fingers gives insight into why some people, but not others, go in for guitar playing.

Ragini Verma, at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the research on which Langton and Dupre comment, is quoted in the original Guardian article saying:

If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there's a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better.

She says further:

Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved – they will listen more.

And Verma adds:

I was surprised that it matched a lot of the stereotypes that we think we have in our heads.

What would be surprising would be the discovery that the different life experiences of men and women left no trace in neural hardware.

As for the suggestion that men and women come to life with built-in specifications constraining what kind of people they can become? It's calluses and guitar players all over again.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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