Professor Daphna Joel will explore the mistaken concept that brains can be either male or female, thus providing an explanation for why men and women are different. She disputes the theory, displays the neurological data and proves that our brains are really a unique mosaic of male and female characteristics, forming an ‘intersex brain.’
this actually makes a lot of sense to me and aligns with my experience. i have never gone in much for the ‘sexed brains’ theory. i’ve been reading since i was a kid about how ‘gay brains’ display ‘opposite sex’ characteristics. i think scientists are finding a lot of confirmation for their intuitive ideas about gender, just like the ‘men have bigger brains’ ideas talked about in this video.
i don’t know. a lot of trans folks talk about having a brain that has characteristics of their gender identity. some people point to brains as the source of gender, but i don’t. i don’t argue with those trans folks, after all a trans woman is a woman, so of course she has a woman’s brain. but for me, the brain is just another organ, and no more deterministic of gender than the genitals. but these are just like, my opinions.
Yeah, the part of the “men and women have different brains” narrative that never gets shared is that there are greater differences within men as a whole and within women as a whole than there are between men and women generally. Prejudice is the death of science.
WALL OF TEXT: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that cis scientists are thinking about trans people, though. I mean, I always feel a little bit like an old lady or HBS enthusiast or something when I talk about this, but I think a discussion of brain gender in trans people needs to go deeper than this .
A little background, I guess. Red, I know you know this but, for anybody else reading this right now, I’m working on a master’s degree in psychology right now, specifically focusing on the psychology of trans people. One of the things I was really excited to do when I got to school was to see the recent research that’s been done on the brains of trans people, because even though it provides these almost-too-easy answers about where transsexuality comes from or whatever, it’s always kind of made sense to me. I mean, otherwise what, either you’re trans because you decided to be or you’re trans because of some trauma that you experienced? I mean you could come up with other etiologies but the neurological etiology theory explains, at least in part, why it’s so hard to articulate what it feels like or means to be trans, how a trans person *knows* they’re trans. Or why people are born with the impulse to live in a gender role opposite the one associated with their apparent junk at birth in every culture throughout human history (which looks like a lot of things in a lot of cultures, obviously) .
But like anybody else who’s been having conversations about transsexuality in queer communities for the last ten years, I was pretty skeptical. I mean, how would neuroanatomy explain nonbinary identities, right? Plus gender is constructed, not real (goes the discourse), plus biology is not destiny and all these other things we talk about.
I was surprised to find that the evidence of a correlation between the sizes and neuronal volumes of some specific sexually dimorphic (meaning, y’know, gendered) parts of the brain and transsexuality was pretty compelling! In the last five years, as neurologists have stopped, like, controlling for the neuroanatomies of trans women by comparing them to cis men and started controlling for them by looking at cis women, they’ve been able to come up with much more useful hypotheses and actually do some pretty compelling experiments that produced some really interesting data. I mean, it’s not perfect, sample sizes tend to be small and the results are not all, like, ‘this part of the brain in all trans women is exactly the same size as it is in all cis women,’ or anything. But I was surprised and fascinated!
The things Professor Joel is debunking in this video are very broad-stroke, popular science myths about cis brains, and she doesn’t mention this research on transsexuality once. She is talking about cis people. What she’s saying is relevant to trans people, too- our brains are as “intersexed” as anybody else’s. But she does not say, “all of our brains are androgynous all the way through.” She specifically frames some parts of the brain as gendered one way and some as gendered the other, as well as those that can very and change; that’s why there are grey parts, pink parts and blue parts in her pictures. While this seems kind of insignificant in the context of what she says in this video, I might argue that it is more significant if you want to have a discussion about the relationship between the trans people’s brains that some groups of researchers have studied and the cis people’s brains that way more groups of researchers have studied.
Research on gender in trans people’s brains (and mostly trans women’s brains, although the little research I’ve seen on trans men’s brains corroborates this) has focused mostly on two specific areas of the brain: the BSTc, which everybody was flipping out about like ten years ago, and the INAH3, which has become a subject of inquiry more recently.
Basically, these regions tend to look different in cis women’s brains than they do in cis men’s brains. And it turns out, in trans women’s brains they tend to be more like cis women’s brains than cis men’s brains, and in trans men they tend to be more like those in cis men’s brains.
They did experiments where they looked at trans people who had never been on hormones, who had been on hormones and then gone off them, and they looked at like, cis men who had had orchiectomies for whatever reason, as well as cis women who for whatever reason had effectively been on testosterone. These brain regions were basically one way for woman-identified people and another for man-identified people, regardless of trans status.
You guys that is interesting! It doesn’t mean that trans women have big pink brains just like cis women or that trans men have homogeneous blue brains just like cis men. All it means is that there seems to be *something* going on.
And I mean… this goes against the “everybody is kind of trans” dominant ideology in queer communities right now, which is part of the reason I’m reluctant to talk about it online. I mean, this is not about genderqueer people at all: nobody has studied genderqueer brains, as far as I’m aware. This is not a thing about socialization or oppression or What These Findings Mean as much as it’s a thing about, y’know, this correlation seems to be real and we don’t get to just ignore that.
Because this is tumblr where we yell at people first and then never take it further than that, please read the whole essay I wrote about it before you get mad at the simplified version I’m posting here? I mean I am definitely not trying to be like “I am in graduate school so you have to listen to me,” I’m trying to be like “look at this stuff I found out in graduate school, what do you think of it?”
Here is that zine, Stereotype Threat #6. It’s a quarter sized zine in pdf which means it’ll be really hard to read unless you print and collate it. But I think it’s a thing worth talking about and I think it also drives home the point that we can’t assume that cis scientists (assuming that Professor Joel is cis- an assumption I’m comfortable making) are thinking about trans people unless they explicitly say so.