Male and Female Brains Are Different. Should It Matter?

Neuroscientist Larry Cahill on the great ‘neurosexism’ debate

Meghan Daum
GEN
Published in
9 min readApr 17, 2019

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Photo: Jonathan Kitchen/Getty Images

InIn a major policy change implemented in early 2016, the National Institutes of Health made clear its expectation that researchers seeking grants “consider sex as a biological variable in all stages of research.” The reason was simple — if overdue. Past studies often focused on males, yielding results that did not always apply to the other 50.8 percent of the population.

It’s not surprising that such a major decision would prove controversial in some quarters. What may be surprising, however, is that many of those taking issue with the idea are feminists.

That’s because among the various biological differences scientists must account for are those involving brain function. And the notion that sex hormones and sex chromosomes exert an influence on cognition and effectively make men’s and women’s brains “different” is vigorously disputed — in large part due to fears that the idea could lead to a kind of gender essentialism and feed into harmful stereotypes. There’s even a word for it: neurosexism.

“Can We Finally Stop Talking About ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ Brains?” went the headline of a 2018 New York Times op-ed by two prominent figures on the anti–sex difference side of the debate. The journal Nature, which less than a decade ago was routinely publishing articles that acknowledged the presence of genetic sex differences in the brain and other organs, ran an article in its February 27, 2019, issue entitled “Neurosexism: The Myth That Men and Women Have Different Brains.” The piece was a book review of The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain by Gina Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging in the U.K.

When neuroscientist Larry Cahill read the article, his first response was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Cahill, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California at Irvine, is considered one of the world’s leading researchers on the influence of biological sex. He was accustomed to seeing popular books written by what he calls “ideologues.” But what stuck in his craw this time was that Nature had lent its imprimatur to a…

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Meghan Daum
GEN
Writer for

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything. www.theunspeakablepodcast.com www.meghandaum.com