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Research has sex on the brain

This writer spent the first three or so decades of his life labouring under the illusion that, beyond the screamingly obvious physical divergences, there is no real difference between men and women, thanks to having grown up in a household that was traditionally feminist [ie, holding to the tenants of first wave feminism, with a splash of the second, rather than the more recent, arguably increasingly incoherent iterations].

The initial misapprehension is perhaps understandable, born as it was of a prepubescent interpretation of “equality” as meaning literally “the same”. How this error managed to stay embedded for another 30 years or so is somewhat more mysterious, although it might hold an anecdotal clue as to how and why ideological understandings of the way the world works are able to persist in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In any case, after many years of rolling eyes and muttering “sexist” at the routines of standup comics who insisted on pointing out how the sexes are often fundamentally at odds in the way they view and approach life, it was a great relief to join reality. Not least, because – not at all coincidentally – incidences of miscommunication with women subsequently became a great deal less bewildering, if not necessarily any rarer.

That said, there still remained the question of whether the observable differences between the way in which men and women behave are a result of nature [ie, basic biology] or nurture [social conditioning and expectations], something about which science was surprisingly uncertain.

Now, however, new findings suggest we may be inching closer to an answer.

Just released research powered by artificial intelligence [AI] indicates there are indeed fundamental differences between male and female brains, thanks to the analysis of activity in “hotspot” areas of the ol’ grey matter.

A team at Stanford University in California used a relatively new method that involves recording people’s brain activity while they lie in a functional MRI scanner and tracking changes in how different regions’ activity varies in sync with one another.

The researchers designed an AI to analyse this type of brain scanning data, having trained it on the results from 1000 young adults from an existing database by telling the AI which individuals were men and which were women.

Following this training process, the AI was about 90 per cent accurate at distinguishing between a second set of brain scanning data from the same 1000 men and women.

Much more importantly, the AI was also as effective at distinguishing between the brain scans of about 200 men and women from two different brain scanning datasets that it hadn’t seen before.

Although this new study is more rigorous than previous work in this area, thanks to replication and generalisation to another sample, it is certainly not the case that the “science is settled” on the subject [fun fact that bears repeating: “the science” is never settled, because the scientific process is based on continuous disputation].

Nonetheless, there is hope that – should they hold up – these findings about male and female brains will mean that treating neurological or psychiatric conditions that affect women and men differently [for eg, women are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression, while men are more prone to drug dependence and dyslexia] will become more effective.

It’s unrealistic to expect, however, that this research will put an end to arguments about the best way to stack a dishwasher any time soon – more’s the pity.

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