Is the “female brain” really so predictable?

Jemima Lewis is also not impressed by the Science Museum’s girl/boy brains exhibit.

According to the Science Museum’s interactive test of “brain sex”, I am – in common with others of the female persuasion – possessed of a “good visual memory”, but not so skilled at “seeing things in three dimensions” or “being able to imagine how things rotate”.

This verdict annoys me. What are they trying to say? That just because I happen to have a womb I must be terrible at parking? (I am terrible at parking.) Is the “female brain” really so predictable, so set in its ways, that it can be identified by an algorithm on the basis of just six questions?

Of course it is, silly. Now stop bothering the men with all those questions.

In fact, the idea of the gendered brain fits neatly with modern transgender politics. It is often wheeled out as a scientific-sounding explanation for gender dysphoria: each of us has a “brain sex”, which may or may not match our “body sex”. The now-familiar refrain “I felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body”, or vice versa, thus becomes not just a vivid simile, but a statement of biological fact. Gender is still innate, but now it resides in your grey matter rather than your genitals.

It would be considered a major transgression, at least in the “safe spaces” of the snowflake generation, to dismiss this argument as “junk science”. But it probably is. Granted, scientists have identified a few – very general – differences between male and female brains. Women seem to be somewhat better at empathising, for example, and men at systemising. But the difference is modest, and no one can be sure how much of it is due to physical structure, hormones or social conditioning.

The brain is very plastic: it can change shape depending on how it is used. MRI scans have shown that when black cab drivers do The Knowledge – the famously difficult process of learning London’s landmarks and short-cuts – they grow extra brain cells in the posterior hippocampus. Given the myriad ways in which boys and girls are treated differently from birth, it would hardly be surprising if our brains developed differently.

This doesn’t mean that gender dysphoria isn’t real, any more than it means my inability to park is merely a social construct. It means only that the human brain remains a mystery which in the end is just as likely to skewer our half-baked political theories as to prove them.

The part about cab drivers confused me for a minute, until I realized “black” modifies “cab” as opposed to “drivers” – drivers of black cabs, in other words. I wonder if I grow extra brain cells in the posterior hippocampus when I mess around with Google Earth.

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