Challenging Perceptions about Sex and the Brain

TAU's Prof. Daphna Joel explains why there is no such thing as a "female" and "male" brain
03 January 2013
Prof. Daphna Joel presents her fascinating research


With women holding just 19 of the CEO spots at Fortune 500 companies but dominating the fields of education, social work and nursing, many have looked to innate biological differences in the brain to explain why men and women seem so different in their abilities. Thousands of popular and scientific publications have been written about the "male" and "female" brain, with some suggesting that the “female” brain is hardwired for empathy and the “male” brain for building systems. After pouring through the literature, Prof. Daphna Joel of the School of Psychological Sciences and the Sagol School of Neuroscience concluded that this is untrue. Brains are neither “male” nor “female” but “intersex.”


“Fifteen minutes of stress are enough to change the sex of some features of the brain from the male form to the female form or from the female form to the male form,” explained Joel at a recent TEDx conference. She argues that human brains are a mosaic of male and female characteristics that continually change throughout life as they interact with the environment. Stress, parental treatment, and prenatal exposure to drugs are but a few of the many factors that reverse, abolish, create, or exaggerate sex differences in brain characteristics. “Since human brains are a mixture of both male and female features,” elaborates Joel, “the claim that women are not wired to excel in male dominated fields and vice versa is unfounded. Biological arguments should not be used to justify gender inequality.”


Even though brains cannot be strictly divided into male and female categories, Joel has discovered that sex plays an important role in psychopathology, or the development of a mental or behavioral disorder. For example, experiments in Joel’s laboratory indicate that young males treated with Prozac could be more prone to develop depression and anxiety later in life than young females. Joel is continually working to uncover the complex interactions between sex and the environment and create a more nuanced understanding of the human brain. 


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