What is it that makes men and women's brains so different? I've been pondering this question for some time in reading and in research. Although it is likely obvious to even the most casual of observers that there are variances between the genders, it is one which most of us have come to slough off for one reason or another, with a simple joke. We often hear the term that "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus" to identify, in a jocular manner, the differences. Often, one will hear someone simply state some gender slur bluntly, such as "Women Drivers" or "Typical guy... never listens to what I say". I wanted to understand why women tend to be more emotional, cry more and emote more than men. I needed to understand the "why" behind the differences. I was not satisfied with simply joking about it. Being transgender provided special significance to understanding my own self in retrospect. Being born sexed as male but feeling more comfortable conversing, emoting and thinking as female has provided the motivation to finding out why. Below, I go into a summary of what I did find out.
All humans are born with ambiguous sexual attributes. . Although chromosomally, we may be destined to be male or female, the instructions carried by those chromosomes are not acted upon for the first 6 to 8 weeks of gestation of the fetus. In a sense, we are relatively all the same sex for those very first few weeks. It is after these formative few weeks that changes begin. If one is chromosomally destined to be male, then destruction of the female reproductive structures will occur and formation of the male structures will commence. As this paper is concerned primarily with the formation of the brain, we will continue to follow this thread going forward and with concentration on how the male brain differs from that of the female.
The brain has two hemispheres as we most likely all are aware of. They are the left and right hemispheres with each being responsible for a different set of functions in the adult human body. The left hemisphere controls such aspects as deal with the logical such as is needed in problem solving and in analysis while the right hemisphere controls aspects such as the visual, emotional and feeling. As the fetus develops, it is bathed in a wash of hormones as it develops. For a female, this would be estrogen and for a male, testosterone. These hormones affect how the brain develops, what areas develop to a greater degree and, very importantly, how the two hemispheres of the brain interconnect with each other.
Through Magnetic Resonance Imaging, (MRI's), it is possible to map which areas of the brain are utilized when we form a thought or work through a problem. In real time, it has been possible to watch these actions and reactions within the brain and to develop a generalized mapping of how the brain thinks and functions as thoughts are processed and decisions are made. We are able to witness the magnitudes of energy levels in each area of the brain and, most importantly, we have been able to develop a clearly defined relationship between the male and female brains.
Let's continue on with our developing fetus as it develops as either male or female. As the male brain develops and is washed by testosterone, key areas of the brain which deal with the left hemisphere are enhanced with greater numbers of synaptic connections. Such skills as reading maps, visualizing three dimensional objects from a 2d drawing, judging distances and direction and skills in construction and building are heightened. Areas such as communications skills are diminished however. It has been shown that men utilize, on average, about 7,000 words per day while women command a greater vocabulary of an average of 20,000 words per day in their daily conversations. Men talk less than women and prefer to get to the point of their discussion immediately while women can tend to parallel think and ramble more often. How many times I used to hear my dad, who was always brief and to the point, yell at my mother, "Would you please just get to the point!!". Additionally, we see that individuals with fully masculinized brains, do not tend to communicate and "share" information with others as well as women do. In example, how many times has a wife spoken to their husband asking and wishing him to talk to her more... to communicate and share his thoughts and feelings. Men just are not programmed by nature to do this very well.
As a result of the heightened formation of the left half of the brain, men tend to have greater command of all things logically derived such as mathematics or task oriented activities. Women, on the other hand, benefit from estrogen to a greater overall degree in their brain development in a number of ways. Estrogen has the unique ability to "interconnect" the two hemispheres of the brain. Estrogen BUILDS synaptic connections which allow the logically oriented left hemisphere to work in unison with the more visually oriented right hemisphere. This is a feature which is omitted for the male. Males which have a fully masculinized brain must generally learn to function with their dominant hemisphere. This is in stark contrast to womens' brains, which are able to utilize both hemispheres simultaneously in their thought processes as interchanges of information occur between the two hemispheres.
Another interesting fact is that women's brain sizes, physically, are smaller than men's but.... they are shown on average to be 3% more intelligent than men's. The reason for this increase in intelligence is two fold. Because women are able to utilize both halves of their brain more effectively than men can, they can parallel process thoughts more thoroughly. The second reason is in relation to the amount of what is termed "gray matter" in the brain. Women have more of this "gray matter" and it is important to realize that this is akin to a computer's memory (RAM) where on the fly processing is done for any task that may need to be accomplished. Men have significantly less "random access memory" (gray matter) than women and so are at a partial disadvantage in this respect.
Additionally, analysis has shown that women have a smaller development of their hypothalamus than do men. It has also been noted that biological males who identify as transgender females also have a hypothalamus which is relational in size to that of an equivalently proportioned female.
Studies have shown, that because a woman has greater correspondence between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and because she can cross communicate between them more effectively, she not only utilizes more of her brain on a given task than would a man, but, she also has the ability to cross learn in both hemispheres. Estrogen helps to build these connections between the two halves of the brain along a conduit known as the Corpus Collosum. Men do not have as strong connection between their two halves and must rely on one half more than the other. It has been shown, statistically, that women who have suffered a stroke and have damaged areas of their brain which control, for example, speech, have less difficulty in recovering or will show less symptoms as a result of that stroke than will men. The reason for this is simply that a woman can remap and cross connect to another area of the brain more effectively than men to work around the damaged area.
So with all of this information in place, how does this help to understand how a person who is transgender feel as though their gender does not match their sex. Simply put, a person who is transgender is a person whose brain has developed as one sex but whose body has developed as the opposite. How is this possible, one might ask? In further reading up on the subject area in question, we have to turn back to the developing fetus once again. The male fetus is, after that 6 to 8 week mark, beginning to be washed in testosterone. The, brain, as we have talked about earlier, will grow in ways either male or female based upon this wash of hormones. Areas which govern our sexual identity (who we are attracted to, male or female) and gender identity (who we feel we are) are part of this developmental process. What can happen during development however, is that testosterone can be received in varying amounts by different parts of the body. Physically, the body can receive the testosterone it needs to become male, but not always will the brain process what it has been given. These are conditions known as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome in which the male hormones are not picked up by receptors within the body and processed. The end result of this condition is that the male brain may not fully "masculinize" and the end result will be a male body with a female wired and developed brain.
One of the more interesting anecdotes I have read in response to what may cause variances in testosterone delivery to the developing fetus was as a result of stress on the mother during her pregnancy. It has been documented that stress to the pregnant mother during this important developmental period for the fetus, can lower the amount of testosterone which a mother imparts to a developing male child.
In my own case, I found that my own mother, was taking a drug during her pregnancy with me which was banned in the early 1970's as being unsafe. This drug was called DES and was touted to prevent miscarriage and to promote healthy babies. The drug was actually a very, very potent form of synthetic estrogen and was a strong endocrine disruptor. It infused the fetus with a wash of female hormones and denied it the male hormones during development. As a result, a higher incidence rate of transgenderism has been duly noted in collected and reported data, by those individuals who were born to a mother who was taking this drug. I was one of those children.
Because their are huge variances on the continuum of humanity in levels and degrees of this early development, there are also, correlative variances in the degree of masculinization of the brain. Because of these variances in development, individuals who identify with this paradox and are considered to be transgender, will have varying degrees of what is termed as "gender dysphoria" or "feeling that they are in the wrong gender". What a person who is transgender is feeling then, is the variance between a female patterned brain and a male body. Usually, this variance is more strongly noted as one develops through childhood and into adulthood as they begin to take stock and note of how males and females act, emote and behave in society and then take a close look at themselves and realize that they feel more aligned in their own behaviors with those of the sex they were not born into.
There are no reparative therapies and no drugs which can be given to a transgender individual once their brain has finalized development in those first few years of life. Although the concepts and understanding of how the brain develops and that transgenderism is, within the professional medical community, accepted as a very real and very tangible medical condition, the wider population and society has yet to come to terms with it. Unfortunately, we still live in a society which widely discredits anything that is not binary and not black or white. In reality however, there are more variations in all of human kind than just "one" or "the other". The entire human race just cannot be summed up in just two boxes. I hope that one day, we will all come to realize this very simple fact and to come to appreciate and respect that we are all humans first and foremost, and that we each deserve respect and rejoice in who we all are inside as unique members of the human race.
For an excellent read on how the femal brain develops and contrasts the male brain, please consider the following book:
I also relate my experiences learning of my mom's taking of DES and transgenderism, both my own and for others. More at this link here: