Med thumb compass

The battle of the sexes is alive and well in science labs. This week, it's another neuroscience study on “male” and “female” brains.

That’s not to say the “gendered brain” isn’t fertile soil for research. In a study published earlier this month, for example, researchers used fMRI to look at sex-based neural differences. While they found few strictly “male” or “female” brains, they did identify certain structural patterns associated with fe/male-ness. There is evidence that men have a larger and more active hippocampus, which is home to a network of cells dubbed the brain’s “inner GPS” by last year's Nobel Prize winners.

With neuro-sex studies still in their infancy, it’s more useful to think of the human brain in terms of a spectrum, not a pink-blue binary.

That’s not stopping some researchers from drawing conclusions about the brain as a gendered organ. As reported by Medical News Today, researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology went looking for a neurobiological basis behind the stereotype that men have better senses of direction than their fairer fellow humans.

“Women usually orient themselves along a route to get there, for example, ‘go past the hairdresser and then up the street and turn right after the store’.”

In the first part of the study, male and female participants solved navigational tasks (orienting themselves in a virtual maze) while researchers used fMRI to look at regional activity changes inside their brains. Men outperformed women, correctly orienting themselves inside the maze 50 percent more of the time.

“Using fMRI,” the study release said, “the researchers saw that men in the study took several shortcuts, oriented themselves more using cardinal directions and used a different part of the brain than the women in the study.”

Researchers then decided to butch-up the women to see if their navigation could be improved. In a double-blind experiment, half were given testosterone drops under their tongue; the others received placebo drops. The women then showed off their navigational skills one more time.

The women did not perform better than they had initially, as the study author Carl Pintzka had “hoped.” They did, however, exhibit more “male” activity in the hippocampus than the control group.

For neuro nerds, this is actually fascinating, and a connection between male sex hormones and hippocampal function is absolutely worth exploring. But it’s Pintzka’s language that betrays his pre-loaded gender assumptions. Here's an excerpt from the release:

“According to Pintzka, women and men have different navigational strategies. Men use cardinal directions during navigation to a greater degree. If they’re going to the Student Society building in Trondheim, for example, men usually go in the general direction where it’s located. Women usually orient themselves along a route to get there, for example, ‘go past the hairdresser and then up the street and turn right after the store’,” he says.” [emphasis added]

First, hairdresser?

Second, women didn’t actually solve more tasks with testosterone-boosted brains; they just used their brains differently. But Pintzka, at least according to the press release, believes that using cardinal directions for geographical orientation — rather than visual guideposts — is the best way to travel. Determining north-south-east-west is a more adaptable strategy. Women, being contextual creatures, have a clear disadvantage in his world. What if the hairdresser goes out of business, ladies? How will you possibly find your way to the shoe store?

Pintzka turned to evolutionary biology to explain this difference. Men understand how compasses work because of their hunter brains; women, on the other hand, have locate and recall skills thanks to our gathering ancestors.

Gender remains an identity, not a hardwired characterization, regardless of what research says about the relationship between brains and sex designations on birth certificates. Though neurofeminism takes issue with research on the neurobiological basis of sex (and often presents a compelling case), it's not inherently sexist to analyze differences in the brains of men and women. Again, it’s fertile territory that deserves its time in the lab.

But we must be mindful of the system in which the research takes place. Double-blinding your subjects isn’t enough when the study itself is designed by researchers who may be laboring under outdated assumptions about gender.