- Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian & Christelle Langley & Qiang Luo & Yi Zhang
- The Conversation *
In spaces like advertising to the workplace, it is often assumed that men and women are fundamentally different, from Mars and Venus, respectively.
Of course, we all know people who are more androgynous, who have a mix of personality traits that are considered stereotypically male or female.
Importantly, this “psychological androgyny” has long been associated with traits such as improved cognitive flexibility (the mental ability to switch between different tasks or thoughts), social competence, and mental health.
But how is this related to the brain? Do people who are more androgynous in their behavior go against their biological nature, doing things for which their brains are not optimized?
Whether brain androgyny exists has long been ignored.
But our new study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex last Wednesday, it suggested that it exists, and that it is common.
Psychological androgyny is believed to be psychologically protective. For example, we know that it is associated with fewer mental health problems like depression and anxiety. It has also been linked to increased creativity.
We are all familiar with the traits that are stereotypically classified as male or female.
Men, for example, are not encouraged to express feelings or cry when they are upset. Instead, they are expected to be tough, assertive, rational, and good at visual-spatial tasks like map reading.
On the other hand, women are often expected to be more emotional, caring, and better at language.
But these differences are likely due in part to societal norms and expectations: We all want to please, so we stick with the rules.
If a girl is told that it is rude or inappropriate to be assertive, for example, she can change her behavior to accommodate this, which will affect her future career options.
Teenage girls, for example, may not be encouraged by friends and family to consider careers rewarding but dangerous, such as entering the military or the police.
The sex of the brain
Scientists have long argued about how different male and female brains really are. There are many reports of differences between male and female brains in the medical literature.
Other researchers, however, argue that these differences are minimal and the categories are anything but absolute.
One study suggested that psychologically most of us are probably somewhere on the spectrum between what we stereotypically consider a “man” and a “woman.”
But does that mean that people who fall somewhere in the middle have a more androgynous brain and behavior?
To test this, we created a brain spectrum using a machine learning algorithm and neuroimaging data.
While male and female brains are similar, connectivity between different areas of the brain has been shown to differ.
We used these connectivity markers to characterize the brains of 9,620 participants (4,495 men and 5,125 women).
We found that brains were indeed distributed across the spectrum and not just at the two extremes.
In a subsample, approximately 25% of the brains were identified as male, 25% as female, and 50% were distributed along the androgynous section of the spectrum.
In addition, we found that participants who fell in the center of this spectrum, representing androgyny, had fewer symptoms of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, compared to those at the two extremes.
These findings support our new hypothesis that there is a neuroimaging concept of brain androgyny, which may be associated with better mental health in a similar way to psychological androgyny.
Why androgyny benefits us
To learn new things in order to adapt to the ever-changing global environment, we must be able to be aware of the world around us.
We must also have mental well-being, flexibility, and be able to employ a wide range of life strategies.
These skills allow us to quickly understand the external context and decide an optimal response.
They help us seize time-limited opportunities and instill resilience.
Thus, these abilities confer an advantage for people with androgynous brainswhile others are less likely to prosper.
But why does this happen?
A meta-analysis of 78 studies of about 20,000 participants revealed that men who conform to typical masculine norms, such as never depending on others and exercising power over women, suffer more psychiatric symptoms than others, such as depression, loneliness and substance abuse.
They also feel more isolated, with no social connections to others.
Women trying to settle also pay a price, perhaps by quitting their dream job because the industry is dominated by men or taking on most of the tedious household chores.
However, an androgynous person is not influenced by gender norms to the same extent.
That doesn’t mean there is no hope for those at the ends of the spectrum. The brain is changeable (plastic) to some extent.
The androgynous brain is likely influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, as well as an interaction between the two.
Our own study suggests that people’s level of brain androgyny can change throughout life.
Future research is required to understand the influences on brain androgyny throughout life and how environmental factors, such as education, can affect it.
Since we have found that an androgynous brain offers better mental health, it follows that for optimal performance in school, work, and better well-being throughout life, we must avoid extreme stereotypes and offer children opportunities balanced as they grow.
* Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, UK.
* Christelle Langley is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.
* Qiang Luo is an Associate Principal Investigator of Neuroscience at Fudan University.
* Yi Zhang is a Visiting Doctor Candidate at Cambridge University.
* This article was originally published on The Conversation and you can read it here.
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