Is there a reason why men tend to have better motor and spatial abilities while women have better memories, are more socially adept and are better at multi-tasking? As it turns out yes, we are wired differently! But does this explain all those talked about differences between men and women?
I remember when I was preparing for my final exams in High School I happened to come across a TV programme about how girls do better in subjects involving reading and writing, and boys do better in subjects involving spatial logic and motor skills. Apart from making me worry that I would fail my Maths exam, this claim that our gender makes us prone to be better in certain subjects than others stuck with me and made me feel both superior and inferior to the opposite sex.
Fast forward 15-ish years (and one successfully passed Maths exam later), a friend of mine sent me this wonderful article about a study that has mapped how our brains are wired using Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) and, how the wiring is different between men and women. Dr. Verma and her team used DTI to map out the fibres that connect the nerve cells in the brain and show where these fibres go. You can watch this short, relaxing video from Neurodome, which shows how DTI visualises information flowing through the brain.
What our researchers found from the 949 participants (428 males and 521 females) was that these fibres take quite a different journey for both men and women. Below are two DTI images of how these fibres in the brain are wired in men (two images in blue), and in women (two images in orange).
In men, the dominant fibres tend to flow within the left and right hemispheres of the brain, whereas in women the connections reach across the two hemispheres, and also tend to be lumped mainly in the frontal lobe. Weirdly enough, the opposite patterns were found in the cerebellum: in women, the dominant fibres tend to flow within the left and right parts of the cerebellum whereas in men, the fibres reach across.
But what do these different patterns mean?
Don’t worry I’m getting to that…
In men, these within-hemisphere connections link the areas of the brain involved with perception and action, and motor action. This means that these connections have created an efficient system for coordinated action, i.e. better movement coordination and spatial perception. In women, the inter-hemispheric connections (connections between hemispheres) connect the parts of the brain involved in analytical and sequential reasoning (left hemisphere) with the parts involved in spatial, intuitive processing of information (right hemisphere).
With this in mind (get it?!), women tend to outperform men on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition tests, whereas men tend to perform better on tasks involving spatial processing and motor and sensory-motor speed, i.e. men perform faster on motor tasks and more accurately on spatial memory tasks.
And that’s not all – the sample size in this study was large enough that they could split their participants into different age groups to check if this wiring develops over time… As it turns out, it does!
In these three pictures, you can see how the connectivity increases from childhood:
To young adulthood:
And finally adulthood, which we saw above. As you can see, the developmental differences between men and women starts from a very young age and we can see the different paths they take over time. Mind boggling!
Is this a good or bad thing?
In all honesty, I don’t think it’s a question of good or bad. I also don’t think it suggests that either sex is superior or inferior to the other. What this study does suggest, and what we can take away from this, is that our brains are wired this way to give us complementary strengths between the sexes. I can’t wait to see what else this team of scientists discover!
Written by Alison Holland