Do Men and Women Really Think Differently?

Do the biological differences between men and women impact the way we think and navigate daily life? This question has been posed many times and studied in countless ways, but most studies contain only a small sample size of subjects and cannot extrapolate their data to the population at large, making this question a difficult one to answer. What differences exist in the brains of men and women – and do those differences impact how we live our day to day lives?  

A 2017 study at the University of Edinburgh examined the MRIs of 2,750 women and 2,466 men between the ages of 44 and 77.1 Researchers examined the volumes of 68 structures within the brain. After adjusting for age, they found that women tended to have significantly thicker cerebral cortices, the outer layer of the brain that is more associated with consciousness, language, memory, perception, and other functions. Thicker cortices have also been associated with higher scores on cognitive and general intelligence tests.  

However, men had higher overall brain volumes than women in all of the subcortical regions, including the amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus. The volumes and thickness of the cerebral cortex in men tended to vary between men much more than it did between women. These findings are in line with previous investigations into sex and IQ tests, which have found that there was no average difference in intelligence between men and women, but that men’s scores tended to be more variable than women.  

Researchers noted, however, that there was an overlap between the sizing of brain structures in men vs. women. Put simply, if a random MRI was placed in front of the researchers, it would be difficult to ascertain whether the scan came from a man or a woman. Despite the trend lines that indicate differences between male and female brains, the two types of brains seem to be much more similar than they are different.  

But how does that account for noted cognitive differences between men and women? Past studies have investigated the use of gray matter vs. white matter between the genders. The brain is basically made up of two kinds of tissue: grey matter and white matter. The grey matter contains nerve cell bodies and nerve fiber terminals (synapses). White matter is made up of nerve fibers (called axons) that connect different parts of grey matter together. Studies have determined that male brains utilize almost seven times more gray matter than white matter for activity whereas female brains utilize nearly ten times more white matter than grey matter.2 But what does that mean in terms of how men and women think? 

Gray matter is found mainly on the surface of the brain and is responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, decision-making, emotions, and self-control. High brain activity in these regions can lead to what is commonly referred to as “tunnel vision,” an extreme focus on one particular subject. In contrast, white matter is the networking grid that connects the sections of gray matter in the brain. This may explain why females, who utilize much more white matter, tend to be great multi-taskers whereas many men prefer to focus on one singular task at a time.  

In addition to physical differences in brain use, the chemistry of men and women’s bodies comes into account. Neurochemicals and hormones such as serotonin, testosterone, estrogen, and oxytocin exist in different quantities in men and women. The differences in the chemical composition of our brains may explain why men tend to be more impulsive and aggressive in general while females tend to form emotional bonds more easily.  

Insight into the contrasts between male and female brains can help reveal how we treat strangers around us, parent our children, and support our friends, so it is important to understand how neurological differences can impact behavior. With advancing science and brain-scanning research methods, much remains to be seen regarding what we can learn about human behavior.