Brain Sex: Putting It to Work

Article excerpt

Physiological differences between the male and female brain are explored. Research which suggests this reality and recognition of these differences are in their infancy. The implications for the adult educator remain a challenge and full appreciation of the subject is left open for debate. As andragogy and pedagogy continue to merge yet differentiate, any issue of diversity, including brain sex differences, deserves the attention of the adult educator.

Introduction

Recent research has made it compelling to recognize that the brain develops differentially in direct response to the presence of estrogen or testosterone as determined by the presence of the XX or XY sex chromosomes at conception. These inner differences are as striking and exciting as the differences that are obvious on the outside. As these distinctions are explored, the adult educator is challenged to acknowledge "Brain Sex" as well as socio-cultural gender expectations between the sexes. With this knowledge, learning strategies can be put to work that maximize each individual's potential.

Theory or Fact

About twenty years ago Ann Moir, then a doctoral student, became interested in exploring the possibility that men and women are different and the difference goes beyond the procreational functions and the anatomically obvious. If there were clinically describable and scientific distinctions between the brains of men and women, she felt it was intellectually dishonest to deny these differences (Moir 1992). Collaborating with Jessel, Moir wrote a controversial best seller, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between men and Women. Within their book, is a stylized version of brain research that opens electrifying new possibilities about the differences between men and women and yet leaves some crucial questions unanswered.

Sex or Gender

Sex or gender are two terms that are frequently used to refer to male or female differences. The term gender has been further extended to include role and identity. "Sex is used to indicate physiological differentiation between males and females (Huyck, 1990, ñ 124). Gender role includes the social prescriptions or stereotypes associated with each sex, to which an individual may or may not conform, and gender identity includes the introspective part of gender role, such as the gender-linked qualities that one sees as part of the self."

Genetically Determined

The sexes are different because their brains are different (Moir, 1992; Witelson, 1991). In the developing nervous system there is a small window of time that the growing brain responds to levels of testosterone or to levels of estrogen. These steroid hormones create a sex-specific blueprint. Research finds that the actions of gonadal hormones upon the developing nervous system are organizational and permanent (Kandel 1991). Hormones have been found to have two periods of influence on the brain. During very early development of the brain, the hormones dictate neural patterns and routes. Then, during puberty these same hormones return to the brain to nudge the same pathways or networks which they had laid down earlier. Moir (1992) likens this revisiting to a photographic negative that has been made very early, and the full development comes later. The interplay between the hormones and the brain guides the differences in human behavior and gaining knowledge. Both learning and behavior have strong biological support. Gazzaniga (1992) supports the biological basis for learning by saying "learning may be nothing more than the time needed for an organism to sort out its built-in systems in order to accomplish its goals" (p.76). Moir (1992) supports the notion that maturation of the processes required for organization of neural patterns takes time.

Future research could establish a direct relationship between brain structure and behavior, and conversely, between behavior and structure. If this can be authenticated, then there would be indisputable linkages between sex, hormones, brains, learning and behavior as well as environmental influences. …