The “extreme male brain”

Is there such a thing? Do trans women have a “female brain”, or people with Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism a “male brain”?

Here’s the Disability Studies Quarterly, giving a good kicking to self-proclaimed experts on Asperger’s, which may also apply to such as Blanchard. Asperger’s is rhetorical, says Jordyn Jack: discourse fills the space that certainty in medicine leaves unoccupied. It’s not making stuff up, exactly; it’s creating a theory from little evidence because you can’t create a better one. Like GID, Asperger’s was messed about by the DSM revision: now it is lumped in with Autism, before, it was separate. The fault comes when Blanchard or Baron-Cohen cling to their theories in the face of contradiction, using them as a framework for their understanding, and excluding other possible understandings.

Another thing we might find useful in this Disability Studies article is the will to find something valuable in a condition. It is not something less than normal to be managed; it is something different, to be celebrated. It contains genuine gifts which the “sickness” model does not recognise: they are not disabled, they are “neurodiverse”. Certain traits of Aspies are responses to extreme stress from not being understood; they arise from how society treats disabled people, not the condition itself.

Baron-Cohen has the idea of a single axis or spectrum- incrementum is the word Jack uses- from female to male. Baron-Cohen’s evidence for this includes the greater weight of the male brain, and greater size of the amygdala, though the differences are small. BC links his idea of a scale from empathising to “systemizing”, ie finding order and structure, associated with engineering, computing and hi-tech, but not with “good people skills”. BC’s “systemizing quotient” test associates stereotypically culturally masculine interests with systemizing. The sex differences are a result of the questions chosen. The cultural understanding of nerdiness is skewed to stereotypically male interests.

In the 1940s, the term “computer” referred to a human working on repetitive calculations, this work was done by women, and the first electronic computer programmers were women. The work became man’s work when it gained status.

Emotional intelligence is increasingly recognised as essential in the workplace- teamwork, communication and interpersonal skills, initiative and adaptability, even in technological jobs. Where empathy is measured by physiological responses, sex differences disappear.

Autism might be understood as an “intense world syndrome”, characterized by a hyper-reactive and hyper-plastic brain that makes the world seem over-stimulating. Autistic individuals, then, may experience an excess of sensory and emotional input—not a lack thereof. Symptoms such as repetitive behaviour and withdrawal—which are not explained by the EMB theory—can be understood according to the “intense world” hypothesis as coping mechanisms individuals use to deal with overstimulated senses.

My Aspie friend agrees with the accepted symptom, that he has a lack of understanding of non-verbal communication, but he is particularly empathetic. His two friends I have met- note the weight of my anecdotal evidence- do not seem abnormally “masculine”.

Caillebotte, detail from view from a balcony

11 thoughts on “The “extreme male brain”

  1. Reblogged this on Another Spectrum and commented:

    I have been mulling over writing a post on flaws I see with the theory that people on the autism spectrum have Extreme Male Brains (EMB), and particularly how many on the spectrum fail to fit comfortably into gender specific roles as expected by society. I pointed Clare to the EMB article on DSQ a few days ago and she has produced the post I would have wanted to write if my head wasn’t clouded with a migraine “brain fog”.

    Thank you Clare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome, and thank you for commenting. I know a Paul Curran, actually, but I don’t think he is you.

      You could always do a bit of Googling. You could find that Simon Baron-Cohen FBA is Professor of Developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is the Director of the University’s Autism Research Centre, and a Fellow of Trinity College, and therefore not easily dismissed. You could read Jordyn Jack’s original article. Or you could rest content with my summary.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “It is not something less than normal to be managed; it is something different, to be celebrated.” Yes indeed. I don’t think anyone has any such thing so defined as ‘male’ brain’, or a ‘female’ one, or indeed a ‘normal’ or whatever society has at present deemed to be ‘abnormal’ one with some kind of negative disabling function – I believe it is all a sliding scale, like a pendulum say – (I would have said shades of grey, but that damn book has ruined my use of the term, tsk), with people having a huge range of male and female percentages across the board. Much like sexuality, and connected to that as well. And I think it makes perfect sense to see gifts instead of problems, ‘neurodiverse’ – I like that.

    ” they arise from how society treats disabled people, not the condition itself” – Perception is all, and we can challenge the ones that we have been bombarded with from childhood and look at the world from a completely different perspective if we choose to open out minds up to new ideas.


    Liked by 2 people

    • My friend is very gifted. He has a PhD. When we meet, we talk of everything; he quotes in several different languages before translating for my benefit. He was glad to get the diagnosis, ten years ago. It explained a lot. He cannot work, and is moderately depressed. If we can support each other with each others’ difficulties, we can gain so much.

      On shades of grey- it’s a “spectrum”; “takes all sorts to make a world”?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s really interesting. I’ve had a post kicking about in my head for ages now about sexism in medicine and condition labelling. We all know what heart attack symptoms are in men, but not in women. Most of us knowing what Aspergers looks like in men, but not in women, is another big one. And this idea of an “intense world syndrome” makes me understand a bit more some of the connections and the differences in expression. There’s a lot of self diagnosed Aspergers in my family and everyone just gets on with it, people are seen as eccentrics. Identifying it, understanding it and putting behaviour in context helps. For some people the labelling is useful for that reason, and for others they don’t want to be put in a box.

    That’s Borat’s brother, isn’t it? How odd.


    • (I’d like to see Arb discussing gender roles with Baron-Cohen! Oh my goodness, the pendulum swings grossly to the other side. “Meanwhile, Baron Cohen suggests, women tend to enjoy “having supper with friends, advising them on relationship problems, or caring for people or pets, or working for volunteer phone-lines listening to depressed, hurt, needy, or even suicidal anonymous callers”” WTF!!)


      • Baron-Cohen uses sexist assumptions to provide “evidence” of sex differences- according to this article, anyway. I am unclear how there could be physiological signs of empathy, but seeking them excludes gendered expectations. I don’t think I can say. There are researchers who find evidence of sex differences, and researchers finding evidence that the differences are cultural. H, the radical feminist philosopher, says that an objective view is impossible: the researcher colours the results. As a serial caller to the Samaritans, my impression is that volunteers are about equally men and women, though that could be just my perceptions skewed by my sexism. Their website does not say, but does have more volunteer stories from women than from men.

        Borat is now “Nobby”, a resident of a sink estate who discovers his birth-brother, who was adopted, is an MI6 spy, in the film “Grimsby”. Ken Loach meets James Bond, on general release.


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