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

What emotions are

Is consciousness a bad thing?

In recent articles, the New York Times and NY magazine distinguish activity in the brain, concerned with threat, from the experience of fear.

For NY magazine, consciousness divides humans from all other animals. No others are conscious. Animals have instinctive, defensive behaviours like fleeing or freezing. Human beings have a range of responses diffused through the brain which together go with consciousness of anxiety or fear.

In studies of patients where the link between the hemispheres was severed, as a last chance treatment for epilepsy, Joseph LeDoux saw that consciousness creates explanations or ideas about behaviour. For example, the right hemisphere alone is shown a cartoon, and laughs. The left hemisphere creates an explanation: “You guys are so funny”. Listening to talk radio in the night, I am unaware of the gaps when I doze off: my conscious experience is of a continuous entertainment, which is of course what it should be. Put that way, consciousness is a bad thing, deluding me into false explanations of my experience; yet some of my experience is explicable, and I consciously consider my behaviour through more and more sophisticated explanations.

When a human perceives danger, the brain readies the body for action. The human becomes aware of feeling fear if the brain is conscious of its own activity, and has the ability to conceptualize all of that, to label it linguistically, and to integrate it with thoughts and memories. Having the concept “fear”, the brain sees certain responses as fitting that concept.

The unconscious responses and the conscious feeling are distinct phenomena, in different parts of the brain. Nothing gets in the way of truth as much as language does, says LeDoux, though language is the only way to communicate scientific evidence. Communicating feeling without language is possible, consciously and unconsciously.

Lisa Feldman Barrett is an academic psychologist, rather than a journalist communicating how much of the interview he has (mis)understood. We experience anger and other emotions as clear, identifiable states of being… Every alleged emotion region increased its activity during nonemotional thoughts and perceptions. Well, is any thought truly non-emotional? One may experience fear without an amygdala, so my casual use of words such as “hypothalamus” or “limbic system” is inaccurate. Perhaps I am best to stick to the words “heart” or “gut”. I read of reptile brain, mammal brain, human frontal lobe- then read that even simple vertebrate brains have a similar hind-brain/ mid-brain/ fore-brain structure.

A single brain area like the amygdala participates in many different mental events, and many different brain areas are capable of producing the same outcome. Emotions like fear and anger, my lab has found, are constructed by multipurpose brain networks that work together….emotion words like “anger,” “happiness” and “fear” each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the contextYou might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.

Types of “Anger” might be distinguished, and wordsmiths have made a start: cold or hot, for example. So my conscious understanding increases.

Ingres, Venus Anadyomène

White matter

Klimt, portrait of Hermine GalliaTranssexual people exhibit different brain structure. A team at the National University of Distance Education, Madrid, performed MRI scans on 24 males, 19 females and 18 female to male trans folk, who had had no treatment. They found significant differences between male and female brains in four regions of white matter, and the trans men had white matter in those regions resembling a male brain. The team made a separate study of 18 trans women, finding that the structure of the white matter was half way between that of the males and females.

Words like “superior longitudinal fascicle” may trip off my tongue as easily as base-nodule of the stria terminalis central section. It may have implications on body perception.

In 2011, the New Scientist (where I found this) suggested that trans-identifying children with such white matter anomalies could benefit from treatment to delay puberty, but no such work had yet been done. The New Scientist referred to Sean Deoni’s work on white matter development in infants, but publication considered a causal link between breast feeding and improved intelligence, previously demonstrated epidemiologically. Here is the 2011 Journal of Psychiatric Research article, on the Spanish research.

As soon as April 2011, Neil Whitehead opined that any brain differences were caused by “years of repetitive thinking, fantasy and preoccupation with body image”. Reading the NS report, “each” M-F had the brain differences, and “the female to male transsexual people had white matter in those regions which resembled a male brain”, but Artur Lajos Halmi, portrait of an elegant young woman in a white dressWhitehead says “a modest majority had brains more like their heterosexual female counterparts”. This could be evidence of lying, though the two reports could be choosing different aspects to emphasise.

Whitehead’s is a prejudiced site: its home page states that “Huge amounts of impartial scientific evidence now make it abundantly clear that homosexuality is not biologically hard-wired and that change is possible”. This is a minority view.

This is all of limited use in deciding whether to transition. The question is, will you be happier transitioned? How much do you want it, and how accepting is your society? It has some use in persuading the undecided, though people like Whitehead will oppose it. More persuasive is the fact that people want to transition. Why not just let us?

More long words: White matter microstructure diffusivity.


As I said, the left brain has a clear rational focus on the matter in hand, the right brain has an intuitive grasp of context. I was thinking while meditating the other day (I never said I meditated properly) that this could be the experience I have in meditation which I find so delightful: the left brain, having nothing to do, stops, and I am in the right brain, just Aware of everything. It feels mindblowing. Perhaps some unlawful drugs do the same thing.

In a walking meditation at the Field of Love, we were told to put one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, and place our foot in the place their foot had just vacated. This is a ridiculous task, and not possible for a large group of people for any length of time, but I am a biddable soul and I tried to follow the Rules, though I would rather walk through the woods actually looking around me. And then, in the open field, I was in that blessed In-the-Moment place, just aware, all my senses feeling enriched. And I could pay all my attention (left brain, says McGilchrist) to a wild flower. That clear, focused attention on every detail of it, then back to Right brain, wide awareness.

Sometimes it seems to me that I can get in the moment by paying attention to the tiniest detail: a speck on the wall, a blade of grass: in looking at the thing which does not affect my immediate interest, and paying it attention, I can switch into Right brain mode. Useful, I would think, for walking through the forest, spear in hand, looking out for deer to eat and wolves to flee. Beautiful, certainly, in the city, in the crowds, in the commute; a pure joy when looking at a painting or hearing a string quartet- but how, useful? How, now, in this complex world we have made, could this Right-brain awareness be useful?

Awareness and brain function

That sense of Unity with all creation, of being in the space, aware of all that is around, may be a Right brain phenomenon. I first felt it in my first sharing-circle, with the Scott Peck-inspired Community Building in Britain. I could have heard a pin drop. Calm, quiet concentration, awareness of surroundings, all senses seeming more alert and powerful, and then focusing on the individual talking at the time. So. It is not just the right brain awareness, it is also the ability to shift into left brain focused concentration where necessary. What is lessened is the Monkey-mind, that thinking on things past and things future.

In playing the piano, I understand some very basic brain function, shared with invertebrates, controls the complex movements my fingers make leaving my limbic system peace to work on the expression of emotion.

Theory. The Monkey mind is the feelings I have not fully felt, my fears and desires, shouting so loudly just as a toddler does when she does not feel heard. One answer, then, would be to pay her full attention, to gentle her like a terrified dog, to become aware of her hurts and cravings. Then, I would hope, her insistence might be less.

The fractured self

Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, gives a ten minute lecture on Youtube on the different effects of the left and right brain. The left brain has a clear rational focus on the matter in hand, the right brain has an intuitive grasp of context. McGilchrist argues that our society is far too much dominated by the left brain, quoting Einstein:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society which honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.

He also says that the frontal lobe allows us to step back from the immediacy of experience and response, and judge it: which allows us to deceive another, but also to empathise.

I had been aware that the amygdala in the base of the brain, shared with reptiles, deals with the imperatives of the four Fs, and indeed I have experienced time appearing to slow down, where the amygdala under immediate threat takes over and lays down memories more quickly than the frontal lobe does. If the corpus callosum, the link between the hemispheres, inhibits communication between them, that could explain why writing sometimes seems to float up from my subconscious, or a “muse”: it comes from the other hemisphere.

As a teenager, presenting male, I “threw like a girl” (not a good thing) and twice I threw something without thinking or caring and was surprised to hit the target (in one case, the back of someone’s head). And I read that in playing tennis, after perfecting each stroke and response, the best players show very little brain activity in performing those shots: not all the judging and thinking, just the perfect part of the brain for the shot.

Years ago from the blog Overcoming Bias I got the idea of near and far thinking including the idea that our opinions about particular issues can be very different from the choices we make. My own example was that coming from my particular religious background, I opposed a woman’s right to choose abortion, and would tell people so, until one asked for help in finding an abortion clinic. Then I sought to help her get what she wanted. Ones opinions of the world in general can be very different from ones choices, faced with an actual dilemma.

One final view of the fractured self comes from The Daily Race, a blog on race and discrimination from a Christian perspective. In “A Whole Committee of Selves“, Starlette McNeill writes:

These selves would include the mammy self, the buck self, the brute self, the hyper-sexualized and asexual self, the Uncle Tom and lack Nationalist self, the house and field negro self, the integrationist and segregationist self, the hopeful and suspicious self, the passing self, the mulatto, quadroon and octaroon self, the coon self, the shuckin’ and jivin’ self, the African self, the nigger/nigga self, the Negro self, the Black self, the African American self. Each has its own personality, position and power.

Octoroon, meaning a person with one Black great grandparent, is a word I find fouler than miscegenation, a word seeing an ancestor as a Taint, and a word symbolising almost but not quite passing as Normal. And I see it in myself. And the shuckin’ and jivin’ self, trying to get by under the radar.

For the power of suppression, consider those people whose most important characteristic is their Welshness, symbolised by Cymraeg, the language. This communal characteristic has become a symbol of identity, even individuality, because it has been so held down in the past.

So what does “I” or “the self” mean? My attempt at an answer tomorrow, but I would be very grateful for answers below.

Some of my verse now has its own page.