Men’s and women’s brains

Do trans women have women’s brains, and if so, does it matter? Do trans women think like women?

In the 1990s, I learned about the BSTc, a part of the amygdala which is twice the size in men than in women, slightly larger in gay men, and women’s size in trans women. Problem solved, I thought, trans women have women’s brains. It can only be measured by dissection, though, so is no use as a diagnostic tool, and my internalised transphobia spoke up: what if I don’t? What if that means I am not trans?

Women’s brains have more white matter. White matter connects brain areas with other areas further away. So more white matter means more connectivity. Rather than using a single part of the brain for a particular function, women are more likely to use different parts.

All brains show differences between the left and right side, from nematodes up, and Iain McGilchrist in The Matter with Things explains this is because all animals need to eat without being eaten. The left side pays specific attention to prey, and the right side pays global attention to everything going on, as predators could come from anywhere. The right hemisphere is larger than the left in both sexes, but the effect “seems to be” more marked in males.

“Seems to be”- it seems that McGilchrist does not consider there is enough research to be definite. Lay people will often not know for any common assertion whether it is based on detailed and conclusive research, on one suspect study, or has been debunked. There is more research all the time.

Differences in brain structure might produce different behaviour, but might equally well prevent differences in behaviour by compensating for other sex differences such as the effects of sex hormones. For example, the right frontal cortex is crucial in the empathy between mother and infant, so might be less well adapted to making risk decisions, as it does in the male.

Testosterone in utero makes the right hemisphere grow faster in males than females, by inhibiting left hemisphere growth. But the same level of testosterone in males and females will have differing effects, and women may use different parts of the brain for particular tasks depending on whether they take contraceptives, or where they are in the menstrual cycle. I know from taking synthetic progesterone the effect it had on me.

I don’t know that I have any particular androgen insensitivity, though once I started on testosterone blockers my T levels dropped. I don’t know what might lead doctors to check. So my brain development in the womb was probably fairly male-typical, just as my development of sexual characteristics elsewhere in the body was. An AI shown enough brain scans of trans people can discern whether other scans are of trans or cis, but that only means there are recognisable differences in the brains of trans people, not that trans women have “women’s brains”.

Researchers can find what areas of the brain perform what tasks by studies of people with brain injury, or by brain scans. Differences in which hemisphere performs a task may be missed if researchers use equal numbers of men and women.

In a study of musicians, the compositions that had the highest ratings were by composers with a brain difference which all the men, and only some of the women, had. So the dominance of men in the culturally recognised history of great composers may be in part physical, though it is also Patriarchal.

Females have greater verbal facility, and males better visuo-spatial skills. Women use words to think through a nonverbal task. Ah, I think, I have no mind’s eye, and great verbal facility. But that does not by itself make me a woman.

If I tried totting up the ways where I was more like a woman, I would be guilty of sexist assumptions as well as proven differences, and my internalised transphobia might never think the list I came up with was sufficient, even now. What makes me a woman is my ineradicable conviction that I want to express myself this way, like trans people have in all cultures for millennia. I don’t believe in a soul, or even a mind separate from the effects of neurons, so that conviction is the effect of my physical brain.

I am a woman, therefore I have a woman’s brain, even if its sex differences are not the same as cis women’s.

A blogger’s questions

I don’t pass on “blogging awards”, but I do like the questions. MarymaryOhMy asked, “Is music universal?” and “What is Love?”

Well. I am flattered. I am a dilettante, interested in all sorts of things, and with opinions on most. Everyone sings, and stone age cave sites contain flutes made with stone tools. Music is ubiquitous, and important to almost everyone. The pentatonic scale is in Scottish folk music such as the Skye Boat Song and in the Raag Bhimpalsi of India as well as Chinese and Mongolian music (yeah, I thought I would just reply from my own knowledge but I looked that bit up). And, western music with its thirteenth chords in Mahler and in jazz follows specific rules. You don’t need to be able to describe the rules in words- you don’t need to know what a plagal cadence, a tierce de Picardie, or Sonata form is- but if you have heard a lot of such music, especially from childhood, it will move you as it pushes the boundaries of those rules, and if you are unfamiliar with the tradition some of it will bore you. I am unfamiliar with Indian and Chinese music, and do not get the subtleties, though much of it moves me on a visceral level. Music is universal on a basic level, but worth getting to know, even studying in depth.

What is Love, in your own words?

In the air. An open door. Patient. Blind. A battlefield. What will survive of us.

Love is a second-hand emotion
always moving and changing
not an hour-hand emotion
seeming still.

Oh, OK. My own words. Love is the leap of my heart when someone walks into a room- even the first time I saw her; a steady commitment between two people; an inescapable part of being human; a great blessing, even when most painful; something we need, just as we need food and oxygen. For further reading may I recommend Plato’s Symposium.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

I would make myself rich. Seriously. With one wish, I would rid myself of my most draining worries, and increase my influence. Stopping war or famine would be nice, but call me shallow and selfish. I would use my influence for Good once I had it.

Your biggest pet peeve?

Not being rich. The World should recognise my talents!

Is it Black and White or simply Gray?

Complexly grey, I would say. Just as there are 254 tones of grey between pure white and black on this blog with hex codes even if there is no admixture of colour, there is very little pure evil or good in the world, and many mixtures, from fatal flaws to mild imperfections. Every situation may be made darker or lighter. You may think it is unrelieved black, only to see how much worse it can get.

What makes a real man or woman?

Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, mostly; a little potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. Those account for 99.85%. A fictional person can be “real” in that they can live in others’ minds, and influence them: George Eliot has moved and changed me with Dorothea Brooke, who is now part of me; but any moral judgment of what makes a “real man”- never wears pink shirts, according to one woman- is ridiculous and damaging. Same with “real woman”.

Favourite comfort food?

Spaghetti Carbonara. I am just off to make one now.

Ah. That’s better. I love the ritual of preparation, as well. I quite enjoy frying up leftover haggis with mushroom and onion, and dousing it in cider which I boil off- it produces a greyish sludge which I have been spooning into me since I was a student, with great pleasure- but a carbonara is my favourite.

You can learn something about people with this game. Perhaps I will address her other questions later. If you have your own answers to these questions, please share them below.

Music appreciation

Is classical music better than popular music?

Bach’s cello suites were almost forgotten when the teenage Pablo Casals found the score in a second hand music shop in the 1880s. I heard them as a teenager, when my father played a recording: I could not bear to listen to them. The repeating patterns put me into confused boredom. I begged him to turn it off, and he refused: he inculcated in me the idea that high culture might not be immediately accessible, but was worth the effort of engaging, and because of his effort I enjoy the Bartok string quartets. Who could not, after similar effort to understand their ways of communicating? Their range of emotion and animal energy is mesmerising.

It took a genius to recognise and communicate the wonder of those cello suites, and now millions know them. Here is Yo Yo Ma at the Proms- I paused the concert to write this post. Learning the Sonata in C Minor (Pathétique) was worth the time, more than a month, that it took me, and playing it in my teens helped me access emotional states I could access no other way. I cannot play it now.

This is a class issue. I am cultured and educated, and I like Opera, Greek tragedy, and classical music. I met a woman in the railway station waiting room who was going to the Duran Duran reunion concert. She had been to the opera, and enjoyed it, but felt more comfortable with Duran Duran. I loved the City of London Chamber Orchestra concert, it was in no sense me doing the conventional thing, and I needed to pay attention. It involved effort.

The only full set I heard at Greenbelt was Kiran Ahluwalia. The programme reinforces that this is Culture: rooted in Sufi mysticism, transcending her training in traditional ghazal. What I saw was a glorious stage presence supported by technically skilled yet mostly self-effacing musicians. She was utterly girly-feminine singing of ankle-bells- you must walk with modesty, or you will get envious glances and condemning remarks- dancing round the stage, communicating her delight instantly to me. There was a long Tabla solo, which I am sure connoisseurs would appreciate, though I only noticed it was fast. I loved her.

For so long I have held myself apart, and one of the ways we as a family held ourselves apart was a strong active disapproval of popular music, which has reduced my enjoyment and inhibited my communicating with other people. Better to see the value in it. Like this:

That was the song which showed me that a pop song could be made around one brilliant line- who is she, what is her situation? Does she delude herself?- and a great deal of padding. Now, I could expatiate on the contrast between the rigid structure of the beat, simple harmony, bubble-gum pop vocal style, and the yearning in it. Very British to have emotion so held. Yet I do not need much, this week, to move me to tears.

Bouguereau, the Birth of Venus

Blogging IV

Is classical music in any way “better” than popular music?

I have been thinking about this, and could produce five hundred words on my understanding of class-based and cultural answers to that question, my own experience and my changing answer to that question over the last forty-two years, and my current view.

Instead, I am asking you.