Male Brains Versus Female Brains: What Brain Scans Have Taught Us

"Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus."

We have all likely heard the book title — turned common lexicon — often used to describe differences between men and women. Whether you enjoyed the book, are up in arms at the implication that people belonging to different genders think differently, or are sitting there amazed that the phrase is actually the name of a very famous book, we're just happy you are here to talk about it.

Single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT), an imaging technique that can monitor blood flow and activity in the brain, has indicated to some experts that there are pretty significant differences in the way male and female brains operate (per Mindbodygreen). If you find yourself having a visceral reaction, try to relax! Acknowledging that there might be differences between how men's and women's brains function by no means suggests superiority, one way or the other. 

What are some of these differences?

In 2017, a massive study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease went viral after suggesting that there are some pretty significant differences in the way male and female brains function. Dr. Daniel Amen, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who worked on the study, wrote about some of the conclusions they were able to draw in an article published on Mindbodygreen.

For starters, their study concluded that women have busier brains than men, on average. In 70 out of the 80 regions of the brain examined, Amen claims that the scans of women's brains revealed significantly higher activity. One of the areas this was most evident was in the limbic system, or the emotional brain, which Amen says might explain why women are typically more adept at creating emotional connections, and also why they are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

Men, on the other hand, had quieter brain scans, particularly in the area of the prefrontal cortex which is in charge of follow-through and impulse control. They also showed less activity in an area of the brain called the ACG, which is the part of the brain that allows you to shift gears. Less activity there, Amen suggests, correlates with the ability to not get as caught up in spirals of negative thinking.

Some contradictory findings...

The results of Amen's study would have you believe that men's and women's brains function in very different ways, but a 2021 study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews contradicts that. Rosalind Franklin University neuroscientist Lise Eliot led the charge in this more recent study, and she claims that there are few differences between male and female brains, beyond size.

Women's brains are typically 11% smaller than those of men, in proportion to their body size. Eliot suggests that a smaller brain might give some allowances that a larger one can't (i.e. a higher ratio of gray to white matter and a greater ratio of connection between, as opposed to within, brain hemispheres). But she firmly declares that the differences in brain function between a man with a large head versus a man with a smaller head would be the same as the differences between a man and a woman. 

She goes on to say that none of the differences related to brain size could affect specific behavioral differences between men and women, such as empathy or spatial skills, and suggests that it's easy to find differences in data if you're looking for something in particular, so long as you throw out any data that doesn't support your thesis.

So, it seems the jury is still out. But we're sure they'll keep searching for proof that men are from Mars and women from Venus.