Home Editions A study finds differences in the brains of men and women, but only in countries with the greatest gender inequality

A study finds differences in the brains of men and women, but only in countries with the greatest gender inequality

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Several studies have shown that in countries where gender inequality is greatest, women are at higher risk of mental illness and are less successful in academics than men. A person’s brain, like the amount of abdominal fat or muscle strength, changes with environmental conditions, although these changes are sometimes not so obvious, hidden by the skull. in ChinaFor example, it has been observed that dementia is more common in women than men, and lack of exercise or illiteracy have been identified as risk factors for suffering from this type of disease.

To test whether the greater or lesser disparity between the sexes is related to differences in the brain structure of men and women, an international group of scientists took nearly 8,000 magnetic resonance images of people from 29 countries. in an article published by the magazine PNAS confirm that in countries with greater gender equality, it is measured with gender inequality index And this gender gap index, no significant difference was observed between the brains of one and the other. However, where there was greater disparity, they found that the thickness of the right side of the cerebral cortex was lower in women.

The authors acknowledge the complexity of gender inequality indices, which in turn interact with a variety of biological mechanisms, but have hypotheses to explain their observations. The anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, where differences in thickness were found to be associated with responses to inequality or resistance to adversity. Furthermore, changes in these regions have been observed in conditions where stress is thought to be a central mechanism and weight loss has been observed during depression or reduced post-traumatic stress.

Nicolas Crossley, professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and co-author of the study, points out that this type of work points to a notable effect of gender disparity in the brain in people exposed to permanent subordination and even physical violence. does. , Although the study does not establish a causal relationship, and “these results are not necessary to falsify gender inequality,” they believe it may lend weight to arguments in favor of policies that reduce inequality. “In all statutes, when an act of violence occurs, if that act is associated with visible and significant changes in another, the seriousness of the violence is assumed to be greater. With our work, in a certain way, we show that there is real damage caused by gender inequality ”, he defends.

origin of differences

For Crossley, these results may also influence ideas about the origins of differences between men and women found in societies around the world: “There are those who argue that these differences in social roles are the result of biological differences. And here we show that some of these differences can be altered by the social environment. In addition to influencing the way we look at the origins of the disparities, the authors, in a phrase queried by other colleagues who did not participate in the study, state in their article’s introduction that their results are “contrary to gender equality informed by neuroscience.” provide preliminary evidence for policies for According to the Chilean researcher, the ability to measure brain changes and relate them to changes in gender policies “could be used to monitor how certain public interventions are reflected in these brain measurements or to tell us What are the important moments in the development of an individual. It is more important to implement public policies”.

A person undergoes a brain scan.
A person undergoes a brain scan.Nolan Zunk / University of Texas at Austin

Bruce Wechsler, a professor at Yale University, believes that “the most surprising thing would be if researchers did not find differences in the brains of men and women where women have less intellectually stimulating jobs, their access to education It is reduced or not. Physical activity is encouraged.” “Furthermore, in those countries, they are subject to violence, which we already know can affect brain volume, and the data cited by the authors show more depression and other mental health problems, indicating changes in the brain.” must have meaning at some level in the function and structure of the brain,” explains Wexler, author of the book brain and culture ,brain and culture), in which he explores the synergy between human neuroplasticity and the fact that humans change their environment, which in turn changes their brains.

Wechsler questions whether the authors’ claims about the value of their results for informing equality policies are supported by their results and believes that “although MRIs, because of their ability to measure the brain, have been used by some people may influence and motivate them to act, others may rightly say that this technology does not change anything in the need to confront inequality, which is already justified for a number of reasons”. In short, the researcher is skeptical about the possibility of politicians or public opinion changing results such as this study, regardless of their scientific merit.

Maria Ruiz, director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Research Center at the University of Granada, praised that the study included a large number of participants, but believes the results are not easy to interpret. “More or less cortical thickness is linked to some sort of damage which doesn’t seem right to me”, she confirms. “In the hippocampus, which they talk about in the introduction, they have seen size variation due to stress, but they do not see an effect on the hippocampus,” she explains. “One thing I think they do very well is illustrate that the brain is plastic and changes with sociodemographic variables. But the relationship between brain regions and mental function is much more complex than people imagine,” she explains. “The areas they find are associated with the functions they mention, but also with many others, and more or less thickness in that area of ​​the brain is not necessarily a negative thing,” she concludes.

Despite the importance of recognizing how the brain interprets human behavior, experts also caution against using seemingly objective measures of an organ to draw unconscious social or political conclusions – about which there is still much to be learned. is unknown. The authors themselves point to the need for new studies, such as some that look at human groups whose levels of inequality differ over time, to begin to understand the reasons for the differences.

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