The X-Factor in Mind – Brain Wirings and Behavior

As a part of 2017 International Women’s day celebrations at Nokia, I had the pleasure to talk at our Espoo Campus in Finland about brains, minds, women and men.

© photo Michael Müller

© photo Michael Müller

The popular quote “Men are from Mars and Women from Venus” went viral after the book with this title was published in 1992, by relationship council Gray. The author has an un-authorized PhD and his had taken a correspondence course in psychology before writing the book. Lucrative business in entertainment, training classes and streams of books on the Mars-Venus facts of life present. Survival hints even include “his-hers” salad dressings.

I have witnessed differences in opinions and viewpoints being dismissed with the Mars-Venus quote – and laugh. There are ongoing battles on leadership: men or women. If not on “can women be successful leaders, at least debating goes on gender differences in leadership. Do they exist or not? Does a woman need to be a man to lead? And, of course, do women understand technical stuff? What kind of a man becomes a nurse? It’s all about biology. Men and women are different, just look around. See for yourself! You cannot can’t ignore biology.

The brain is an important bio-physiological platform for our mental and cognitive processes. Does current research support the Mars-Venus claim? To what extent do female and male brains function in different ways? What about behaviour, mental and cognitive skills? How big are the differences between genders? Looking for answers, I went through some recent research in behavioral and neuroscience. Here are some findings I shared in my campus talk.

Though I titled my talk “The X-Factor in Mind”, it wasn’t actually about chromosomes or genes though they cannot be ignored in human development. However, in terms of human behavior and different types of skills, the role of genes as such is not all that great. Several groundbreaking advances in cognitive neurosciences and behavioral research tell us this.

The dawn of modern cognitive neuroscience – two inventive nobelists

The dawn of modern cognitive neuroscience was around the 1880’s. Two pioneer scientists of that time shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1906: Camillo Golgi invented the (still a classic) silver staining technique. It dramatically changed the view of brain slices under the light microscope making visible networks of neural cells, neurons. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a pathologist and passionate microscope developer, further improved the staining method and did ground-breaking work in describing structures of the nervous system.

What we so far have learned of the brain is a fantastic example of combining together basic and applied multidisciplinary research and technological sciences. Through advances in electrophysiology, brain imaging, computer and data sciences we now know that the brain contains a dense meshwork of neurons and crisscrossing pathways of neuronal fibres that link together different brain areas in many different ways. Cognitive neuroscience studies brain functions during task performance: Activity maps visualize how activity levels sequentially change in different brain areas when a person is performing a mental task during brain scanning. These flow waves of activity can differ between individuals implying that people, both women and men use different strategies when performing a certain task.

Are female brains wired differently than male brains?

I dug into recent neuro- and behavioural science to learn about gender differences in brain wirings. A study of brain images from nearly 950 youths, 521 females, aged 8-22 years (Ingalhalikar et al. 2014) suggests that male brain neural wiring is optimized for within brain hemisphere connections. This wiring links together perception and coordinated motor reaction – seeing and reacting. At group level, the neural wiring in female brains has more connectivity between left and right brain hemispheres. This is interpreted to facilitate linking together analytical and intuitive modes of cognition. So, are men more in the seeing and reacting mode and women in the “what does this mean” mode? It is too early for generalizations. Experience, as well as accumulating research has shown that when humans are concerned things are not straightforward. Anyway, we need both styles of behaviour in everyday life and work. They complement each other nicely.

Brain activation while tackling tasks requiring creative thinking (Abraham et al. 2014) was studied in a small group (14 females and 14 males) of around 20-year-old native German speaking science undergraduates. Again, we lefties (I belong to this minority) were left out as lefties tend to mix results. In women, higher activity was observed in brain structures related to speech processing, interpretation of social cues and understanding intentions of self and others. The activated brain areas in men related to forming concepts and rules, remembering facts and events. What might this mean in practise other than that cognitive strategies differ? Is it so that men more often are prone to mentally drawing charts and taking into account earlier learnings, while women stay at a more abstract level and seek answers to questions like how will this solution “play with others”. The study does not even try to answer the wicked question: “what is creativity?” Tests of creative problem solving often involve hidden rules and need out-of-the-box thinking. Thus, their usefulness in measuring e.g. creativity that produces cool inventions is limited.

Brainy and emotional

Neural activity maps of the brain do not directly tell us of a person’s cognitive skills or behaviour. Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s enormous capacity to mold its structure, as well as functions, to meet life’s demands. We have the ability to learn and modify our behavior. In the end, it is all about survival and the ability to live in varying social settings, in the midst of other people. Give and receive help. Thus, feedback from the environment in which we live makes a difference. Each day of our life we learn something and do updating of e.g. memories of experiences.

So, next I looked into psychology and behavioural research. An extensive review (Hyde) on research addressing gender similarities and differences in cognitive skills and behaviour was published in 2014: Women have a minor advantage in verbal and men in spatial 3D skills. Gender differences in mathematic abilities have disappeared, but women underestimate their math skills more than men. An interesting finding on communication is that women talk more in the tentative mode “could we…”, I suggest ….” than men. This is often (wrongly) interpreted as ambivalence – “she doesn’t know what she thinks, wants to do”. On the other hand, a woman with a more direct communication style is seen a bossy. Sociocultural factors play a role here.

What about emotions? Are women more emotional than men? Research does not support a yes answer to this question. Differences in experiencing emotions are trivial between genders. The palettes of emotions of both men and women have a wide range of colours that are influenced more by temperament, not gender. However, with increasing age the man – woman positivity gap becomes wider; men having a more positive attitude to life. This is something to think about.

I’m not an expert in leadership research, but this is what I learned from my dive into “The X-factor in Mind” related research: Both men and women have abilities on which to build to become respected and inspiring leaders. Style wise (research claims) there is an overall gender difference to tackling future problems: Men work more in the “wait and see mode” letting problems crop up before addressing them. Women tend to strive to identify possible problems beforehand in order to be prepared if they do surface. Again, in my opinion, both approaches are needed.

The Things-People issue

Then we have the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) gender gap. Research suggests that at school age also girls with good STEM skills are interested in studies and work in tech areas. But, especially girls with both good STEM and verbal skills tend to, in the end, choose to pursue a career in other areas such as medicine, either as doctors, nurses or e.g. hospital physicists. Different fields of medicine are nowadays technology-intensive and the rising trend continues. In addition to being tech savvy, health care professionals need people skills.

The biggest gender gap has been observed in interests – the Things-People -issue. To simplify: Men are more things people, women people people. The fact that human touch is important in several areas of technology and that technology-based solutions are for people should make STEM professions attractive also for girls and women. It seems that a lot of branding is needed to raise awareness of this.

Group level gender differences in brain wirings, behavioural styles and cognitive skills are subtle. Connected social human minds create the cultures in which we live. Cultural expectations mould the minds of humans. Different things are expected from men and women. These expectations, as well as other life event experiences are stored into the long-term memories of human brains. Women and men have shared, as well as different realities that play, often a significant role, in career choices.

“Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas”, is a quote linked to the two-time nobelist Marie Curie. In order to develop meaningful and useful technology based solutions that help people in their daily life, the interests and skills of both men and women are needed. We need people interested in things, ideas, people. Things and People -people working together can really make a difference.

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