Mind Matters — What Neuroscience Teaches Us About Sex

Wondering what topic I might choose to write about this week, I perused several books on my shelf. I could have chosen one of the easier reads, but, no, I elected to choose the most complex of the lot. The Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven, is a page turner—all 500 of them—that looks at mammalian neuroscientific research to give us an understanding of the human brain and behavior. Needless to say, my little column here will not summarize all their findings. However, one of the areas of research I found fascinating was about gender differences of what Panksepp and Biven call the “BrainMind” (and “MindBrain” at times for other reasons). Rather than continue the illusion of duality between thought and neurobiology, Panksepp and Biven hope to connote a unity of both with the term “BrainMind.”

Panksepp and Biven are not the first to discuss how the male and female brain systems are different. They note that, while cognitively similar, male and female brains are different on an affective, emotional level. Simply put, the oxytocin hormonal system of females contributes to care and nurture; the vasopressin hormones in males give rise to aggression and competition.

This may sound like science just giving foundation to the old stereotypical notions of male and female. But there is far more to the research that is counterintuitive. That is, there are biological determinants that precipitate a male brain being in a female body and vice versa.

Why? Because the sexual development of the brain and the body of the fetus do not occur along the same hormonal pathways. How does this occur? Possibly by stress experienced by mothers during pregnancy. Stressors might include exposure to environmental pollutants, emotional duress, or hormonal medical treatments. These stressors could interfere with the usual hormonal processes that set gender in the brain. And it is the brain that determines sexual identity. So indeed an individual who physically appears male may identify as female, and vice versa.

A person who feels like a woman in the body of a male, and a person who feels like a man in a woman’s body is the scientific definition of being transgendered, and it usually refers to the setting of sexual identity in the brain in utero.

Panksepp and Biven take the findings of science to inform society. They hope that their work can help convince others to accept human differences beyond hatred and prejudice. They give us the facts of nature: most babies will be born typically male or female, brain identities the same as the physical bodies. Yet it is also a fact of nature that some babies are born with female emotional minds and male bodies, and male emotional minds with female bodies.

May scientific research such as Panksepp’s and Biven’s help society to be more open and tolerant by accepting the facts of nature—that sexual identity has many variables and variations.