The extreme female brain

You might have read about Simon Baron-Cohen’s theories of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain types. Those inverted commas are there to indicate these don’t necessarily correspond to gender, although Baron-Cohen believes more women tend to have a brain that is hardwired for empathy (brain type E), while on average, men are more likely to have a brain that predominantly systemises – in other words, analyses and explores systems (type S). A more balanced brain type (B) can systemise and empathise equally. The aspect of this theory that has gained the most attention over the past decade is the possibility that people with autism may have an extreme male brain – talented at systemising, but very bad at empathising.

But what about an extreme female brain? I started to wonder about this when I took Baron-Cohen’s systemising quotient test online (I’ve never been able to resist a quiz – and if you can’t, either, you’ll find links at the bottom of this post). I scored a dismal 8 – any score under 19 indicates a low ability for analysing and exploring systems, and the average woman scores 24. Then I took the empathy quotient test and scored 72 out of 80, suggesting a very high ability for empathy and an intuitive understanding of how to care for others (the average woman scores 47). My brain type, then, could be categorised as an extreme female brain.

Except that apparently hasn’t been discovered. It’s human nature to want to feel special and different, I think, but unfortunately this doesn’t necessarily mean I have a rare and precious type of mind. Scientists aren’t sure how the extreme female brain would manifest simply because it wouldn’t present the difficulties and obstacles of the sort experienced by people with autism. Through the ages, individuals with extreme female brains wouldn’t have stood out in society because their natural skills at navigating social networks would have masked any practical shortcomings. Difficulties fashioning a rudimentary tool for killing prey (early man example)/resolving that MacBook issue (modern example)? No problem – the communication abilities of someone with an extreme female brain would always ensure the right support from others.

More recently, research has posited the theory that a hyper-empathic brain may sometimes lead to over-concern with others’ judgement, and thus perhaps to eating disorders. And this is purely my own speculation, but I’d imagine this brain type might have a tendency to anxiety as a result of absorbing others’ emotions. Whatever the disadvantages, though, there’s no doubt that life’s easier if you get on with people.

Baron-Cohen’s theories are controversial – not everyone agrees with them, and there’s concern they may lead to gender stereotyping. You can read his defence against that charge here. Personally, I think there’s something liberating about understanding there are simply different types of mind – that you may not be too sensitive, too analytical, too obsessive, etc; it’s just the way your brain is. Society just wouldn’t function if everyone thought the same way – different brain types offer different skills. Vive la difference.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about your own brain type (surely you are?!), you can take the tests here.

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2 thoughts on “The extreme female brain

  1. The Guardian link to the interactive quiz didn’t work for me. I might try later.

    However, I wonder if people’s brains work in more dimensions than this — perhaps organised like the Maslow Hierachy of Needs? For example, I’d say that I probably have a more ‘female’ brain than many men at a rational, thinking level (e.g. when thinking about writing). And I know plenty of women who probably have quite ‘male’ brain attributes when it comes to work and careers, etc. However, at the lower levels of the Maslow pyramid, when it comes to basic physiological needs like security, shelter and so on, I think there may be more of a basic difference between genders. And when it comes to sex and sexual attraction, I think most people are motivated by very hard-wired, gender-specific motivations that we can suppress and modify in our external behaviour but never fundamentally change. (These sort of ideas are a bit what my novel is about.)

    What do you think?

    • As I understand, Baron-Cohen isn’t trying to say ‘men think like this’ or ‘women think like that’, necessarily. He has clearly chosen to call them ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains for a reason – ie that in general, women tend to be nearer the empathy end of the spectrum, and men, on the whole, closer to the systemising end. But it’s all about averages. I certainly know women who would score lower on empathy and much higher on systemising than the average man, and my empathy score is higher than the female norm. I suppose we are all somewhere on that spectrum; it’s nuanced. Of course, there are gender differences, as a general rule, but I think it’s important to hold those fairly loosely as ultimately we are all individuals influenced by everything from our mothers’ stress levels during pregnancy to the culture in which we grow up. You did ask! ;-) Great, fascinating material to explore in a novel – I could bang on for hours but must get back to my DIY.

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