Earlier this month, a team of psychologists announced that there are no differences between the male and female brain. The future of gender, they suggested, is not black and white but infinite shades of grey matter. Then a study claiming men were way better IKEA furniture-builders dropped like a ton of plywood. The studies were both peer reviewed and both seemed legit. So, what to make of these findings?
The answer comes down to a problem that has thwarted psychologists for as long as they’ve tried to explain why we do the things that we do. We talk about being “hardwired” to do things — say, assemble minimalist Swedish flat-pack furniture without the instructions — but the things we do are actually functions of both anatomy and upbringing. Are there brain structures or genes that give men a spatial edge? Do expectations? Is the way we raise girls to blame for their slightly less efficient kitchen-trolley building skills? Probably — or maybe not at all. Nature and nurture are unique, but they resist separation.
The first thing to get straight, says Tel Aviv University’s Daphna Joel, Ph.D., who led the “genderless brain” study, is that what brains look like doesn’t have much to do with what brains do. At least not yet. “At the current state of knowledge,” she told Inverse, “not much is known on the relations between brain structure and function.”
Her team had set out to determine whether sex differences in brain anatomy added up to different kinds of brains (and, by extension, humans) and succeeded. “We found that the answer to this question is no,” she says. Hence, their conclusion that distinctly male and female brains don’t exist — structurally speaking.
That’s not to say that gendered behaviors don’t exist. They’re just not easy to pin to anything physical, like the results of Joel’s study.
The IKEA study had little to do with what the brain looks like and everything to do with what it can be molded to do. Specifically, the team set out to test whether there was a correlation between spatial ability, sex, and furniture-building prowess. Sure enough, men did better than women in both tests of spatial awareness and trolley assembling. “Our study is just one specific example of more than 30 years of research showing consistent, group-based sex differences in spatial ability,” lead author Susanne Wiking, Ph.D., told Inverse. But, she says, echoing Joel’s point, “when it comes to the brain, there is a huge difference between structure and use.”
One man’s hammer is another man’s murder weapon. The tool doesn’t change depending on how it’s used.
How a brain is built is determined by biology. How it’s used isn’t. We’re attracted and confused by gender studies because we’re used to expecting polarized results. Joel’s study was useful in pointing out that biological sex may be a lot more fluid than we originally thought, while Wiking’s study emphasized how gender itself is still very much a product of upbringing.
What this means in the context of the IKEA study is that, unless society lets us stick male and female pairs of twins in the wilderness with a couple of BEKVÄM kitchen carts, we’ll never really know whether differences in furniture building come down to sex differences at all.