A new book debunks the enduring myths about the female mind

How being a mother makes you smarter – and hormone swings don’t make you moody! A new book debunks the myths about the female mind

Despite 40-odd years as the owner and operator of a female body and brain — more than half of those spent working as a neuroscientist (having completed my masters and PhD at Oxford, I am now director of The Neuroscience Academy) — I realised I’d given close to zero consideration to how my female brain influenced my everyday life.

When asked, people are quick to rattle off a list of attributes they believe are due to innate biological differences in the brains of men and women.

We love the idea that women have ‘female brains’, men possess ‘male brains’ and that, in turn, our brains govern ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ behaviours, aptitudes, preferences and personalities.

Fact: The misconception that gender differences are innate, and therefore fixed, flies in the face of the well-established fact that our brains are plastic, so change throughout our lives

You’ll be familiar with some of these ideas. Because of their ‘female brains’, women are emotional; can’t read maps, but can multitask; prefer people to things; and don’t ask for promotions. And because of their ‘male brains’, men can’t read emotions and so on.

Closely related to the notion that the brains of men and women are different is the idea that any differences are permanently hardwired by genes or hormone exposure in the womb. The assumption is that nature matters, nurture doesn’t.

The misconception that gender differences are innate, and therefore fixed, flies in the face of the well-established fact that our brains are plastic — i.e., that they continue to change throughout our whole lives.

  • Army veteran, 31, may become the FIRST person in the world…

    More than 300 transgender children a year are starting…

    Women are hard-wired to find well-meaning sexist men MORE…

    Antioxidant supplements do NOT improve sperm quality, major…

Share this article

In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘male brain’ or a ‘female brain’ — male and female brains are much more similar than they are different.

Instead, each of our brains is a unique mosaic of different features, some male-like, some female-like, with plenty of features best described as androgynous.

Think of it like this: our brains are assembled of many hundreds of little parts that are coloured pink if they are female-like and blue if they are male-like. Viewed from a distance, some women have brain mosaics that are strongly pink-tinged, others in men appear to be the bluest of blues, but most of us have brain mosaics coloured various shades of indigo, purple and mauve.

Indeed, a team led by the Tel Aviv University neurobiologist Daphna Joel has found compelling evidence that adult brains show extensive overlaps in so-called ‘male’ and ‘female’ features.

Gendered? Each of our brains is a unique mosaic of different features, some male-like, some female-like, with plenty of features best described as androgynous

The researchers scanned the brains of more than 1,400 adults and found some features were more common in females or males. But up to half of the 1,400 brains contained features common to both, she reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2015.

Prenatal hormones may give foetal brains a small push in one direction or the other — for example, the effects of testosterone exposure early in pregnancy can masculinise some regions of the brain.

And boys and girls do differ a tiny bit during infancy. The average newborn girl is ever so slightly smaller, less fussy, easier to soothe and more socially aware than the average boy. Her language, memory and motor skills also track slightly ahead during the first year.

However, that early hormonal ‘push’ can be either enhanced — or entirely eliminated — by how girls and boys are raised.

My thinking is this: even as little as 60 years ago, it was rare for women to work as politicians, lawyers or doctors. There were very few female scientists. Since then, this situation has changed dramatically — but prenatal hormone levels haven’t.

Despite increasing social equality, however, entrenched beliefs still exist about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains. These beliefs can often create self-fulfilling prophecies.


Around the world, many men still believe they are smarter than women. This destructive gender stereotype emerges in childhood. A study published in Science in 2017 found that six-year-old girls have already absorbed gendered beliefs about intelligence, despite there being zero difference in academic ability.

Girls believe ‘brilliance, giftedness and genius’ are male qualities, said the study, led by psychologists at the University of Illinois.

Little girls were less interested in games they perceived as meant for ‘really, really smart kids’.

They went from being enthusiastic about playing ‘smart-kid’ games at age four and five to saying: ‘This isn’t for me’ at six. But boys the same age didn’t hold the same beliefs.

It gets worse: the six-year-old girls happily grouped boys into the ‘children who are really, really smart’ category, but not their own gender.


In 2016, the neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, MRI-scanned the brains of 25 first-time mothers before and after pregnancy and compared their brains with 20 women who’d never been pregnant.

Her report gave us our first detailed insight into how pregnancy changes the structure of women’s brains.

Pregnancy was associated with pronounced, long-lasting shrinkage of grey matter in regions related to social cognition and empathy. The hippocampus, associated with memory, also lost volume.

Wisdom from the womb: It’s likely that a process of refinement and specialisation of social areas of the brain takes place during pregnancy

Rather than degeneration, however, this loss of volume reflects a streamlining of the brain’s circuits, making them more efficient. It’s likely that a process of refinement and specialisation of social areas of the brain takes place during pregnancy.

Dr Hoekzema ran tests to see whether changes were related to real-life skills. The first was a survey of maternal attachment, which included statements such as: ‘I would describe my feelings for the baby as dislike’ or ‘intense affection’, or: ‘When I have to leave the baby, I usually feel rather sad.’ The greater the bond between a mother and her baby, the greater the changes in their grey matter.

An MRI scan monitored the mother’s brain responses to photos of either their own or strangers’ babies.

When women looked at photos of their own offspring, regions that showed the strongest activation corresponded to the regions that thinned during pregnancy.

Looking at someone else’s baby had no effect on neural activity. This supported the idea that brain changes had occurred in areas linked to social cognition and empathy.

Dr Hoekzema and her colleagues believe the changes are caused by ‘the unequalled surges of sex steroid hormones (such as oestrogen, progesterone, prolactin, oxytocin and cortisol) that a woman is exposed to during her pregnancy’.

However, MRI scanners are not powerful enough to reveal such occurrences in useful detail.

Instead, we need to turn our attention to the brains of rodents.

Motherhood makes female rodents smarter. Compared to their child-free sisters, mothers are superior at learning, remembering, foraging and predatory tasks. They’re braver, less anxious and less stressed.

The mothers’ newly acquired intelligence persists for life. Older female rats who’ve had multiple pregnancies have better memories and show fewer signs of brain ageing than virgin sisters.

In human mothers, brain changes are similarly long-lasting. Two years after Dr Hoekzema’s initial scans, 11 of the women were scanned again. In all of them, most of the alterations had endured.


The belief that our monthly cycle affects our cognitive skills is widespread. Google it. You’ll find headlines such as: ‘Periods cripple women’s careers’.

The scientific community has investigated these claims by looking closely at how sex hormones directly alter our capacity to think, reason and remember.

One predominant hypothesis is that we’re at our cognitive best at ‘masculine’ tasks when we’re ‘least hormonal’ and best at ‘feminine’ tasks when ‘most hormonal’.

 Periods: The belief that our monthly cycle affects our cognitive skills is widespread, but is it accurate? 

One of the most ‘masculine’ mental tasks is considered to be something called mental rotation — the ability to rotate 3D objects in your imagination. One notion is that women excel at 3D rotation only when all hormone levels are low, such as during their period.

However, two Swedish scientists at Uppsala University — psychologist Dr Malin Gingnell and Inger Sundström Poromaa, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology — have analysed the study evidence.

They reported in the journal Frontiers In Neuroscience in 2014 that the majority of studies fail to show any changes in mental rotation ability due to the ‘time of the month’.

The scientists also looked at two classic tests of mental prowess: verbal fluency and verbal memory.

Verbal fluency tests ask you to name, for example, as many words beginning with ‘G’ as you can within one minute. Verbal memory tasks involve remembering lists of words naming random objects.

The average woman performs better than the average man, so, according to the menstrual theory, women should perform better at verbal fluency and memory when oestrogen levels are high.

But the review found little evidence in support of this — there were no clear changes in memory ability across the menstrual cycle.

This is good news! Our cognitive capabilities and intelligence are not held captive by hormones. We have clear evidence that women can learn, remember and reason throughout our fertile years and beyond. Who knew?


Women’s hormones are typically blamed for mood swings but, in fact, they can provide a defence against many psychological problems and brain disorders.

Rather than promoting emotional instability, oestrogen is actually neuro-protective and improves mood.

Pregnant brains are flooded with levels of oestrogen that are 1,000 times higher than usual. As we’ve seen (main feature below), the hormones of pregnancy are geared towards mental sharpness.

Conversely, clinical studies indicate that our mental health is most fragile when oestrogen levels are dwindling, both over the course of the month and the course of a lifespan.

Women have a lower incidence of schizophrenia compared to men before the age of 45. After this, twice as many women as men are diagnosed. High levels of oestrogen in young women are thought to delay the onset of the disease, according to a report last year in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry by Swiss investigators at Basel University. Rodent studies have found that oestrogen promotes growth of neurons and protects the health of synapses and nerve fibres.

Oestrogen also acts as an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, improves blood flow in the brain and helps it to regulate glucose as fuel.

If our mental health is so clearly vulnerable to the withdrawal of oestrogen, is there a place for oestrogen replacement as a therapy?

Jayashri Kulkarni, professor of psychiatry at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, believes so.

She has conducted trials that reveal women with schizophrenia being treated with antipsychotics who receive additional doses of oestrogen via a skin patch improve faster than women who only take antipsychotics.

Professor Kulkarni is so convinced of the positive effects of oestrogen that, instead of blaming ‘hormones’ for bad moods, she prefers to declare: ‘Isn’t she doing well because of her hormones.’

There is more good news when it comes to premenstrual syndrome (PMS). More than 150 symptoms can be used to diagnose this — they include mood swings, foggy thinking, anger, fatigue, sore breasts, headaches and bloating.

PMS is widely blamed on low levels of oestrogen, combined with a sudden drop in progesterone.

However, it is extraordinarily difficult to find a consensus on how many women actually suffer it.

I expected to find stacks of research with clear-cut statistics. This is not the case. One major analysis found just under half of women globally suffer PMS.

But the prevalence varies across countries — a 2014 study, published in the Journal of Clinical Diagnosis and Research, found that in Iran, 95 per cent of women claim to suffer from PMS, whereas in France it’s only 12 per cent.

I can only conclude that somewhere between hardly anyone and almost everyone suffers PMS.

Sarah Romans, a professor of psychological medicine at the University of Otago in New Zealand, is not convinced that the menstrual cycle is the root cause of all mood variability — or that women are the ‘emotional victims’ of their reproductive biology.

In 2012, her report in the journal Gender Medicine analysed 47 studies on the association between time of the month and mood.

Taken together, the studies failed to find any clear evidence of mood changes driven by the phase of the menstrual cycle.

Professor Romans recruited nearly 80 healthy Canadian women between the ages of 18 and 49 for the Mood in Daily Life (MiDL) study. She gave them a mobile phone that sent daily questions about whether they were feeling irritable, on top of things, confident, sad, energetic and so on.

Over six months, they were also asked about their health and wellbeing, social support, perceived stress and day of menstrual cycle. The women were never told the study was investigating PMS.

The conclusion, published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in 2013, was that there was little evidence premenstrual phase alone influenced mood.

Instead, mood was more closely influenced by one of three culprits — lack of social support, perceived stress or poor health.

Professor Romans believes many women are falsely ascribing their moods to their hormonal status.

When she asks her patients to track their daily mood over the course of a few months, only about one in 20 shows negative changes in mood that may coincide with their premenstrual phase.

Not all agree — some suggest women may differ in their sensitivity to hormones and the notion that PMS is ‘all in women’s minds, as opposed to their endocrinology [hormones]’ ignores the vast body of neuroscientific work about the integration of hormones with mental processes.

Professor Romans suggests women struggling with this new idea should take a nuanced approach to the causes of their emotions. She says: ‘We should consider more broadly what’s going on in our lives and take a look at the quality of our relationships and our physical health before blaming reproductive function.’

Adapted from Demystifying The Female Brain by Dr Sarah McKay, published by Orion Spring on July 12 at £14.99. To order for £11.24 (until July 17), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.


Surveys show that some three out of four women state they’re more forgetful, ‘foggy’, or lacking in concentration during pregnancy.

However, the bulk of scientific research does not support their experience.

Most studies find that pregnancy and motherhood have no effect on a woman’s memory. Plenty of studies find that pregnancy actually improves cognition.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology has examined how memory and attention change with pregnancy.

It recruited 42 pregnant women to complete a comprehensive battery of tests on their memory, attention span, language skills, executive abilities and mood.

For every test, including memory, pregnant women performed equally as well as a matched group of 21 child-free women.

However, pregnant women consistently claimed their memory was poor or that they were ‘doing badly on the tests’. Surprisingly, their attitudes about poor memory persisted even when the researchers provided them with their scores — clear evidence to the contrary.

‘I was surprised at how strong the feeling was that they weren’t performing well,’ says Michael Larson, an associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, who co-authored the study. It seems that ‘baby brain’ is an expectation we’ve absorbed without question.

Professor Larson suggests that the belief emphasising cognitive decline as ‘inevitable’ with pregnancy is related to ‘the perception of a woman as emotional and at the mercy of their hormones during their menstrual cycle’.



Source: Read Full Article