Gender and Giftedness (page 2)
It is clear that the behavior of most girls differs from the behavior of most boys on most things most of the time. It has been only fairly recently that we have begun to understand why. From the beginning of their lives, moms and dads have noticed that little girls and boys seem to behave differently, so they have treated them differently. Of course, researchers noted that moms and dads treated boys and girls differently and assumed that this was why they behaved differently. Both observations are probably true, and both assumptions do contribute to the observed differences between genders.
Differences in ability between men and women may be rooted in biological differences that are established in the brain during prenatal life, shown in later differences in brain organization, and enhanced by hormones throughout the life span. How the sexes differ genetically in the way their brains develop, how the outside environment modifies this development, and how much we as parents and educators can affect the development of brain organization are questions now being asked and studied by those in the neurosciences.
Generally, male and female brains differ in anatomy and biochemistry, although male and female brains are more similar than different. Males and females have the same number of brain cells. Ninety-nine percent of the genetic coding of males and females is exactly the same. However, every cell is influenced by this difference. Genetic and hormonal influences beginning during prenatal development establish patterns of behavior and capabilities that we consider stereotypically male or female (Brizendine, 2006).
The environment strongly affects the brain’s capability and the child’s behavior, but the patterns are organized by genes and hormones. Until the eighth week, all fetuses are female. It requires a testosterone surge to change the fetus and form the male brain (Brizendine, 2006). The hormone testosterone may delay the development of the left hemisphere of the brain in male fetuses, giving female fetuses a head start in their use of left-brain hemisphere functions. So boys rely more on right-brain hemisphere functions, resulting in greater development of the visual-spatial skills.
Males and females use different brain areas and circuits to solve problems, process language, and experience emotion. More of the female brain is devoted to verbal ability, emotion, nurture, and caring. The male brain focuses more on action and aggression. Male and female brains are already different at birth.
Overall, females experience less lateralization of the hemispheres, showing less distinction between their right-and left-brain functions and using both to support their characteristically more developed verbal skills. This also results in a more unified double mind that may assemble information more quickly than can males, creating the source for what is often called female intuition. Women seem to have stronger connections between the amygdala and regions of the brain that handle language and other higher-level functions. This may contribute to the fact that it is easier for women to talk about their emotions.
On average, the female brain matures 2 to 3 years earlier than the male brain. From his research ongoing at the National Institutes of Health, Giedd (reported in Ripley, 2005b) has found that different areas of the brain mature faster for boys and for girls. Some of the regions involved in mechanical reasoning and visual spatial reasoning mature 4 to 8 years earlier in boys. The parts of the female brain that mature faster are involved in verbal fluency, writing, and recognition of cues from the environment. The prefrontal cortex, the seat of decision making and judgment, matures 2 to 3 years earlier in females.
The behavioral differences found between males and females that are related to the anatomy and chemistry of the brain are impressive and seem to indicate certain cognitive advantages and disadvantages for children of each sex. While a review of the research will show advantages in some areas for females and in other areas for males, these differences should not be equated with either sex being seen as superior or inferior. They are just different. It is up to educators to make sure that we change the environment at school so that these differences do not become liabilities.
The brain is not a closed system; it is highly malleable and can be dramatically influenced by experience. Education is of great importance, as the brains of males and females also respond differently, depending on the environmental conditions. Enriching environmental stimulation can change brain patterns, thereby mitigating many of the disadvantages established by the response to anatomical and hormonal predispositions. Experience includes not only encounters with the outside world, but also such things as mental attitude, determination, beliefs regarding self, and the sense of well-being. “All aspects of experience or one’s environment can alter brain circuits and induce changes that may diminish or even reverse the cognitive organization originally established by biology” (Restak, 2000, p. 65).
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