Fascinating Ways Our Brains Process Gender, According To ‘Brain Games’

When it comes to conventional thinking about men and women’s brains, cliches tend to take over: men are from mars, women are from venus. Women are more emotional, while men think with their…testosterone. 

As any thinking person can guess, the differences actually are far murkier, with much of our conventional wisdom about how men and women think playing into heteronormative stereotypes, with the supposed difference between the two genders serving more as fodder for Hollywood rom-coms and self-help guides than real scientific commentary. And with transgender activism rising to the forefront of mainstream societal conversation over the past few years, it’s clear that studying how gender interacts with humans’ brains is a complicated and important endeavor.


Consensus is rare even among scientists weighing in on the topic; some experts point to evidence that men and women are better at different cognitive tasks, while other researchers dispute these differences, arguing that certain structural subtleties that exist in male and female brains don’t equal two separate ways of thinking.

On this week’s all-new Brain Games, the show takes on the complicated differences between how men and women think, drawing on scientific consensus to illustrate ways that our brains and gender mix. The episode’s examination of the psychology of gender first takes on how our perception of someone’s gender lies in their face, but not how you may expect.

How do our brains interpret a face we see as male or female? As it turns out, it’s a shadowy concept – literally. On average, females face tends to have more contrast than the face of a man of the same ethnicity, with females’ skin tone generally lighter relative to other features like eyes and lips.

On this week’s Brain Games, Professor Richard Russell of Gettysburg College uses a computer-generated image of an androgynous face to illustrate this phenomenon of tricking the brain to see a masculine or feminine-appearing face by altering contrast. To do so, he darkened the male image (right) and lightened the female one (left) while leaving the eyes and lips unchanged on both faces.


And according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Coren Apicella, this perceived gender difference based on facial contrast is the bases of the makeup and cosmetics industries, makeup increases facial contrast and, in turn, makes the wearer appear more feminine.  

While our brains perceive someone’s gender subconsciously, cultural norms may have the same psychological effect, becoming hard-wired into our system. Exemplifying this idea are two strongly gendered colors: pink and blue.

But how did our society come to associate pink with girls and blue with boys? The colors’ significance began as a marketing ploy, started during the 1940s to help retailers sell more clothes by associating certain colors with genders. As it turns out, the whole idea that colors represent different genders is nothing more than a cultural bias. But if enough people buy into a bias, like girls wearing pink and boys wearing blue, it can become ingrained in our collective belief system and our brains, resulting in gender stereotypes with no basis in psychology – or reality.

To test the power of this stereotype, Brain Games conducted an experiment by placing hidden cameras in a supermarket, and filming a women going up to strangers and telling them her son lost his hat. The twist: his hat is sparkly and pink. When they ask passersby if they saw his hat, they tended to say they didn’t see it, their brains not connecting the pink hat with the boy. Or, they questioned whether that was actually his hat.


As this experiment showed, cultural norms surrounding gender aren’t just harmful – we can tend to interpret them as fact.

For more battle-of-the-sexes experiments, don’t miss an all-new Brain Games tonight at 9P.