When male brain meets male brain

Both parents of autistic children tend to be strongly systematic thinkers (“male brain”) who score low on empathetic thinking (“female brain”), writes Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge autism researcher, in the New York Times.

. . . males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize. Systemizing involves identifying the laws that govern how a system works. Once you know the laws, you can control the system or predict its behavior. Empathizing, on the other hand, involves recognizing what another person may be feeling or thinking, and responding to those feelings with an appropriate emotion of one’s own.

. . . According to what I have called the “extreme male brain” theory of autism, people with autism simply match an extreme of the male profile, with a particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize. When adults with Asperger’s syndrome (a subgroup on the autistic spectrum) took the same questionnaires we gave to non-autistic adults, they exhibited extreme Type S (systemizing) brains. Psychological tests reveal a similar pattern.

And this analysis makes sense. It helps explain the social disability in autism, because empathy difficulties make it harder to make and maintain relationships with others. It also explains the “islets of ability” that people with autism display in subjects like math or music or drawing – all skills that benefit from systemizing.

“Assortative mating” — the tendency of men and women with similarities to marry each other — could lead to more children with autism, Baron-Cohen believes. He is dubious about the role of environmental factors, though unwilling to rule anything out.

It may be that systemizing women are more likely than in the past to be working in technical jobs where they meet systemizing men. I suspect Silicon Valley’s rise in children with various forms of autism has something to do with the high concentration of nerds.

Unfortunately, Baron-Cohen takes an unfair swipe at Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, who did not say women are “innately less suited than men to be top-level scientists.”

It’s true that scientists have documented psychological and physiological differences between male and female brains. But Mr. Summers was wrong to imply that these differences render any individual woman less capable than any individual man of becoming a top-level scientist.

Summers understands the distinctions between averages and individuals just as well as Baron-Cohen, and said nothing of the kind. When I was an op-ed editor, I caught this sort of error.

About Joanne


  1. Just one more argument against same-sex marriage.

  2. I was thinking that it was another example of a putative expert bloviating to cover the absence of useful insights and evidence.

    He makes a big point of the differences between male and female brains, as measured by MRI, and concludes that it’s “talented systemizers” swapping bodily fluids and making a baby that are at fault.

    Is there a high degree of correlation between the marriage of talented systemizers and the production of autistic children? The article doesn’t tell us.

    And how about turning that MRI loose on autistic kids and seeing what the differences, if any, are between their brains and kids who are judged to not be autistic? It seems there’s a lot more to be learned by examining the broken brains of the kids then the functioning brains of the parents, absent some pretty compelling reason to the contrary.

  3. There are lots of jobs in addition to “tech” jobs that involve “systematizing.” Law, for example, and many aspects of finance. Both of these fields have considerable numbers of women as well as men, so you would expect “assortive mating” there as well. Is there any evidence of excessive autism in the progeny of such unions?

  4. It is weird how much autism there is in the Bay Area…I have a friend that used to work in a school district here and they went from seeing an autistic kid every 3 years (in the early 90’s) to seeing 10 in one year and more every year after that.

  5. Half Canadian says:

    Regarding the swipe at Summers, I caught that as well, and it bugged me. Talk about your MSM distortions.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    And if your masculine brain thinks for more than 4 hours, seek medical attention.

  7. Why does this remind me of the ADHD scare of the last two decades, with political correctness mixed in? Thank Crom for autism, anyway. Without it, we’d still be in caves, chewing on mammoth meat.

  8. Richard Brandshaft says:

    Suppose some expert had taken a metal disorder more common to women and explained the disease was an extreme case of female ways of thinking. He would be lynched. It’s OK to say things like that about men.

  9. I just take it for granted that if you have a mathematician married to a mathematician they’re going to have an autistic child.

    No idea whether that’s true, but that’s what I’ve assumed for years now.

    btw, professors at Harvard, many of them, believe that Larry Summers has Asperger syndrome.

    No idea whether he does, but that’s the feeling among at least some who know him personally. IIRC, the hostile book on Summers that came out recently also speculates that he has Asperger’s.

    Seeing as how I have two autistic kids myself, naturally I think that if he does have autism, that’s a good thing.

  10. There are lots of jobs in addition to “tech” jobs that involve “systematizing.” Law, for example, and many aspects of finance. Both of these fields have considerable numbers of women as well as men, so you would expect “assortive mating” there as well. Is there any evidence of excessive autism in the progeny of such unions?

    Funny you should ask.

    My husband and I also assume, with zero evidence to support our assumption apart from the many lawyer-to-lawyer and Wall-Street-to-Wall-Street marriages we know, that these unions, too, produce autistic kids.

    We were just talking about it today.

    btw, I once asked Ezra Susser, the epidemiologist, about anecdotal evidence. He had a number of things to say about it, one of them being that you can’t rule anything out on grounds that the evidence people offer is ‘just’ anecdotal….

  11. Certainly my personal experience bears this out (both my chldren have ASD). I fell for my wife because she was the only person I’d met with the ability and interest to out-argue with an instant ability to hone in on the smallest logical inconsistency. Mind like a steel-trap. Well, that and she played D&D 🙂

    You can pull the various Asperger’s characteristics in my oldest son and see which one of us they come from (and usually exaggerated). Luckily in this household sensory preferences or sensitivities and serial obsessions weren’t unusual in the first place 🙂

  12. Lawyers, at least the bulk of them, do have systemizer-type personalities. The same applies to accountants, financiers, and Wall Street types. Probably, these types are closer to the seats of power (than engineers and technicians) and enjoy some protection. The media rarely negrifies lawyers and financial analysts as “nerds and geeks”.

    We all know that politicians are usually lawyers. But very few lawyers become politicians, and the ones that do are not the systemizing ones.

    Come to think of it, systemizer and empathizer are not the most useful dichotomy. Many of the so-called “empathizers” are power-hungry SOBs, especially when it comes to their relations with systemizers. A better one would be imagists vs. imaginists. Imagists are concerned with image and spin-control, and of course politics and power. Imaginists are concerned with knowledge and its application.

  13. The whole issue of assortative mating is funny around here….because we’re in the position of having two parents who make their livings by writing (I’m a journalist; my husband’s a historian) and 2 of our kids can’t talk!

    Nobody’s ever been able to make any sense of it.

    otoh, here I am, a female writer with a severely limited math education, co-running a web site about math, and spending her free time working through ‘Mathematics 6,’ the Russian math textbook translated a couple of years ago. Lately I’ve started tutoring other people’s children in math; that’s how much I enjoy it.

    And my husband and I both adore science fiction….

    So from where we sit there’s some ‘core truth’ to the idea of systematizers/math-heads/sci fi fans being connected to autism.

  14. I certainly think there’s something to this, but it can’t be the whole explanation. My wife is as much an empathizer as anyone and not really a systemizer in any way. We’ve got one dignosed autistic son and another who is three and has just begun speaking, with various sensory issues alongside or perhaps partly causing his delays, so he may well have an autism-related disability as well.

    As for gay marriage, I’m having trouble seeing the connection. If two men could produce genetic offspring, this would be a reason why that might not be such a good idea, but how does this have anything to do with gay marriage given that gay reproduction is impossible?